Three new scholarly reports on intermarriage have just been released, and their findings, while common sense to us, provide an excellent outline for how we can grow and strengthen the North American Jewish Community. It boils down to this: If we can make interfaith families feel more welcome in the Jewish community, that will spur their involvement in Jewish life, and our numbers will grow down the road.
All three studies looked at intermarriage and the behavior of interfaith families, according to an article by Sue Fishkoff in the JTA. The first report, called “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah,” by Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, concludes that “intermarriage itself is not as critical in determining a family’s Jewish involvement as the Jewish partner’s background and education.”
“This is a positive development,” he said. “The simple, end-of-the-world take on intermarriage that came out of a simplistic interpretation of the National Jewish Population Study data is now being better understood. It means people are paying attention to intermarriage in a more serious and thoughtful way.”
Saxe and his co-researcher, Fern Chertok, found that a Jewish home does more to influence Jewish continuity than whether or not one of the parents is of a different faith. That baseline finding is supported in the second study mentioned in Fishkoff’s article, sponsored by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and also conducted by Saxe et al. Theirs was a follow up on earlier findings that 60 percent of the children in Boston’s intermarried households are being raised Jewish.
The new report, said vice president for strategy and planning at CJP, confirmed the 60 percent findings, and “it also showed that a couple’s initial decision to raise their children as Jews is the critical factor in determining an intermarried family’s level of Jewish involvement.”
The report also found that intermarried families in Boston look like in-married Reform families in terms of Jewish practice. But the question is: How do you get intermarried or unaffiliated families involved in the first place? Here’s a hint – it’s in our mission statement.
“I believe strongly that our approach in Boston works,” said CJP President Barry Shrage, a longtime advocate of communal investment in Jewish outreach and education. “Our efforts to make our community more welcoming and to create more meaningful Jewish experiences are linked to the finding that 60 percent of the children born in intermarried households are being raised as Jews.”
The last report, “Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys in the United States,” by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, differs from the others because the families they consulted are already involved in the Jewish community. The main findings revolved around who officiates an interfaith wedding – they discovered a statistically significant correlation between intermarriages performed by Jewish clergy and the couple’s eventual involvement in Jewish life.
What’s the conclusion? Intermarriage, as many have bemoaned, is not the end. For many, it’s just the beginning. Encouraging increased participation in Jewish life will have a more lasting affect than worrying about intermarriage. When an interfaith couple decides to get married, religion becomes part of the conversation. If we reach out and let these couples know that our doors are open, that we will welcome them without hesitation into our institutions, maybe they will be more inclined to begin a Jewish life.