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Latest Salvo in Intermarriage Debate Suggests a Split in Jewish Community

Steven M. Cohen, a prominent Jewish sociologist, has fired the latest salvo in what is becoming an increasingly vituperative debate about outreach to the intermarried.

In his newest paper, “A Tale of Two Jewries: The `Inconvenient Truth’ for American Jews,” Cohen uses his own research and data from the 2001 National Jewish Population Study to argue that inmarried and intermarried Jews form two distinct halves of the Jewish community.

And the Jewish future, he argues, rests with the inmarried, who are more Jewishly engaged and much more likely to raise their children as Jews.

Jewish leaders better face up to this, even if it’s unpleasant, Cohen told JTA.

“I wrote this so policymakers will come to grips with the frightening impact of intermarriage,” said Cohen, professor of Jewish social policy at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

He offers three policy recommendations:

greater linkage among Jewish educational opportunities for children such as camps, schools and Israel trips;

greater communal funding for cultural, social and religious initiatives that attract young adults; and

community-funded rabbis who will focus on conversion.

It’s not the recommendations that are drawing fire; many experts in the field say they are good ideas. It’s Cohen’s underlying assumptions that are raising hackles.

Where one stands on this paper depends largely on where one stands on outreach. The debate has been going on at least since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed that 43 percent of new marriages involved intermarriage. That figure rose to 47 percent by the 2000-01 survey.

Should the Jewish community reach out aggressively to welcome the non-Jews in the hopes that they and their children will join the Jewish fold? Or should it circle the wagons, focusing communal attention on the inmarried and their progeny?

Cohen, who falls into the latter camp, goes further in his paper, arguing that intermarriage is not only a result of but an independent factor contributing to weakened Jewish identity.

The data prove it, he said. In one chart Cohen shows that 71 percent of Jews whose parents were intermarried but who married Jews are raising their children exclusively as Jews, whereas that number dropped below 10 percent for Jews from intermarried backgrounds who are also intermarried.

“Intermarriage makes a difference — a very large difference — in the likelihood of raising one’s children exclusively as Jews,” he concludes.

While Cohen advocates trying to deepen the Jewish engagement of all Jews, he says it is from among the inmarried that three-quarters of the future Jewish community will come. Thus, he said, greater attention should be paid to shoring up the Jewish identities of these Jews, while outreach to the intermarried should be aimed at encouraging their children to marry Jews.

Reaction to Cohen’s paper is, not surprisingly, divided. Indeed, the buzz surrounding “Two Jewries” sounds like a replay of the same CD with more scratches.

One side includes people like Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, Jewish Theological Seminary Provost Jack Wertheimer and Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee.

“I like this paper very much,” said Bayme, a staunch advocate of outreach that focuses on conversion. “It suggest that pragmatically, with all the talk of outreach, which is desirable, the core will come from those who lead Jewish lives, and that comes from the inmarrieds.”

It is appropriate, Bayme said, to focus communal energies on deepening the Jewish engagement of that segment “and the minority of mixed marrieds who also want to lead Jewish lives.”

Fishman, who writes extensively on the issue, also approves.

“In terms of transmitting Jewish culture, [Cohen] says that intermarriage is the single greatest threat,” she said. “This should not be put into a moral realm. He’s not saying there are good Jews and bad Jews, he’s simply describing the way things are, according to his research.”

The Jewish community, Fishman added, should still “energetically engage in outreach,” but that outreach “should be based on an understanding of the facts.”

On the other side of the debate are the outreach professionals — Ed Case of InterfaithFamily.com, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute — and researchers such as Len Saxe at Brandeis’ Cohen Center and Bethamie Horowitz of the Mandel Foundation, who say that concerted outreach to the intermarried is not only right, it’s effective.

Saxe was the lead researcher on a recent study of Boston’s Jewish community that showed nearly 60 percent of the city’s children from intermarried homes were being raised as Jews, a figure almost double the national average, according to the 2001 Jewish population study.

Debate over the Boston study raged for weeks. Supporters said it shows that communal investment in outreach pays off. Opponents said it had more to do with Boston’s investment in Jewish education.

“It’s setting up a straw man,” Case said of Cohen’s latest work. He added that it was “unfortunate” that Cohen lumps all intermarried Jews into the same group.

One-third raise their children in another religion and have no Jewish behaviors or attitudes, he points out, so adding them to the data skews it. That, he says, can have dangerous policy implications.

“If you assume that all intermarried don’t have Jewish behaviors or attitudes, why bother to reach them?” Case asked. “That’s my serious concern — if policymakers and funders pay attention to this, why should they fund outreach?”

Even if Cohen’s analysis is right, Olitzky said, it’s impractical.

“What happens to the 800,000 intermarried families already in the Jewish community?” he asked. “His suggestions don’t take them into account, except for forcing conversion upon them.”

Horowitz, for her part, wondered why the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, which funded the study, bothered to publish it. She called the study “tendentious.”

She also said the study is based on numbers that already have been called into question, most recently by researchers Ira Sheskin and Saxe, both of whose research says that the 2000-01 national population survey undercounted the Jewish population by 1 million, mostly non-Orthodox and younger Jews.

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, seemed uncomfortable in a phone interview, but said he stands behind the paper.

Greenberg said he is “very excited” about Cohen’s description of declining Jewish ethnic identity and the notion of funneling Jewish kids into multiple educational opportunities. He soft-pedaled the “two Jewries” idea, saying Cohen “is not writing off the intermarried, he’s saying we have not solved the problem.”

Outreach should and will continue, he said, noting that the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation funds many outreach initiatives, including birthright israel.

But Cohen’s central message should not be neglected, Greenberg said.

“If you stop saying it’s important to marry a fellow Jew,” he said, “you’re giving up something very important for no gain.”

Steven M. Cohen’s report on intermarriage, “A Tale of Two Jewries,” can be downloaded at www.jewishlife.org/pdf/steven_cohen_paper.pdf

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