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Intermarriage Tipping Point Long Past, but Institutions Must Now Catch Up

November 23, 2006
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Few Jewish communal leaders have openly declared that the battle against Jewish intermarriage is over and we should instead focus solely on outreach. But the battle is over, and has been for a generation. What’s more, Jewish outreach works, and it works best when not hampered by mixed messages that tell intermarried families we want them, but they’re still second-class citizens.

That’s the message we still hear from segments of the community, even as many other institutions move toward a more welcoming approach to intermarried families. Recent events suggest we may finally be able to put the debate behind us.

Anyone who’s read Malcolm Gladwell’s groundbreaking book “The Tipping Point” forever thereafter seeks out the little things that portend big changes at exponential speeds. We’ve long since reached the demographic tipping point on Jewish intermarriage, but most of our institutions have yet to change direction in terms of their programming, posturing and professional training.

After maintaining single-digit intermarriage rates for the first 60 years of the last century, we saw a rapid rise in intermarriage. A 13 percent intermarriage rate of those married before 1970 leapt to 47 percent in 25 years.

By 2001, there were about as many intermarried households in America as inmarried households, according to the National Jewish Population Study. More importantly, those intermarried households are younger and produce more children. Forty-five percent of college students who identified themselves as Jewish came from households with one Jewish-born parent.

Yet there is still an effort in the organized Jewish community to discredit those Jews. So they hire researchers, who find that intermarried Jews are less Jewishly educated, less Jewishly involved, even though the same could be said for many other Jewish sub-groups. The resulting policy recommendations are always the same: Don’t spend money on the intermarried.

Why would influential leaders in the richest, most powerful Diaspora community in history still feel the need to triage half our married population? We have a demographic and a moral imperative to reach out to intermarried families and welcome them into the Jewish community.

Intermarriage is not the end of Jewish continuity; not raising Jewish children is the end of Jewish continuity. Recognizing this will lead the organized community to welcome all who would cast their lot with the Jewish people.

And when our population begins to grow, we will likely look back upon the recent release of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey as a tipping point. That study showed 60 percent of intermarried families in that city are raising children Jewishly, and states that intermarriage “is contributing to a net increase in the number of Jews” in the Boston Jewish community.

This position is made more powerful when combined with the 2005 San Francisco Jewish demographic study that also identified higher-than-average rates of intermarried households raising children Jewishly.

What do San Francisco and Boston have in common? A Jewish community that, for the most part, welcomes intermarried families to participate as they are. Also, both cities have a tightknit group of interfaith outreach specialists.

There is now talk that other federations should consider similar expenditures on interfaith outreach, highest in the country. Combined Jewish Philanthropies is reportedly spending about 1.5 percent of its budget on outreach. Detractors say that “we tried outreach and it didn’t work,” but how hard have we tried if communities have to be convinced to increase their spending on outreach to even 1 percent of their budgets.

In order for it to work, however, we need to not only dedicate resources but also make distinctions between Jewish and halachically Jewish.

A tipping-point moment on halachic issues came earlier this year, when Ismar Schorsch — outgoing chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — proposed that the movement’s Ramah camps allow children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to attend their camps until age 13, when they would then be asked to convert. The fact that this had not previously been allowed is all about culture, not halachah.

Jewish leaders must recognize what their constituency already understands: We do not live in an ideal Jewish world. Not all Jews observe all of the mitzvot. But we don’t kick people out of the Jewish community if they skip a few.

Institutional admonishment against intermarriage doesn’t stop intermarriage in America, it only serves to push away the intermarried. Our sole mission should focus on helping all existing Jewish households engage more deeply in Jewish activities.

Boston and San Francisco have a head start, but there are some fairly clear outreach methodologies that other communities can adopt. First, they must train and sensitize all of their professionals and lay leaders. The Jewish Outreach Institute has conducted environmental scans of more than 500 communal institutions in North American cities like Ottawa, Louisville, Atlanta, San Francisco and Phoenix, and found that those who answer the phones or sit by the doors almost universally receive no sensitivity training for intake of intermarried couples.

We also have to make the joys of being Jewish more visible to the community-at-large rather than keeping it all within the walls of our institutions. Cultural events in secular venues reach a less engaged audience.

The findings of the Boston Study certainly feel like vindication for the outreach community, but we also note that 28 percent are raising their children in no religion. That’s growth potential. That’s an additional outreach target population. We know the outreach corps in Boston will keep working to draw in even more interfaith families.

Outreach is some of the most challenging work in the Jewish community. But we will be a better people for trying rather than telling ourselves that those on the periphery of our community are not worth our time or money and should therefore be let go.

Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and co-author with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of “20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity In Their Grandchildren.”

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