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Focus on Issues: Looking Beyond the Numbers; the Next Frontier in Intermarriage

August 5, 1999
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When the Women’s Division of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation started a program for the non-Jewish partners of Jewish men, the goal was simply to educate, not to convert.

But the founder of the program says that many of the 50 to 60 participants have converted — an unexpected outcome of the classes covering Jewish holidays and ritual, Israel and tzedakah, as well as issues surrounding interfaith relationships.

Another outcome of the 6-year-old “Gesherim,” Hebrew for “bridges,” Lourdes Gittelman said, is that many women who have converted have become “very heavily involved” in the Jewish community. They participate in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and the local federation.

How common the Miami group’s experience is nationally has yet to be quantified.

The effect of outreach to interfaith couples is a “new statistic that they hadn’t even thought about” exploring in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, Gittelman said.

But with the next NJPS right around the millennial corner, researchers have the opportunity to shine a new light on the effects of and responses to intermarriage in the American Jewish community.

The last 1990 study delivered a wallop with its finding that 52 percent of American Jews who had married since 1985 had married non-Jews.

That figure — as well as the determination of who falls into the “core” population of 5.5 million Jews — has been the subject of intense debate among prominent demographers of American Jewry.

The organized Jewish community took the findings as a call to action, spurring a national interest in Jewish “continuity” and the development of programs such as the one in Miami.

How the team of researchers convened by the United Jewish Communities, which is sponsoring the study, will draw its new portrait of American Jewry is not yet clear, as its members are “sworn to secrecy,” according to those involved.

UJC’s research director, Jim Schwartz, declined to speak to JTA at this point in the preparations.

What is known is that the 2000 study, which plans to survey 5,000 households from January to June, will be the largest to date. And, with its $4 million budget — provided largely by private donations, but also with funding from community federations — the most expensive.

The 1990 NJPS was sponsored by the Council of Jewish Federations, the umbrella group for Jewish community federations, that together with the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal now forms the United Jewish Communities.

This time around, the survey is bound to produce new insights into the American Jewish profile, including clues about how spirituality and informal Jewish experiences shape Jewish identity.

Regardless of those findings, however, any data related to intermarriage are sure to be among the most closely scrutinized.

Separately, sociologists and demographers are already making plans for new national studies on intermarriage, and particularly the ways interfaith partners are raising their children.

The American Jewish Committee is laying the groundwork for a study aimed at addressing the question, “What’s actually happening among mixed marrieds?” according to Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of American Jewish communal affairs.

The results of the study, now in its pilot stage, are slated to surface in 2002 and will draw from qualitative interviews with some 150 intermarried couples.

Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University is beginning the initial stage of research for the AJCommittee study this month by interviewing 25 Boston-area households, with a focus on families with children under 21 years old.

She says she is interested in discussing with each partner “what aspects of Judaism as a culture, Judaism as a religion, Jewishness as a peoplehood or ethnicity are salient to them.”

Building on research conducted in the past, Fishman said, she hopes this kind of systematic “probing discussion,” as opposed to only gathering statistics, will “take our knowledge to another stratum.”

At the same time, David Gordis, founding director of the Susan and David Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, an independent research and resource center, is starting a study of intermarried families that will track the same subjects over time, giving a more complete picture of the influences that affect their decisions regarding Jewish life.

Some of the research already done were follow-ups to the 1990 study, including re-examinations of intermarriage by Bruce Phillips, a professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and a senior fellow of the Wilstein Institute.

Phillips’ work includes the 1993 Survey on Mixed Marriage and the 1995 Survey of Non-Jewish Spouses, both of which drew from the survey sample used in the 1990 NJPS.

Phillips was a member of the CJF advisory committee that designed the 1990 NJPS, a role he is repeating for the 2000 survey.

Last year Phillips published a paper reviewing the results of his follow-up studies titled “Children of Intermarriage: How Jewish?”

His answer: Not very.

“Only a minority of the children of intermarriages are being raised both ethnically and religiously as Jews,” Phillips writes.

Phillips found that 18 percent of children under 18 in intermarriages are currently Jewish; 34 percent are Christian, and a quarter were being raised as both.

To determine the factors associated with raising Jewish children in intermarriages, Phillips focused on families in which the Jewish partner had two Jewish parents.

He found several factors to be “key predictors”:

The Jewish parent is responsible for the children’s religious upbringing;

The couple has a network of Jewish friends and wants Jewish neighbors;

The Jewish parent has siblings married to Jews and the family has little or no contact with the Gentile in-laws;

The Jewish parent is a college graduate; and

The religious identification of the Jewish and Gentile parents.

Phillips found that the informal social network is more important even than the Jewish background of the Jewish parent.

The importance of having Jewish friends and neighbors is “an important and overlooked mechanism for connecting the intermarried family with the Jewish community,” Phillips writes.

But he also points out that the Jew who wants to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage seeks out Jewish friends or neighbors to “facilitate that process.”

In an interview, Phillips said his research indicates that “a lot of the debate” about intermarriage — for example, whether rabbis should officiate at such ceremonies — “is misplaced.”

“People marry anyway,” he said. “What they do later, on the other hand, does seem to be influenced by friends and neighbors and informal contact.”

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