A New Year To Engage Interfaith Families in Jewish Life

by Edmund Case

The Jewish New Year begins with headlines from the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011. First, there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Second, while the intermarried are generally disengaged from Jewish life and community, those that are engaged demonstrate attitudes and behaviors comparable to the in-married. The critical question, then, is what can be done in this new Jewish year to engage interfaith families Jewishly?

The study confirms that intermarriage is the reality in the non-Orthodox community. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish; half of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples. Measured by the study’s index of Jewish engagement – stacked as it is against the intermarried because it does not include indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family – the intermarried generally score low, with fewer giving Jewish education to their children, joining Jewish organizations or giving to Jewish causes.

However, of those intermarried households that do join synagogues, 90 percent send their children to supplemental school, and of those that are raising their children as Jews, more than half score high on the study’s index. The study recognizes the policy implications of these findings when it says that “expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” and that “communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children.”

Unfortunately, community studies tell us precious little about why some interfaith families chose to engage Jewishly. But for the past three years, InterfaithFamily has been including questions in its two annual holiday surveys that ask what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and synagogues and expanding their connections to Judaism – and what they experience as barriers. Our surveys are not “scientific” or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our full report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues. This is what close to 700 responses from six surveys, from people in interfaith relationships who are raising Jewish children and are members of Jewish organizations or synagogues, tell us:

Explicit Statements Expressing Welcoming Attitudes

Interfaith families are attracted by explicit statements of welcome by the organization’s professionals (79 percent said this attracted them “a lot”) or by the organization itself in membership materials, bulletins and websites (70 percent). Welcome communicated in public, and openly talking about interfaith family issues, are specifically identified as helpful; being vague about the approach to interfaith families is seen as a barrier.

The New York study reported that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel “uncomfortable” attending most Jewish events and activities. The principal author, Steven M. Cohen, is quoted as saying that “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” But our survey respondents emphatically indicate that they are heavily influenced by expressions of welcoming attitudes. One said, “My spouse was welcomed as a genuine part of the congregation family in all aspects, as was my son. This allowed me, as the Jewish partner, to comfortably express my Jewish identity without my spouse feeling alienated.” Another said, “They treat me like an important part of the Jewish community, even though I am not Jewish.” One indicated that interfaith families give more weight to differences in openness to them than to other important considerations: “Our synagogue doesn’t offer childcare during services, and we have begun attending a different synagogue that offers a wonderful children’s program that our kids adore. The problem is that that synagogue is not as open to interfaith families, so while we enjoy attending services there, we are unlikely to become members there.”

Moreover, the most often-mentioned barrier to expanded Jewish connection is perceived unwelcoming attitudes from both professionals and organization members. One said, “I feel that deep down the clergy/professionals feel differently. I get the sense that they would prefer I be Jewish.” Another referred to the “Neanderthal attitude of some members to non-Jews, which has offended my wife royally.” The New York study exposed a continuing deep-seated negative attitude about intermarriage: High percentages of parents said they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. That attitude could well explain the source of our respondents’ disinviting experiences and feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community. As one of our respondents said, “as long as being an interfaith family is considered a problem, we will never be reached.”

Inclusive Policies on Participation by Interfaith Families

The organization or synagogues’ policies about interfaith families participating in worship services and at life cycle events attracted 64 percent of our respondents “a lot.” One said, “My previous synagogue did not allow the non-Jewish members of my family to fully participate in my son’s bar mitzvah. We have since left that congregation.” Non-acceptance of “patrilineal” Jews was identified as “a real turn-off … even if the kids want to learn they are told that they can never be Jewish…”

Invitations to Learn vs. Invitations to Convert

While a not insignificant percentage (32 percent) were attracted “a lot” by invitations to learn about conversion, almost twice as many (58 percent) were attracted by invitations to learn about Judaism. A few of the responses to the open-ended questions mentioned the absence of pushing to convert as a helpful factor and perceived attempts to convert as a barrier.

Presence of Other Interfaith Families

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they were attracted “a lot” if “there are a lot of interfaith families who are members.” “The visibility of non-Jewish members encouraged us to join.”

Programming and Groups ‘For Interfaith Families’

Forty-five percent of respondents were attracted “a lot” by the Jewish organization or synagogue offering programs “that are described as being ‘for interfaith families’.” Thirty percent of respondents said they were attracted “a lot” by the organization or synagogue organizing “groups of interfaith couples (havurah, interfaith discussion group, etc.)” The absence of such programs and groups was identified as a barrier.

Knowing what factors attract and repel interfaith families from Jewish organizations and synagogues, local communities can act in two directions to engage interfaith families Jewishly. The first is to ensure that interfaith families receive explicit messages of welcome from the community and its organizations and leaders, and the second is to offer programs and classes for them.

In the long run, ensuring that interfaith families are genuinely welcomed will require significant attitudinal change among Jews and Jewish leaders away from “upset” and toward seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families. In the shorter term, an important step toward this goal is making available and publicizing information about welcoming organizations, professionals and programs, so that potentially interested interfaith couples can hear they are welcome and find out what is available to them and where.

Another important step is providing resource materials and inclusivity and sensitivity trainings to local Jewish professionals and lay leaders, to increase the chances that interfaith couples will experience positive attitudes and a warm welcome when they do connect. These materials and trainings can help organizations and professionals resolve difficult issues around ritual and leadership participation, and how best to present opportunities for Jewish learning and for conversion.

Finally, communities can offer programs and classes explicitly marketed as “for interfaith families,” and foster the formation of groups of interfaith couples and families in which they can explore and experience Jewish life together.

This three-pronged approach of publicizing what is available in the Jewish community for interfaith families, trainings and programs was recommended in the historic December 2011 report of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Task Force on Welcoming Interfaith Families: “an approach that unapologetically announces its welcome, provides sustained, networked, professionally staffed, and well-advertised gateway educational programs targeted to interfaith couples and families, and provides ongoing training for professionals and lay leaders.” It is the framework of InterfaithFamily’s Your Community initiative, which recently completed a very successful first year pilot, InterfaithFamily/Chicago, and is about to expand to San Francisco and Philadelphia. And it is endorsed by the New York study’s comment that “we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

The New York study asks, “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress [compared to the 2002 study] in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly in the last 10 years, the lack of progress should not be a surprise. Whether we make progress in the next 10 years is up to us.

This new Jewish year can be the start of a sustained communal effort to engage interfaith families. The New York study’s figures show that the goal of having more than 50 percent of interfaith families raise their children Jewish is within reach – because in addition to the 31 percent of the children of intermarried households who are raised Jewish, 11 percent more are raised “Jewish and something else” and 13 percent have parents who are undecided. We can move many of those children into the Jewish column if we try.

Edmund Case is the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com.

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