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Jewish Outreach Works, Says Study; Some Say Survey Sets Low Standard

October 25, 2001
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Outreach efforts to intermarried Jews increase Jewish involvement and synagogue affiliation rates, say sponsors of the

most comprehensive evaluation yet of such attempts.

But some skeptics of outreach to intermarried Jews say the study sets too low of a bar in the way it measures Jewish involvement.

The disagreement over the study reflects a broader debate over the efficacy and goals of Jewish outreach.

The new study by the Jewish Outreach Institute looks at 735 participants in 11 outreach programs throughout North America, ranging from groups for intermarried families with small children to a series of Jewish holiday activities in shopping malls.

In addition to concluding that outreach programs increase participants’ involvement in Jewish life, the study reports that outreach projects open to all Jews, whether intermarried or not — such as the shopping mall celebrations — tend to be more effective than ones limited to intermarried families.

The study also found that synagogue-based programs are less likely than other venues to attract families with little involvement in Jewish life, and that the lower the participants’ previous engagement in Jewish life, the greater the increase in interest they reported.

“This research study makes a compelling case for ‘outreach’ — the welcoming of intermarried families and uninvolved Jews into the community — as the best way to ensure Jewish continuity in the face of widespread intermarriage and assimilation,” the study’s executive summary says.

“Outreach is doable and has an impact,” said Egon Mayer, founding director of the institute and one of the study’s authors.

Among the many positive responses the study quotes is a Toronto woman who said her program, based in the Jewish community center, made Jewish education and customs meaningful for her children.

“For the first time, they ‘feel’ Jewish,'” she said.

Among the study’s findings:

The percentage of intermarried respondents reporting they are moderately involved in Jewish life rose from 30 percent prior to program contact to 47 percent afterward.

Thirty-five percent of interfaith families said the program had “some impact” on their Jewish home life, and 19 percent reported it had “considerable impact.”

Thirty-five percent of interfaith families who had not previously belonged to a synagogue joined one after participating in the outreach program, and another 25 percent said they were considering synagogue membership.

After the program, 60 percent reported sometimes going to synagogue services, compared with 33 percent who said they did so before. Participation at Shabbat dinners increased to 65 percent from 35 percent, and participation in “Jewish cultural activities” increased to 51 percent from 32 percent.

The study is based on mail-in surveys completed in 2000 by participants in programs that took place in 1998 and 1999. The programs were funded, in part, by the institute.

Reaction to the study has varied so far, reflecting differing views in the American Jewish community on what the goals of Jewish outreach should be.

For some communal leaders, Jewish outreach is successful if it encourages interfaith families to incorporate some Jewish activities into their lives.

In that camp is Ed Case, publisher of, a Web magazine for intermarried families, who described JOI’s findings as “very good news.”

“We need to get the word out to more” intermarried families “that these programs exist and that the Jewish community welcomes them,” Case said.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe programs should spur the non-Jewish spouse to convert, or at least lead to a family commitment to practice only Judaism.

Steven Bayme, director of American Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, said he welcomed the research but wondered what long-term impact outreach programs have on intermarried families and their children.

Because the JOI study is based only on surveys taken within two years of participation in the Jewish outreach activities, it does not measure the long-term impact of the programs — most of which are fairly limited in scope — on people’s lives.

Bayme also said he hopes that while encouraging outreach, the Jewish community will not become “neutral” to intermarriage, but will continue to create a communal expectation of in-marriage or conversion.

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said the JOI study means little to him without information on whether intermarried families are practicing Judaism exclusively.

“There’s an assumption that greater involvement is good, but if the family is involved with both religions, how does that benefit the Jewish community? Does anybody gain from this, aside from perhaps Jews for Jesus?” he asked, referring to the proselytizing Christian group that claims one can believe in Jesus and still be Jewish.

Both Bayme and Wertheimer have long been outspoken in their view that the Jewish community must discourage intermarriage more aggressively.

A study earlier this year by Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor, reported that most interfaith families — even those that say they are raising their children as Jews — celebrate some Christian holidays.

The outreach institute’s study did not ask participants whether they observe any Christian practices or whether the non-Jewish partner is considering conversion.

“Spiritual journeys include the exploration of lots of different things,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the JOI’s executive director.

He noted that a recent institute survey of children of interfaith marriages who identify as Jews found that most had explored their non-Jewish roots before deciding on Judaism.

“When people come to synagogue to pray and to celebrate, no one asks them what else are you doing in your life,” Olitzky said. “We want to encourage, not discourage; include, not exclude; embrace, not push away.”

The debate over outreach to the intermarried has shifted over the past decade following the 1990 finding that approximately half of American Jews marry non-Jews.

Initially, such outreach — which consisted mainly of support groups for interfaith couples and of educational programs for interfaith families with young children — was criticized on the grounds that it tacitly encouraged intermarriage.

Later, the debate became one of “inreach vs. outreach,” with critics questioning whether scarce communal resources should be used to target people on the fringes of the community rather than on strengthening the commitment of those already involved in Jewish life.

Intermarriage has become increasingly acceptable among rank and file Jews. A recent survey found that half of American Jews view opposition to intermarriage as “racist” and 78 percent believe rabbis should officiate at weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

Increasing numbers of Jewish leaders have argued that it is not necessary to choose between inreach and outreach, and that the more gateways that exist to bring American Jews into Jewish life, the better.

According to the institute, there are approximately 1 million intermarried Jewish households in the United States, and more children now have one Jewish parent than two Jewish parents.

While the most extensive evaluation so far, the JOI study is relatively limited in scope, based on surveys of 735 people. It is not clear whether the survey — which had a 23 percent response rate — is representative of all people who participated in the outreach programs or whether people with positive experiences were more likely to fill out a voluntary survey.

Mayer acknowledged the limitations of the study, saying it is simply a first attempt to get a picture of outreach’s success.

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