We recently blogged about an article in the Forward in which Dr. Steve Cohen challenged the relevance of the methods used by JOI and InterfaithFamily.com in welcoming intermarried families to the Jewish community. In a study about interfaith families and Jewish camps, he made the argument that intermarried families feel adequately welcomed – the problem is a “competence barrier” once they are inside. While we responded with a letter to the editor explaining that these “barriers to participation” are something we have been working to lower all along, Julie Wiener of the [New York] Jewish Week had a different reaction. She looked at Dr. Cohen’s study and was “struck by how little space it seemed to devote to its purported purpose – determining what strategies might encourage more interfaith families to consider Jewish camp – and how much space it instead devotes to rehashing Cohen’s favorite topic: how interfaith families are less engaged in Jewish life than are in-married ones.”
Wiener’s biggest problem with the study seemed to be at the conclusion. While Dr. Cohen “tellingly argues for engaging interfaith families and their children,” it isn’t because doing so is the right thing to do. It isn’t because we’re commanded to “welcome the stranger” time and again throughout Jewish history. It isn’t because doing so “might add meaning” to the lives of interfaith families, or it might “enrich the Jewish community.” Dr. Cohen believes the “main purpose of Jewish engagement, even the engagement of kids from interfaith families, is to prevent intermarriage! Argh.”
This philosophy essentially insults the decisions of the intermarried couple, making them feel as though they have made the wrong choice. It sends the message that they need to redeem themselves by encouraging their children to not make the same mistakes. It pushes people away, and engagement takes on an unwelcoming tone.
When a study came out last November showing that young adults who went on Birthright Israel trips were more likely to in-marry, we cautioned not to jump to the conclusion that Birthright was an intermarriage “antidote.” We said that “looking at Birthright as a panacea that prevents intermarriage would be disastrous, potentially alienating the very people who benefit most from the program,” children of intermarriage.
The same is true for Dr. Cohen’s study. When preventing intermarriage becomes the goal of outreach, we have lost sight of what we are trying to accomplish: creating a warm and welcoming Jewish community in which everyone feels included, no matter their background.
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