Outreach Miracle?


A Boston study being touted this week by some as proof that outreach to intermarried couples results in an increased number of their children being raised as Jews is being questioned by others who suggest that such a conclusion might be fallacious or premature.

Commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study found that about 60 percent of children raised in intermarried households are being raised as Jews: about double the national average. Researchers from Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute interviewed 400 Jewish households by phone and an additional 1,400 individuals from a list provided by Jewish organizations.

The study also found that virtually all interfaith families in which the mother is Jewish are raising their children as Jews.

Some local Jewish leaders say a key reason for the high rates of Jewish identification among interfaith families is the community’s heavy investment in outreach programming: $321,000 this year, almost 1.5 percent of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ $27 million campaign. Those funds are given to programs aimed at interfaith families and individuals considering conversion run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies. "There’s no other way to explain it," said Ed Case, publisher and president of InterfaithFamily.com, a Boston-area nonprofit that encourages intermarried families to make Jewish choices.

But Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation of New Yorkís Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, stressed that only preliminary findings have been released so far and "we have to look at what’s behind that number."

"We have to see what they have done in Boston and what they believe is responsible for that increase: what kind of programs they had and over what length of time and who their critical partners have been," she said.

"It was interesting to me that so many children were enrolled in one-day-a-week Hebrew schools," Rabbi Joselow added. "Some 23 percent of all children 6 to 17 are being educated [in such programs]. If you look at the National Jewish Population Study … if you were enrolled in only a Sunday school it negatively impacts on your Jewish identity."

She said also that "you can’t overlay" the outreach efforts of greater Boston, which has a Jewish population of 265,000, on New York’s eight-county area of 1.4 million Jews. But Rabbi Joselow said she hoped "we can learn" from the study.

Leonard Saxe, the primary investigator for the study, called the 60 percent figure "exceptional." And the Jewish Outreach Institute, which seeks to promote the Jewish community’s embrace of intermarried Jews, said it was proof of its long-held belief that outreach to the intermarried pays off. "I think it is indicative of what happens when an organized community acknowledges intermarriage and assigns its resources to that effort," said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the group’s executive director. He added that although the dollars spent on outreach are very small compared with the Boston federation’s overall budget, "it is still about 10 times the amount dedicated by other [Jewish] federations in America."

But sociologist Steven Cohen said his understanding of the study leads him to conclude that its results were not so unusual.

"The real issue is how you define a Jewish child," he said. "There are narrow definitions and broad definitions; both are valid. The Boston study chose to use a broad definition, thereby including children who have no religion and … whose families undertake Jewish behavior. … The National Jewish Population Survey got pretty much the same numbers [when using the same definition]."

Saxe disputed that, saying the study found that 30 percent of the children were raised with no religion but that about 60 percent were being raised as Jews.

"When we asked [intermarried parents] what they were doing to raise their kids as Jews, we found that just as many were getting a Hebrew school education as the inmarried families," Saxe said.

But Steven Bayme, national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee, said he would like to know the seriousness of the children of intermarried couples regarding their "Jewish connection" and whether that connection is "sustainable and will last them in terms of molding a Jewish identity."

"I’m concerned that the success of outreach activities to ensure Jewish grandchildren can only be measured over time," he said. "We have to see what happens to them as adults."

Both Cohen and Bayme are on the board of the Jewish In-Marriage Initiative, an organization whose mission, according to its Web site, is "to encourage, sensitively and respectfully, Jews to marry Jews; conversion to Judaism as the desired outcome of an intermarriage; and parents of interfaith families, where conversion is not an option, to raise their children exclusively as Jews."

The Boston study, which showed an increase in the total number of Boston-area residents identifying as Jewish, also suggests that intermarriage, instead of having a negative effect on a given Jewish population, can lead to the reverse if more intermarried families affiliate with the Jewish community. That’s true in Boston, said Paula Brody, outreach director of the Northeast Council of the Union for Reform Judaism, who noted that most of the "Jewish population" increase since 1995 is made up of intermarried households. "What’s remarkable is that these families see themselves not as where the Jewish partner has married out, but where the Christian partner has married in," she said. Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, says he hopes other Jewish federations will take their cue from Boston and San Francisco, another city whose federation is known for its support of outreach to the intermarried.

JTA contributed to this report.