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Reaching interfaith families

Jewish communities and organizations across the United States have struggled for years with how to approach the growing number of Jews marrying outside the faith.

In 2006, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland commissioned a study of Cleveland-area intermarried families in an effort to improve its outreach to this group and to include them in the community and Jewish life.

The study, “Addressing the needs of intermarried families in Cleveland: An exploration of decision-making among parents of school-age children,” recently was presented to community leaders by researcher Pearl Beck, Ph.D. Beck is a member of Ukeles Associates Inc. research and consulting firm, and she focuses on Jewish identity formation.

Objectives of the study, conducted over the past two years, include gaining a better understanding of how interfaith families make decisions about raising children and involving them in Jewish education; determining which programs and experiences have been successful in attracting these families and what barriers impede them from participating in Jewish life; and recommending strategies to increase intermarrieds’ involvement.

It is nearly impossible to estimate a national average intermarriage rate, Beck notes, since demographers differ substantially on their findings. Nonetheless, she asserts that Cleveland has one of the lowest intermarriage rates among major U.S. cities n 23%.

To place her study in context, Beck notes that 57% of Cleveland Jews are native to the area, a higher percentage than most other U.S. cities boasting a significant Jewish population. (Only New York City has a higher percentage of natives.)

“That statistic implies a rather dense social network,” Beck says. It also reflects a community more likely to have a high rate of Jewish affiliation and involvement. The research shows that “many Jewish partners who intermarry do maintain a level of Jewish identification and involvement,” she adds. “This reinforces the notion that intermarriage is not a rejection of the Jewish spouse’s Jewish identity.”

Methodology

Fifty-one intermarried couples with school-age children were interviewed for the study. The families are not a random sampling, Beck stresses; thus, the results are “descriptive and illustrative rather than representative.” To do a proper sampling of a small sub-group of a minority population would be difficult, expensive, and far more time-consuming, she notes.

Since researchers and the Federation recruited couples that met specific criteria (all families had at least one child around the age of 6.5) through advertising in such venues as the JCC, Jewish preschools, and the Cleveland Jewish News, “the sample may have a bias toward families more integrated in Judaism,” she adds.

Requests for study participants were also placed on Craig’s List, posted in ice cream and pizza parlors, and in pediatricians’ offices.

In all 51 cases, the non-Jewish half of the couple is Christian. Researchers did not inquire about specific denomination.

“In-depth” interviews were conducted individually over the phone with each person. The 102 subjects were then asked to complete online surveys. Both the qualitative data from the interviews and the quantitative data from the surveys were coded and analyzed.

A Beachwood woman married nearly 12 years to a non-Jewish man (name withheld to maintain the anonymity guaranteed by the study) chose to participate in the study after years of “negatve feedback” from people critical of her choice to intermarry. “People need to know that if you go ‘off the beaten path,’ it can still work,” she says. “It’s not about religion, it’s about the relationship between two people.”

This participant hopes the study’s findings will lead to “a better respect” for intermarried families within the community.

Findings

The majority n 59% n of Jewish parents in intermarried families are mothers, Beck says. “Cultural norms” throughout American society indicate that decisions regarding children’s education are made far more often by mothers. “That has huge implications” for Cleveland intermarried families, she notes.

Beck determined that 80% of her sample families have Jewish grandparents living in Cleveland. An equal percentage has non-Jewish grandparents in town as well. “These families are buffeted on both sides by two sets of grandparents pulling in two different directions.”

In addition to push and pull from grandparents, Beck found intermarried couples dealt with a lot of stress within their own relationships stemming from unresolved issues about how to raise children. In her sample, 60% of couples interviewed separately agreed that they were raising their children Jewish. Eighteen percent of couples gave conflicting answers as to whether they were raising children as Jewish, Christian, both or neither.

Of those who agree they are raising Jewish children, 65% live in “central Jewish areas,” 75% belong to a synagogue, and 54% send (or sent) children to Jewish preschools. The remaining couples n those who either agreed they were raising children as non-Jews or in a mixed faith environment and those who did not agree on their children’s upbringing n were far more likely to live in peripheral areas, with 60% residing on the West Side or the far eastern or southern suburbs. Only 30% of the latter group belongs to synagogues.

Families raising their children Jewish cited two primary reasons for that choice: the belief that there should be one religion in the family or a leaning toward Judaism and/or antipathy to Christianity on the part of the non-Jewish spouse. Those not raising their children Jewish (or exclusively Jewish) noted that they believed children should have choices, felt that both religions were similar, or had negative feelings toward Judaism. All families indicated a preference for familial and cultural Jewish involvement over religious involvement.

The families interviewed cited several common barriers to their participation in Jewish life. These are the high cost of membership in Jewish institutions, feelings of inadequacy over their lack of Jewish knowledge, and a lack of intimacy within Jewish communal life. Both non-Jewish and Jewish partners feel this way, Beck says.

Despite pre-marriage discussions about child raising, many of the couples n even those in agreement about raising Jewish children n were dealing with ongoing issues and “negotiations.” Unanticipated issues that cropped up for these families included increased identification with Christianity developed post-marriage by the non-Jewish spouse, increasing pressure from grandparents on both sides as to how to raise children, and “protracted states of uncertainty experienced by both parents.”

Recommendations

Beck and her researchers made several recommendations to Federation leadership as to how to better engage both the 60% of intermarried families raising exclusively Jewish children and the 40% who were not.

These suggestions include:

• Open more Jewish agency satellites on the West Side and other “peripheral” suburbs.

• Encourage “public space” Judaism, which can be as complex as building succot in public, secular locales, or as simple as ensuring Parma supermarkets carry Chanukah cards.

• Provide “community-building experiences.” Create social networking for parents and support groups for interfaith families centered around child-raising issues. However, Beck stresses, these must be “non-therapeutic” support groups. “These families do not appreciate being viewed as having a problem that needs to be solved.” They simply need help moving from discussing their issues to making decisions in a “supportive, non-conversion-oriented environment.”

• Provide better support for intermarried families’ lifecycle events n from synagogues being more flexible about allowing non-Jewish parents on the bimah at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, to training mohelim (ritual circumcisers) to be more explanatory and inclusive when performing a bris in front of both sides of the family.

• Create targeted educational experiences in settings outside of synagogues.

Federation’s goal is to take Beck’s recommendations and develop them into workable programs with volunteer and professional Jewish community leaders, explains Jessica Semel, chair of the sub-committee of Federation’s Community Planning Committee that commissioned the study.

“There’s nothing concrete yet,” Semel says. “Our hope is that between the lay and professional leaders, we can come up with some excellent ideas for engaging interfaith families. They need to be accessible and appealing. Conversion can’t be the goal we put out as a community.”

mherwald@cjn.org



judy s wrote on Jul 19, 2008 12:00 AM:

" very important work was done here. I will take this to my temple pres and Rabbi "

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