In 2007, a demographic study out of the University of Miami found that Portland, Maine “and its environs” have the highest percent of intermarried households in the United States, about 61 percent. This is far above both the national average of 48 percent (according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey) and the average of 46 percent in the closest large Jewish community, Boston.
The study’s author, Ira Sheskin, attributed the high intermarriage and low affiliation rates to the fact that only 18 percent of Portland’s Jews are born there. “Portland natives who care about Jewish identity tend to move to cities that have a large Jewish presence, while those moving in to Portland don’t hold Jewish community as a high priority.”
That statement seems to greatly oversimplify why people move in and out of any community, and we disagree with the implication that all Jews who intermarry don’t care about Jewish identity. A recent article in the Jewish Tribune describes at least one newcomer who does indeed hold Jewish community as a high priority: the new executive director of the Portland-based Jewish Community Alliance (JCA), Emily Chaleff. She said part of the mission at the JCA “now that this data is available is to reach out to those families and see how we can become relevant for them.”
One change has been to the JCA’s bi-monthly newsletter, The Voice. It now resembles a newspaper, going much more in-depth in the community. It includes “dedicated sections to a community calendar, articles on Jewish life, culture and personal perspectives, balanced with news features, event updates, JCA recipient agency highlights, JCA and community-wide events.”
The 2007 study suggested taking steps that would help “build Jewish community.” Congregation Beth Ha’am took that literally and built a new sanctuary. The additional space, according to The Voice, will provide an opportunity “for new and improved programming, such as adult education, a gathering place for parents for a bagel and a newspaper while the kids are in Hebrew school, and a place for the broader community to participate.”
We’re excited to see what else the Portland Jewish community will do to strengthen Jewish life in Southern Maine. Chaleff attended our recent North American conference in Philadelphia, and we hope she will bring our outreach methodology to her community, to help more people want to do more Jewish activities more often through cutting edge programming and personal connections. Portland’s Jewish leadership is taking some great strides in offering new ways for families to engage, and they will soon see the benefits of creating a more open and welcoming Jewish community.