Intermarriage “Tipping Point” Op-Ed

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), which is like an Associated Press for local Jewish community newspapers, just published an opinion piece from the Jewish Outreach Institute called Intermarriage tipping point long past, but institutions must now catch up.” In the piece, we argue that “We’ve long since reached the demographic tipping point on Jewish intermarriage, but most of our institutions have yet to change direction in terms of their programming, posturing and professional training.” We also make some recommendations as to how to change, and point to some positive studies showing that it can be done successfully.

Because of space constraints, JTA had to make considerable cuts to the original piece, which we’ve posted below because we feel the ideas are fleshed out in greater depth:

The Tipping Point on Jewish Intermarriage

Here’s a pop quiz. Which major lay leadership organization recently put out the following statement: “The battle against intermarriage is over. The focus now must be on how to retain the…spouse and the children of the intermarried.”

That statement is from the Christian Laity of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the omitted text in ellipsis is “non-Greek” spouse and children. The Greek Orthodox in the U.S. have a nearly 70% intermarriage rate. In recognizing that intermarriage is simply a fact of American life—not a failing of their people—the Greek Orthodox laity urged their co-religionists to focus all emphasis on welcoming newcomers rather than discouraging intermarriage, a strategy that had proven ineffective.

If you’ve seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you know we can easily replace the word “Greek” with “Jewish,” switch around some of the food and rituals, and the film would tell a very familiar Jewish story. Yet few Jewish communal leaders, let alone a body of leaders, have openly declared that the battle against Jewish intermarriage is over and we should instead focus solely on outreach.

But the battle is over, and it’s been over for a generation. What’s more, Jewish outreach works, and it works best when not hampered by mixed messages that tell intermarried families we want them, but they’re still second-class citizens because they’ve broken “communal norms”—communal norms that, in practice, have not been “norm” since the early ’80s. This is the negative message we still hear from segments of the community, even as many other institutions move toward a more welcoming approach to intermarried families. Recent events suggest we may finally be able to put the debate behind us.

Anyone who’s read Malcolm Gladwell’s groundbreaking book The Tipping Point forever thereafter seeks out the “little things” that portend big changes at exponential speeds. We’ve long since reached the demographic tipping point on Jewish intermarriage. Most of our institutions, however, have yet to tip, in terms of their calcified programming, posturing and professional training. Many were built with one population in mind: heterosexual Ashkenazi in-married families with young children. Today that type of family is a considerable minority of all Jewish households.

After maintaining single-digit intermarriage rates for the first sixty years of the last century—primarily due to anti-Semitism in pre-Civil Rights America, combined with the geographic concentration of Jews in pre-suburbia America—we saw a rapid rise in intermarriage coinciding with greater freedom, mobility and unprecedented Jewish success in almost all endeavors. A 13% intermarriage rate of those married before 1970 leapt to a 47% intermarriage rate in just twenty-five years.

By 2001, there were about as many intermarried households in America as in-married households, according to the National Jewish Population Study. More importantly, those intermarried households are younger and produce more children than in-married households. Nearly half (45%) of all college students who answered “yes” to the question “are you Jewish” came from households with only one born-Jewish parent. Those kids are the “Coming Majority.” And that was five years ago; by now they are the majority.

Yet there is still an effort underfoot in the organized Jewish community to discredit those Jews. Intermarriage is still the line in the sand that too many Jewish leaders use to separate the “them” from the “us”. So they hire researchers who are already committed to parsing out the world between in-married and intermarried and, lo and behold, in-married Jews score higher on all their tests! Intermarried Jews are less Jewishly-educated, less Jewishly-involved…it doesn’t matter that no causality is ever established, the policy recommendations are always the same: don’t spend money on the intermarried.

Yet you can slice and dice the Jewish community a hundred different ways. Jews in New York are more Jewishly-educated and affiliated than Jews in, say, Seattle. Should we ditch the Seattle Jews? Jews in their 40s are far more affiliated than Jews in their 20s. Perhaps we should cut all the resources currently going to engage young adults?

Why would influential leaders in the richest, most powerful Diaspora community in history still feel the need to triage half our married population? Jews who intermarry today do so out of love, not as an act of defiance or exit from the Jewish community. The overwhelming majority want to stay Jewish and most desire a way to pass Judaism on to the next generation. We have both a demographic and a moral imperative to reach out to intermarried families and welcome them into the Jewish community.

There’s a new line in the sand forming, and it’s one that the organized community is going to “tip” over. This new line recognizes that intermarriage is not the end of Jewish continuity; not raising Jewish children is the end of Jewish continuity. This new line is going to lead the organized community to welcome all who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, especially our non-Jewish relatives, and help newcomers scale the unnecessary barriers we’ve erected.

