From Ha’aretz. Is it surprising, encouraging, or sad?

It is much more complicated than what the headline says, but the new study says this: Most intermarried families in Boston raise Jewish children. In many ways, but not all ways, those families practice Judaism similarly to inmarried Reform Jews.

Jewish ritual practices, inmarried families with Jewish children are generally as observant as intermarried Jewish families, especially Reform families, concluded a new study, focusing on intermarried families in Boston. This study follows the 2005 Boston Community Survey: Preliminary Findings, a report prepared by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute of Brandeis University for Combined Jewish Philanthropies. I wrote about this preliminary study ? the attention-grabbing headline was that 60 percent of the children born to intermarried families in the Boston area are being raised Jewish, the higher percentage in the country – in the first part of The Changing Face of American Judaism series.

Here is the paragraph ending the feature I wrote last fall:

The opposing sides invoke floods of studies and data to prove their arguments. One side looks at the statistics and moans “gevalt;” the other side sees the same figures as an opportunity to win over these couples’ hearts and minds.
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One way or another, a great experiment has started – perhaps the most daring in Jewish history. Communities like Boston declared years ago that they want to draw mixed couples closer. Others, slowly but surely, are joining in, forever changing the face of American Jewry.

And now comes this second report and validates many of the optimistic comments made back then by the members of the Boston team (Katherine N. Gan and Christopher Winship of Harvard University worked on this study). Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, concluded then as he has now that “creating an inclusive community of meaning and purpose attracts intermarried families and strengthens Jewish life.”

In other words: Giving up on the intermarried, as some have suggested in the past does not seem the right option. Not in light of this study. “In a time of choice”, the study says, “participation for all Jews, whether single, inmarried or intermarried, depends on how compelling and accessible the opportunities are.”

And now, let’s delve deeper into the numbers in this new study:

1.

In some traditional Jewish ritual practices, “intermarried families with Jewish children are generally as observant as inmarried Jewish families, especially Reform families”, the study states. This is how this study was done: four types of families were compared: Intermarried with Jewish children, inmarried Reform, inmarried Conservative, intermarried non-Jewish children.

And in these instances the intermarried families practice similarly to the inmarried Reform:

Lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles; keeping kosher (both groups around 20 percent; celebrating Bar/Bat Mitzvah (68 percent intermarried, 70 percent Reform); feeling comfortable in the synagogue; and feeling that supporting Israel is central to their faith (the intermarried are stronger on this one than the reform, and closer to the Conservative).

Interestingly, when it comes to attitude the intermarried tend to feel even stronger that celebrating holy days is central to their Judaism.

2.

However, this is just the full-half of the glass, because the study also describes many “differences in behavior.”

Take for example the Brit Milah (Circumcision) ceremony (or naming ceremony for girls): 50 percent for intermarried with Jewish children practice this ceremony compared to a much higher rate among inmarried Reform (86 percent) and Conservative (92 percent) families.

And how about attending a Passover Seder? The inmarried Conservative and Reform are close to 100 percent in practicing a Seder always or usually. The intermarried much less: 65-67 percent, with 34 percent practicing “some of the time.”

Significantly (and not very surprising): “The differences in Seder participation” disappears “when considering synagogue members only.” Meaning: get them to join a synagogue and they will practice. However, intermarried tend to join synagogues later in life than inmarried and fewer belong to Jewish institutions other than a synagogue (5 percent belong to a JCC compared to 21 percent Reform and 34 percent Conservative). The percentage of Jewish teens in intermarried families who continue their formal Jewish education after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is smaller.

And also: Even while saying that they feel a connection to Israel is important, the chance that they will travel to Israel is slim (1 percent compared to 15 percent Reform, 24 percent conservative.)

3.

Is the Bar/Bat Mitzva the ultimate test, or the fact that most intermarried families (82 percent of those raising Jewish children) sometimes or always have Christmas trees in their homes?

What Shrage does in the forward he wrote for this study in to ignore this question, while recognizing the “more nuanced” identity of the intermarried. And I think his logic is quite clear: if intermarriage is an unstoppable fact of American Jewish life, there is no point in emphasizing the difference and looking at reasons for despair. The authors of this study are clearly in the camp of let’s-fight-for-every-family. And the point they are making here is also clear: results will be coming.

4.

In one very important way, the whole concept of “intermarried families” is misleading. A different definition should be applied to the intermarried men and the intermarried women – as previous studies showed, but also this one: “Jewish women who intermarry are much more likely to raise their children as Jews (82 percent) than Jewish men who intermarry (32 percent).”

And in practice: There’s no need to keep telling your daughters to find a nice Jewish boy, because their children will most likely be Jewish anyhow. Just focus on the boys.

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6 Comments

  • 80 percent of those describing themselves as “Reform” are in fact unaffiliated – even when the definition of “membership in a Jewish communal organization” is watered down to include JCC swimming pools.

    20 percent light Chanuka candles, over 80 percent have a Christmas tree.

    I could go on poking holes, but… this study basically says that there is not much practical difference between unaffiliated Jews who happen to marry another Jew (and call themselves “Reform” when asked on a survey, even though they don’t belong or participate in a Jewish community) – and intermarried Jews (most of whom also are unaffiliated).

