Where Do You Stand?

Ready, aim...At the Reform rabbinical convention in late March, the two leading academics in the debate over intermarriage squared off. In one corner was Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. In the other corner was Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Saxe was there to talk about a study he co-authored, It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Intermarriage and Engagement. Cohen was there to refute it. (Sort of.) I didn’t witness the debate, but I have read Saxe’s study and Cohen’s remarks that followed.

Saxe’s study is a fascinating bit of research. Rather than looking at intermarriage as a simple binary proposition–you inmarry and you do this, you intermarry and you do that–the report controls for so-called “Jewish capital,” such as Jewish education, number of Jewish friends, synagogue membership and affiliation with other Jewish groups. Rather than comparing all adult children of inmarriage with all adult children of intermarriage, the report compares adult children from both groups who had similar levels of Jewish exposure growing up.

When you control for the differences in Jewish exposure growing up, their behaviors start looking remarkably similar. Adult children of intermarriage with similar levels of Jewish capital as adult children of inmarriage show similar levels of attachment to Israel, a greater likelihood to be affiliated with a Jewish organization, a similar frequency of Shabbat candle-lighting and a similar value on being Jewish. The one difference–and it’s a significant one–is that adult children of intermarriage are significantly less likely to raise their children Jewish than adult children of inmarriage. As Saxe and his co-authors say, “From a continuity perspective, this is an important difference.”

What factors explain this difference are worth investigating; unfortunately, Saxe and his co-authors move on to the next subject. Indeed, the sentence following the previous quote is, “These analyses demonstrate that, when exposed to similar levels of Jewish experience as children and adolescents, adults raised in inmarried and intermarried homes look very much alike.” True enough, if you ignore the lower percentage raising their children Jewish. And since most voices on both sides of the intermarriage debate are more motivated by anxiety over Jewish population decline than a concern that people aren’t “doing Jewish” enough, that’s a major exception. As Cohen cleverly retorts in his remarks, “To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, for continuity purposes it’s true that raising Jewish children isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Last week I emailed one of the co-authors, Fern Chertok, to look further into this issue.

The authors go on to demonstrate that intermarried members of the Reform movement are nearly indistinguishable in practice from inmarried members of the Reform movement–and both groups “do Jewish” less than converts and their families. When you look at the behaviors of young adults in the Reform movement, their behaviors are determined far more by their parents’ behaviors and their levels of Jewish education than whether their parents happen to be intermarried–further bolstering the “Jewish capital” argument. The one significant difference appears to be that children from intermarried Reform families are less likely to go to Jewish summer camp than children from inmarried Reform families (40 percent vs. 59 percent).

Concerned by the overall low levels of Jewish affiliation and education among Reform families, Saxe and his co-authors ask the question, “Is this lack of Jewish experience an immutable determinant of adult identity or are there still opportunities beyond the high school years to build the Jewish ‘capital’ of young Reform Jews?” That leads them to investigate data on Reform-raised applicants and participants in birthright israel trips.

What they find is dramatic, and confirms birthright israel’s own studies: participation in birthright israel doubles or triples Reform Jewish young adults’ likelihood to participate in Shabbat and massively increases their connection to Israel. It also significantly raises the number who say that raising Jewish children is important to them. Among the young adult children of intermarried families, 48 percent of non-participants said raising Jewish children was important to them vs. 60 percent of participants.

While the data demonstrates that intermarried families, and their children, are very much like their inmarried counterparts, the report remains cautionary about the level of Jewish attachment among Reform Jews:

The home can be an incubator for Jewish identiy and observance, but the disconcerting fact is that most Reform Jews, including young adults, have little to no experience of a home filled with Jewish ritual or tradition. For many who were raised as Reform Jews, the message of their parents is that Jewish life is something to be taken out on a few occasions throughout the year but set back in storage the rest of the time.

Interestingly, Cohen didn’t delve into much detail in Saxe’s report. Sidestepping the details of Saxe’s argument, he used his talk to argue that intermarriage is highly destructive to the quantity and quality of Jews, while simultaneously asking the Jewish community to transcend the differences between the two sides of the intermarriage debate–ironic considering Cohen is one of the leading voices on the anti-intermarriage side, or what he benignly dubs the “education camp.”

While his Obama-like attempt to unite the Jewish community in its approach to intermarriage may ring hollow, it behooves those of us in what he calls the “outreach camp” to pay close attention to what he says. Cohen is a brilliant academic and researcher and he has some valid criticisms of the outreach camp’s approach.

