New Jewish Population Study in Philadelphia

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia just completed a new Jewish population study and it found Philadelphia is not immune to intermarriage and the challenge of Jewish engagement. While the survey numbers seem catastrophic—of the 45% who intermarry, only 29 percent are raising their children as Jews—the article notes that Philadelphia has only just begun to focus on outreach.

Before looking at what Philadelphia’s Jewish community is doing in terms of outreach, it’s important to note that those numbers, as is usually the case in demographic studies, don’t tell the whole story. For instance, if 29 percent said they are raising their children as Jews, what about the other 71 percent? There is no clear breakdown of Jewish identity among intermarried families that are raising their children in a multi-religious household or with no Jewish affiliation. It’s possible that even though a family isn’t engaged in the Jewish community, they still identity as Jewish - which is harder to measure since they primarily used Federation mailing lists to find families.

In that light, the numbers are not as tragic as they first appear. But they are still a wake-up call for outreach workers in Philadelphia. Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of Philadelphia’s Federation, admits that the Federation has devoted “relatively few resources to interfaith outreach” so far. It gave a grant last year to Interfaithways, an outreach organization, and Schwartz said that while it’s too early to say for sure, there will probably “be an increased amount of resources that will go toward this issue.”

One local resident, Mindy Fortin, who married a Catholic man and whose synagogue was involved in our Call Synagogue Home project, said the “biggest mistake is to equate intermarriage with apathy toward Judaism and write off immediately a Jew who has intermarried.” This idea gets to the heart of what we do at JOI. Just because someone has intermarried doesn’t mean they are rejecting Judaism. How we as a community respond plays a huge role in the decision of interfaith families on whether or not to engage and raise Jewish children.

Rabbi Meyer Selekman, president of Interfaithways, said there is no question in his mind that “spending more money on outreach has paid significant dividends.” And other studies have proven that outreach toward intermarried families does increase their participation in Jewish life. How Philadelphia should proceed—if the community should spend more on outreach—will become the focus of what is to be a heated debate. We believe as intermarriage rates continue to rise and intermarried families increasingly become the norm in Jewish life, the best decision is to open our doors and create a truly welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. From hosting our bi-annual North American Conference in Philadelphia last summer, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that folks in the area are ready to directly tackle this subject and transform their community through outreach.

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