And when that new line in the sand is firmly established and our population begins to grow rather than continue to stagnate, the tipping-point moment we look back upon may well have just happened, with the recent release of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey. That study showed 60% of intermarried families are raising Jewish children, and states clearly that intermarriage “is contributing to a net increase in the number of Jews” in the Boston Jewish community.

This position is made more powerful when combined with the 2005 San Francisco Jewish demographic study that also identified higher-than-average rates of intermarried households raising Jewish children. What do San Francisco and Boston have in common? A Jewish community that, for the most part, is galvanized around the message that intermarried families are welcome to participate as they are. Also, both cities have a tight knit group of interfaith outreach specialists who have been working at it longer than other communities. Boston’s Jewish Federation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, has made a point to include a message of welcome to interfaith families on all of its publicly-distributed materials.

There is now talk that other federations should consider similar expenditures on interfaith outreach. (CJP is reportedly spending about 1.5% of its total budget on outreach.) The fact that we have to convince communities to increase their spending to 1% of their budgets to try to reach half or more of their Jewish households (depending on the community) puts lie to the often-repeated mantra of outreach detractors who claim “we tried outreach and it didn’t work.”

In order for it to truly work, however, we need to not only dedicate the necessary resources but also reinvent our organized community into one that can make distinctions between “Jewish” and “halachicly Jewish.” We are not advocating for a change in anyone’s understanding of halacha. However, what has pushed away most interfaith families and the children of intermarriage has nothing to do with halacha, but instead is based on “insider” culture within individual institutions.

An example of a tipping-point moment around halachic issues came earlier this year, when Dr. Ismar Schorsch—outgoing chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and traditionally a hardliner on issues of intermarriage—proposed that the movement’s Ramah camps allow children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to attend their camps until age 13 when they would then be asked to convert. The fact that this had not previously been allowed is all about culture not halacha, as Chabad camps who hold the same policy can attest. This is a noticeable departure for a Conservative Movement that just a few years ago made news by promising to fire any Ramah camp counselors that were even inter-dating.

Jewish leaders must recognize what their constituency already understands: we do not live in an ideal Jewish world. Not all Jews maintain all of the mitzvot, even those who try. But we don’t kick people out of the Jewish community if they skip a few, purposely or accidentally. The goal of the community should instead be about welcoming people in and sharing what we love about being Jewish through education, celebration and inclusion. We can demonstrate the beauty of Jewish peoplehood through engagement, not admonishment.

As the Greek Orthodox Laity realized, and most of the Jewish community now understands, institutional admonishment against intermarriage doesn’t stop intermarriage in America, it only serves to push away the already-intermarried. Our sole mission should focus on helping existing Jewish households engage more deeply in Jewish activities, regardless of if those households have two Jewish parents, one Jewish parents, or one-quarter Jewish parents.

Boston and San Francisco have a head start, but there are some fairly clear “outreach methodologies” that other communities can quickly adopt. First they have to be willing to train and sensitize their professionals and lay leaders—all of their professionals and lay leaders, not just an overworked handful of outreach specialists. The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) has conducted environmental scans of over 500 communal institutions in North American cities like Ottawa, Louisville, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Phoenix, and found that the “gatekeepers” who answer the phones or sit by the doors almost universally receive no sensitivity training for intake of intermarried couples or other underserved subgroups of our diversifying Jewish community. (The rabbi at a given synagogue may be super welcoming, but if you can’t get by the receptionist you’ll never know.)

We also have to make the joys of being Jewish more visible to the community-at-large rather than keeping it all within the walls of our institutions. Cultural events in secular venues—what JOI calls “Public Space Judaism”—reaches a less engaged audience and presents a lower barrier for interfaith families to enter than do synagogues or even JCCs. JOI defines outreach as “taking programs of Jewish meaning out to where people are, rather than waiting for them to come to us.”

The amazing findings of the Boston Study certainly feel like vindication for the outreach community, but this is not triumphalism. Of course we’re thrilled that 60% of interfaith families there are raising Jewish children, but we also note that 28% are raising their children in no religion. That’s growth potential. That’s an additional outreach target population. We know the veteran outreach corps in Boston will keep working to draw in even more interfaith families.

Outreach is some of the most challenging work in the Jewish community. But we will be a better people for trying rather than telling ourselves that those on the periphery of our community are not worth our time or money and should therefore be let go.


Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and co-author with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of 20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity In Their Grandchildren.

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