The Council of Jewish Federations is diving into the stormy waters of the debate over intermarriage with a new report urging local federations to market their services to intermarried Jewish families.
In its report, the Task Force on the Intermarried and Jewish Affiliation advocates that federations actively embrace the intermarried and target services to this fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community.
“Serving the intermarried is now an urgent matter,” the report says. “Unless we proceed with care and deliberate action, we face the possibility of disenfranchising a significant segment of the population, wittingly or unwittingly, from Jewish life.”
The issue of how the Jewish community should confront intermarriage — whether to accept or discourage the growing trend — has prompted heated discussion in recent years among Jewish communal and religious leaders.
The report of the task force, released Tuesday and titled “Jewish Community Services to the Intermarried,” delineates a philosophy encouraging federations to engage the intermarried in the life of the Jewish community.
It is a population until now largely unaddressed by federations, which are the Jewish community’s central address for fund raising for Israel and for local and national social service programs. The task force advocates that federations provide “a broadened array of opportunities to engage the intermarried in communal life and community services.
‘A VISIBLE PART OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY’
“The intermarried and their extended families will be a visible part of the Jewish community. They participate in Federations and give to annual campaigns, and their children take part in Jewish camp and educational experiences,” the report says.
The report urges federation leaders and staffers to demonstrate great “sensitivity,” “respect” and “understanding” for the range of needs of intermarried Jews and their spouses.
It reveals that federations, like many Jewish organizations, are struggling to catch up with the realities of the Jewish community on the cusp of the 21st century — a community that is far from monolithic and contains a multiplicity of backgrounds and attitudes, among the intermarried as well as the in-married.
According to Martin Kraar, executive vice president of CJF, “this is a new market and a new reality, and as a result of that, federations that decide to address the intermarried must face that in the way they provide their services.”
Kraar said, however, that CJF is not requiring federations to devise programming for the intermarried, since each must decide the best approach within the context of its local community culture.
“This report is intended as a broad road map rather than a narrow mandate,” he said.
Kraar contrasted this goal with that of resettling Jews from the former Soviet Union, for which CJF mandated that each federation contribute resources.
Federation leaders’ fear of diminished funding from the ever-shrinking pool of Jewishly affiliated potential donors is part of the motivation for the approach taken by the task force, acknowledged its chair, Lynn Korda Kroll.
But the group’s recommendations are “just part of a broader attempt to ensure there will be a diverse and vibrant Jewish community in the 21st century,” Korda Kroll said.
The task force was composed of 42 representatives from local federations and national agencies, including the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and the religious movements.
Nearly all the members of the task force, who themselves are more deeply involved in communal life than the average Jew, have intermarried relatives, according to Korda Kroll.
Several are intermarried themselves, said Korda Kroll — some to spouses who eventually converted to Judaism and others to mates who continue to practice Christianity.
‘A DANGEROUS APPROACH’
The point, she said, is that “this is our community. We can’t turn our back on a whole segment of the Jewish community.”
The debate among the task force members over the proper approach to the intermarried mirrored the debate within the larger Jewish community.
Roy Clements, a member of the task force and a vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called the philosophy of embracing the intermarried without emphasizing conversion to Judaism “a dangerous approach.”
While he agreed to support the consensus of the task force, he said in an interview that CJF’s advocacy for broad inclusion of the intermarried in Jewish communal life “appears to say that the general community condones the situation and that this is the best way to handle it.
“It is difficult to forecast whether it will better or worsen the situation,” he said.
Egon Mayer, another task force member and director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said that the fact that CJF is addressing the issue is significant.
“It takes the issue out of the background and brings it to the foreground, puts the imprimatur of a major Jewish organization on it,” he said.
“It also puts the appropriate community control over how the issue is dealt with by the mainstream of the American Jewish community,” Mayer added.
The report reprints the demographic statistics about intermarriage from the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Study.
The study showed that, at the time, 52 percent of all Jews were marrying outside the faith. The figures prompted alarm throughout the Jewish community.
It also lists some of the programs offered to the intermarried by a handful of federations and other agencies, like synagogue movements and Jewish community centers.
The San Diego Jewish Federation, for example, held focus groups with intermarried couples to ascertain their needs and, as a result, began a program called “Pathways to Judaism” conducted in a local synagogue on Sunday afternoons.
The 30-session course is designed for children ages 5 to 18, to teach them more about their Jewish heritage.
Parallel tracks involve parents, grandparents and couples without children.
Funding is provided by the federation and a private foundation.
The report was presented to CJF’s Executive Committee at the organization’s quarterly meetings in New York this week. The committee approved the dissemination of the report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.