Jewish Journal


July 2, 2012

Why don’t the intermarried of New York raise Jewish kids like they do in ‎Boston?



The Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York.

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. ‎



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