    They both have low levels of practice, knowledge, and belief – except for the few Jewish things that have gone mainstream, like Bar Mitzvahs.

    Not exactly earth-shaking.

  • My fiance is Jewish (Conservative), I’m not. What’s interesting to me is how his faith has deepened and his practice strengthened since we became serious. The biggest change was that he started keeping kosher, but he also traveled to Israel, and a few other things. These studies can’t account for every individual couple, but it’s interesting to see what they’re reporting in light of my own experiences.

    By the way, I love this blog! (I’ve been reading it for about two months now)

  • I took a few Jewish Education classes at Hebrew University. You know what turned me off to them? We could never ever avoid this topic. I don’t mean to insult those who are interested in it, but I’ve about had my fill.

    Yes Jews are marrying out. Yes it is happening at alarming rates. Despite the conclusions of this one study, the general consensus among researches, educators, and I think just those with common sense is that Jews who marry non-Jews have a lesser chance of raising Jewishly affiliated (whatever that means) future generations. This upsets me for a number of reasons. The least of which being that I think the Jewish people will die out. The Jewish people will never die out. As CK once told me; “we should be a footnote in history.” Yet we’ve managed to stay one people in spite of persecution, dispersion, even genocide. This alone is a strong enough indication to me that we must have Someone getting our back.

    I’ve gotten off point. The point I was getting to was that we have good intelligent people devoting way too much time to the topic of inter-marriage. People interested in maintaining Jewish life should focus more on developing themselves Jewishly, and providing educators and community leaders with the tools and support that they need. Maybe researchers interested in this topic (there seems to be gaggles of them) should set their sites on how best to educate kids and adults properly so that they have reason to want to remain Jewish.

    I don’t support the choice some Jews make to marry outside of the faith/tribe/however you want to look at it. But I won’t blame inter-marriage for the corrosion of Jewish cohesion in the Diaspora either. I think that this is sort of a chicken and the egg thing.

  • You also have children that end up converting when they have a Jewish father. In the community I lived in during my youth my dad couldn’t get me involved because no one approved of his interfaith marriage.

    I left Catholicism way back in eighth grade and came back to Judaism over a year ago (now in college).

    It’s a bit sad; had I been allowed a Jewish education when I was young I might have already been converted, but my father wasn’t practicing for a long time due to feeling dejected. Now he’s teaching me Hebrew.

    As for not supporting people who marry outside of the faith… I think that’s rather short-sighted. If my father had gotten support he would have brought me to synagogue a lot more as a child and I might have converted when I was twelve or thirteen (and I am fairly observant even in comparison to him – well into Conservative).

    I’d like to think someday I’d raise an entirely Jewish family, except I don’t deny that I currently live in a “Jewish outpost.” Not everyone lives in an area with a high concentration of Jewish people. I myself seem to be the only person in my early twenties here. Everyone else is 13 or 56. And I certainly haven’t seen any males anywhere near my age. My rabbi’s pushing me to go to Friday Night Live in Los Angeles; it’s not just my perception!

    Anyway, while I do not deny things go both ways (someone becoming Jewish, someone leaving Judaism) ultimately I don’t think pushing people away for being interfaith is the way to make them feel like they should be more observant or bring their children up Jewish.

  • Sarah – I have a big problem with people asserting that the Jewish world is “pushing away” intermarried people. To me, this reeks of victimology politics.

    The largest denomination – and the one unaffiliated, intermarried Jews are most likely to encounter – welcomes intermarried couples, and made an enormous break with Jewish law to accommodate their children.

    Or did your dad feel “dejected” and “pushed away” when a Reform rabbi gently insisted that his children be raised as Jews in order to be considered Jewish?

    Similarly, the Orthodox community has poured millions of dollars and man-hours into outreach – resources which could have been used to build Yeshivas and other internal communal structures.

    I don’t see anyone being pushed away.

    But I HAVE encountered a whole lot of Jews who have never bothered to join a community, never used America’s freedom to find out about Judaism – and yet come at this topic with an incredible chip on their shoulders about how they’ve been “pushed away” – simply because Judaism actually has content that doesn’t fit in with their chosen lifestyle (which is not really chosen since they’ve just gone along with the larger culture’s default settings… which is how the problems started).

    Sorry. It takes interest, committment, and effort to maintain a minority identity against the larger cultural undertow. It takes interest, committment, and effort to learn, wrestle with, and live up to Jewish moral teaching.

    People who can’t be bothered are not being “pushed away”.

  • “As for not supporting people who marry outside of the faith… I think that’s rather short-sighted. ”

    Though I appreciate your perspective, Sarah, I will kindly refer you back to what I wrote. I did not say that I do not support the “people” who marry outside of the faith. What I said was that I don’t support the “choice” to marry outside of the faith. Not supporting people, and not supporting people’s actions are two very different things. Having said that:

    I don’t condone snobbery of any kind. However, I do think that inter-marriage is and always will be problematic within community settings. It is completely taboo to marry outside of Judaism within halakhically conscious circles. Those who reject the Halakhic community by breaking one of its cardinal rules, should not realistically expect something other than reciprocal rejection. That doesn’t mean that people should treat other people poorly, or with any hint of disdain. It just means that those who marry out, barring monumentally exceptional circumstances, should always expect to be seen as outside of the community.

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