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Focus on Issues Population Study Revives Debate over Best Approach to Intermarriage

October 15, 2002
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The fiery intermarriage debate that roiled American Jewry over the past decade is resurfacing.The battle that erupted in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed 52 percent of Jews married non-Jews in the five years previous, is reviving over the 2000-2001 NJPS.

The latest demographic study, the most ambitious portrait of American Jewry ever undertaken, revealed last week that 5.2 million American Jews live in 2.9 million households — along with 1.5 million non- Jews. On one side of the divide are those like Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which promotes efforts to bring unaffiliated and intermarried Jews into the community.

“These are potential partners in the Jewish community,” Olitzky says of the 1.5 million. “We have the power to either embrace or exclude them.”

On the other side are those like Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.

While Bayme believes that the latest demographic stew shows that American Jews have attained an unprecedented level of acceptance, he’s also convinced that intermarriage is producing a generation that doesn’t identify primarily as Jews.

“If Jews are doing well by American standards, the second narrative is that Jews as Jews are not doing nearly as well,” Bayme said.

These arguments both echo the longtime split in the Jewish community about how to deal with intermarriage and signal how both sides are likely to grapple with the latest NJPS in the coming months.

Most headlines about the NJPS last week focused on findings that the Jewish population fell 5 percent from 1990, that Jews are aging and that Jewish women are waiting longer to have fewer children.

Yet the mix of Jews and non-Jews in many Jewish households went largely ignored.

The focus shifted in part because officials of the NJPS team with the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella group that funded the $6 million study, released little information beyond the initial demographic numbers.

NJPS officials said they are still analyzing the survey and will issue a fuller 15-page report on Jewish identity and Jewish life at the UJC’s annual General Assembly in November.

At the same time, NJPS officials admitted they wanted to avoid allowing the intermarriage results to overshadow other important findings, which is what happened in 1990.

Vivien Klaff, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware who co-chaired the National Technical Advisory Committee, a panel of experts that consulted on the NJPS, said the team “really didn’t want to do that this time.”

A decade ago, the NJPS intermarriage data sparked two main reactions — those who called for “inreach,” or reinvigorating Jewish life as well as staving off intermarriage among those already involved, and those who advocated “outreach,” efforts to welcome marginal Jews and interfaith families into the fold.

A decade later those on both sides are still debating, though now, in the wake of the latest NJPS, the conflict is shaping up about whether outreach and identity-building programs worth tens of millions of dollars have made a difference — and whether they should continue.

Bayme, for one, remains concerned about the offspring of those intermarriages, pointing to a study released last summer of 235,000 Jewish college freshmen by UCLA professor Linda Sax.

Among college freshmen with Jewish mothers only, 38 percent identified as Jews, while 15 percent of those with only Jewish fathers identified as Jews.

In contrast, Bayme pointed out, 93 percent of freshmen with two Jewish parents identified as Jews.

That Jewish identification gap appeared after a decade “where people are being raised partially as Jewish, partially as something else.” And “to the extent that those 1.5 million” non-Jews living with 5.2 million Jews” fall into that category, I’m very pessimistic.”

The only real prospects for Jewish survival, Bayme said, lie not in encouraging some new strain of Judaism, but in strengthening Jewish identity among Jews and in encouraging conversion among non- Jews close to them.

“All of our experience up to now is, the only hopes for Jewish continuity lie in an unambiguous Jewish identification,” he said.

Drawing an equally bleak assessment when it comes to dual-faith marriages is Sylvia Barack Fishman, an associate professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University.

Fishman said this large group of intermarried couples the new NJPS identifies is largely raising its children in two religions.

“What you need to understand is the religious synchronism these numbers represent,” she said.

In May, 2001, the American Jewish Committee published Fishman’s study of 254 couples around the country, showing how the intermarried “negotiated and renegotiated the religious character of their households” rather than committing to one faith, she said.

Two-thirds of the couples were in mixed marriages, while one-third were split between Jews married to converts and Jewish couples, who were surveyed as a basis for comparison. Of the intermarried, 63 percent said they were raising their children as Jews, she said.

However, half of these couples also said they held Christmas and Easter celebrations in their homes, while another 16 percent attended church services and only 16 percent confined Christmas events to those with their non-Jewish relatives.

Many of these couples “absorbed Christian themes” such as Christmas dinners, Christmas stockings and Easter-egg hunts in their lives, she added — while doing little Jewishly to complement those activities.

Those Christian traditions “may not sound deeply religious, but when you realize that nothing in their lives is deeply religious, that makes a difference,” she said.

Fishman, who is expanding her study into a book to be published next year called “Jewish and Something Else: A Study of Mixed-Marriage Families,” sees one hope for these couples and the Jewish future.

“It is really important for temples and synagogues to gently encourage mixed couples to make their homes exclusively Jewish,” she said.

Acknowledging that her solution “is not politically correct,” Fishman said it would be difficult to implement because most American Jews are liberal and pluralistic, and inclined to be inclusive.

In her study, that meant many Jewish spouses did not push their non-Jewish spouses to do Jewish things out of empathy.

The non-Jews interpreted the inaction as a lack of commitment to Judaism and followed suit, she said.

Still, Olitzky of the Outreach Institute countered that the way children are raised does not necessarily shape the way they’ll view themselves as adults.

“The Jewish community would like the children of interfaith marriages to totally reject their non-Jewish side — but these kids need to figure out how to identify Jewishly, and feel welcomed by the Jewish community, while at the same time embracing the non-Jewish side of their family,” he said.

Ed Case, publisher of, which offers resources and support for intermarried couples in an effort to encourage Jewish involvement, also said it remains unclear how many interfaith couples are raising their children as Jews.

Case said not enough resources have been devoted to outreach since the 1990 NJPS to accurately assess the impact of outreach to the intermarried or of intermarriage itself.

Few Jewish federations or organizations outside cities such as Boston and San Francisco target spending on outreach, such as Introduction to Judaism courses for interfaith couples, he said.

That lack of attention, and the rising numbers of the intermarried, should make spending more money on outreach the Jewish community’s top priority, he added.

“You can’t prevent intermarriage. We ought to treat these people as a growing audience and try to get them more involved,” Case said.

Ultimately, many of these arguments echo the same fault lines that the 1990 NJPS ignited, but some are hoping the latest NJPS will spark an entirely new debate.

Rachel Cowan, who with her late husband, Paul, wrote the 1987 book “Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage,” urged “new leadership” on the intermarriage issue in the wake of the new study.

“The solution is not to re-polarize the argument between” outreach advocates “and the one that says we’re wasting money on outreach and we should instead focus on those in the fold,” said Cowan, who converted to Judaism and is an ordained rabbi.

Instead, the community should be seeking “new modalities” of outreach, she said, examining the religious lives of these families of Jews and non-Jews.

“We can’t discount this 1.5 million. God forbid they have a Christmas tree — so what?” she said.

“If you lop them off, then in 10 years we’ll have even fewer Jews.”

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