It is quite common for those of us in the outreach camp to try to negate the impact of incriminating data on intermarriage by pointing to a wealth of anecdotal evidence of interfaith families embracing Judaism. But that’s comparing apples and orange groves. As Cohen says:

But, I hasten to remind us, we cannot accurately judge the impact of intermarriage from our personal experience. Given who we are, those we most often encounter are the intermarriage success stories. The intermarrying children we know best derive from families who remain temple members well past their youngest child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah; the intermarried couples we know are the small fraction who join congregations. Among the intermarried, our impressions are shaped by a blessed but biased sub-sample.

Unfortunately, the intermarriage problem is embodied not in those we know and see, but in those we hardly know and almost never see. These are the intermarried with little Jewish connection. They are often themselves the offspring of intermarried parents. They are more likely to live in parts of the country with sparser Jewish settlement, frequently at distant remove from congregations and from informal Jewish social networks.

Cohen then attacks the demographic touchstone of the outreach camp: the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, which showed that 60 percent of interfaith families in the Boston area were raising their children Jewish. Cleverly (and not in a good way), he never even mentions or attempts to grapple with this statistic; instead, he cherry-picks every piece of evidence that demonstrates that intermarried families are less Jewishly engaged than inmarried families.

By ignoring the 60% statistic and highlighting the disconcerting data on raising Jewish children from the Chuppah study, Cohen is then able to argue that “Rising intermarriage rates over the years past are right now engendering sharp declines in the non-Orthodox Jewish population, not in generations yet to be born, but among our own children and grandchildren, those now under 25.” Which sounds persuasive, until you consider the fact that inmarried non-Orthodox Jews are having children at sub-replacement-level rates. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01–one of the key pieces of objective data we should use, Cohen argues–Jewish women have fewer than 1.9 children on average, below the replacement level of 2.1 children.

Following his demonstration that intermarriage is “the key challenge by which history will judge us,” Cohen then explains the differences between the “outreach” and “education” camps. His summary is spot-on:

Owing in part to differences in ideology, in part to misunderstanding, and in part to personalities, these two camps have, in the past, engaged in some fairly acrimonious debates.

At the root of the acrimony lies each side’s belief that the other undermines its primary objective. The welcoming camp generally believes that an explicit and up-front emphasis on in-marriage will make many mixed-married families feel unwelcome and end any chance for meaningful involvement. The education camp generally believes that extending a full and hearty welcome to the intermarried undermines the objective of inspiring young Jews that they should seek to marry Jews. They also fear that it diminishes the perceived value of conversion. For if non-Jewish spouses are permitted almost all honors in Jewish life, then why bother to convert?

But, he points out, “these two conflicting camps actually share some key assumptions and conclusions. Fundamentally, they agree that intermarriage constitutes a significant challenge.” True enough.

He goes on to make a great point about the battle over intermarriage:

Of non-Orthodox Jews between 25 and 39 years old, a majority are neither in-married nor mixed married–they are non-married. As such, very few join temples; but many are open to self-organized efforts by members of their own generation in spirituality, learning, culture, social justice, and the Internet. Most people don’t join congregations until they give birth to a 7-year old child. On average, it now takes almost 20 years from college graduation for this blessed event to take place. If we are to engage Jews in their 20s and 30s, we need to support their efforts to promote Jewish engagement outside of congregations.

That affiliation gap is something I’ve been talking about for a long time. Jews primarily join synagogues only when they have children; decades ago, that meant they were joining temples in their 20s. Now it means they’re joining in their mid-30s and later. The gap between Hillel and adult synagogue membership used to be four or five years, now it’s more like 15. I believe low-intensity, low-cost ways of keeping 20- and 30-something Jews attached to Judaism (like IFF, for example) can serve as a bridge between the highly affiliated high school and college years and the highly affiliated post-childbirth years.

Cohen also argues for the value of competition in Jewish activity:

It is a very good thing that some rabbis and movements privilege the education message over the outreach message, while others emphasize the outreach message over the education message.

Ultimately, both academics highlighted the data that bolstered their case and ignored, or didn’t explore, the data that didn’t. Surprisingly, Cohen had some positive and conciliatory things to say about outreach–if only they weren’t preceded by such a selectively negative analysis of intermarriage’s effect on Jewish life.

Micah Sachs


Author: Micah Sachs