The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).
The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.
The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.
For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).
For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest[s] that communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children” (28).
For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).
The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.
The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”
But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.
Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).
The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).
The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .
One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.
The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-of-new-york-201.
The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.
The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”
Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.