That “parents’ in-marriage is highly predictive of Jewish-engagement scores years later” is hardly one of the most surprising findings buried in the comprehensive New York Jewish Community study (on which I wrote here, here and here). It is also not surprising that intermarried couples have a higher percentage of children being raised non-Jewishly. That’s the obvious result of having one parent who isn’t Jewish.
However, numbers matter – especially so when one is writing about the United States’ largest Jewish community. And here it is interesting to compare the numbers from the New York study to numbers from previous studies, notably the 2005-2006 Boston study, in which much higher percentages of children of intermarried couples reported being raised Jewishly.
Let’s start with the New York numbers:
[T]he intermarried report the lowest levels of raising their children as exclusively Jewish (31%); almost half (46%) of their children are being raised as entirely non-Jewish, with the remaining few about evenly split between undecided (13%) and “Jewish and something else” (11%).
Thirty-one percent for “exclusively Jewish” is a number similar to those we’ve seen in many other community studies: Baltimore (2010, 30%), Charlotte (1997, 34%), Cleveland (2010, 33%). It is far lower than the most notable reported success of recent years – Boston, with its 60% rate of retaining children of the intermarried couples (numbers from many community studies can be found here, table 2).
Here’s what the Boston study reported:
Although intermarriage is generally presumed to have a negative impact on the size of the Jewish population, in Boston it appears to have increased the size of the Jewish population. The 2005 study estimates that 60 percent of children of intermarriages are being raised as Jews by religion. Intermarriage, therefore, is contributing to a net increase in the number of Jews.
So, why is Boston able to keep the children of the intermarried within the Jewish tent while the Jewish community of New York fails to do the same thing? The answer might be more complicated than some would expect. Yes, the Boston community is very good at having Jewish institutions that make people want to belong, and yes, the Boston community is well managed and highly innovative in many ways. But a large part of it is no more than mathematical trick – a difference in the way the question was asked and the data analyzed.
The basic question asked in the Boston survey was: “In what religion is the child being raised?” And answers offered were: 1. Catholic; 2. Protestant; 3. Jewish; 4. Other; 5. None; 8. DK; 9. RF”. The interviewers were instructed to allow “multiple responses”. But the authors of The New York study, Steven Cohen, Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller, had different approach. In the questionnaire, they used a question similar to the one used in other community studies such as the Cleveland study. The question was: “Is this child being raised …” and the possible responses: “1. Jewish; 2. Jewish and something else; 3. Not Jewish, but not in another religion right now; 4. In a religion other than Judaism (JOO-dee-izm); 5. Have not decided yet; D (DO NOT READ); Don’t know; R (DO NOT READ); Refused”. (the Cleveland study question was: “Is this child being raised…” and the possible responses: “1. Jewish; 2. Partially Jewish/Jewish and Something Else; 3. Not Jewish, but NOT in another religion right now; 4. In a religion other than Judaism; 5. Have not decided yet; D (DO NOT READ); Don’t know; R (DO NOT READ); Refused”).
A small change can make big difference. Boston parents had to actively inform researchers if a child is raised in more than one religion, while New York (and Cleveland) parents had this option as part of the menu of responses. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that if the questions were identical the percentage of children raised Jewish would be identical.
In Chicago (2010 study), the question used was the one also used in Cleveland, but 49% of the children of intermarried couples are reportedly being raised Jewish – that’s much higher than New York and Cleveland (but still significantly lower than Boston and still below “replacement” rate). In Cincinnati, again, the question is similar to the NY question, but the outcome closer to Boston (60%).
Interestingly, the number of New York children raised Jewish is low not just for “Jewish only” children, but also for “Jewish and something else”, at 11% (Chicago has them at 26%, but Boston at even lower rate than NY with 4% - very possibly a result of not offering such answer in the questionnaire).
So what do we learn from all this? Do we learn anything from all this? That comparing the incomparable is problematic? That’s not much, but it is something: It tells us that as we attempt to understand why so many intermarried couples in New York choose not to raise their kids Jewishly we should not necessarily make Boston the example with which to figure it out. We should also dismiss as proper comparisons such places as Howard County, Maryland – where 62% of the intermarried raise Jewish children. Howard County is too small to be compared to a place like NY. In fact, comparing New York to any other Jewish community and trying to learn something from it is problematic. New York is different. In New York, for example, “only 1 in 7 intermarried households belongs to a congregation” – a number that is much lower than “elsewhere” in the United States.
Why is that so? Julie Weiner has a theory that makes sense:
My personal theory is that whereas Jews elsewhere feel like an isolated minority and will seek out a synagogue for Jewish social and cultural connections, even if they don’t have any religious or spiritual interest in shul, liberal and secular Jews in New York, with its enormous Jewish population and pervasive Jewish flavor, don’t feel this need. Plus, whereas churchgoing is the social norm in many cities, and houses of worship highly influential, this is less true in New York.
However, what Weiner seems to be learning from this is also problematic: Since intermarried couples attending a synagogue have a level of Jewish engagement that is similar to those of in-married Jewish members of synagogues (this is true for New York as it is for most if not all other communities), Weiner concludes that engaging the intermarried and luring them into the synagogue is the course to pursue - ostensibly, more so than trying to dissuade the youngsters from intermarrying. However there’s a chicken and egg confusion hidden behind this idea: since synagogue-affiliated Jews tend to intermarry in lesser numbers, the better idea would be to attract them to the shul before they marry (or even better, attract their parents), hence saving the trouble of having to tempt them in after they already married a non-Jew.
And besides, the go-to-shul-raise-your-kid-Jewish formula that seems to be at work in Boston and in New York, is not an all-encompassing method. Take a look at Chicago: It has a much higher percentage of intermarried parents raising their children Jewish than New York (49% for “Jewish only”), but a relatively low percent of intermarried couples who affiliate with a synagogue (16%). In other words: Most intermarried parents who are raising their kids Jewishly aren’t members of a synagogue.
So why has Chicago got a better rate than New York, and why a lower rate than Boston? I think Chicago and Boston are probably quite similar – and that identical questions in the survey would have provided very similar results. And as for New York – it is a different Jewish community; much larger, much more Orthodox, much less making people feel that they need to affiliate. Incomparable.