Intermarriage in America: Changing Our Expectations

New Study Finds That It’s Not a Lack of Welcome That’s Keeping the Intermarrieds Away
by Gal Beckerman

Since at least the 1990s, one of the chief concerns of the American Jewish community has been the problem of intermarriage. With the perception that an increasing number of American Jews are marrying outside the faith, the problem of how to stop the attrition has been a major preoccupation. But a fairly simple strategy has also dominated the discourse over how to meet this challenge: Be more welcoming.

This is the guiding principle of organizations like and the Jewish Outreach Institute, which have tried to encourage inclusion of interfaith couples by normalizing their place in Jewish life.

But a new study now purports to challenge the assumption that all that’s needed is open arms.

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who studies American Jews, recently conducted a survey commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The national organization wanted to better understand how to attract the children of intermarried couples and was looking specifically at summer camps in the Midwest. Cohen’s conclusions were fairly obvious. With a sample of more than 652 people, all of them parents of potential campers, those who were committed to raising their children as Jews – whether the couple was Jewish or interfaith – were more likely to send their children to a Jewish camp. It was as simple as that.

In the course of his study, however, Cohen did make an interesting finding. He was trying to gauge how comfortable both purely Jewish and intermarried couples felt in a Jewish religious setting. He discovered that not only was there hardly any difference in the amount of discomfort they felt, but both groups were quite at ease, when imagining themselves at a Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox service. Only 17% of the so-called “mixed married” reported feeling uncomfortable at an Orthodox congregation, and that number decreased as the denomination got more liberal.

Cohen’s conclusion was that most interfaith couples feel like they have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. The real problem, he said, is that they feel like they don’t know what to do with that invitation.

“It’s not that they feel unwelcome, but that there is a competence barrier,” Cohen said. “They feel that their kids will be expected to do things they don’t know how to do, and they themselves don’t want to be part of a community where they don’t know the choreography.”

He arrived at his conclusion about a “competence barrier” after a much higher proportion of intermarried couples surveyed in his study said they felt uncomfortable with Hebrew. But Cohen stated this conclusion with less confidence than he did his more central point: that outreach has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming.

“I don’t have the evidence to make a strong claim for competency being the issue,” Cohen said. “But I certainly can say that it’s not a matter of being more welcoming. So I don’t want to push the competence thing too far. But I am willing to say that stigmatization and the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”

Cohen and a few others point specifically to outreach groups that have been stressing the importance of not being offensive and of emphasizing inclusiveness. On the contrary, Cohen said, in “the age of Obama,” there is no longer a stigma attached to walking into a synagogue with a non-Jewish spouse, but what remains a problem is that that husband or wife then does not have access to what is going on once he or she is there.

“If you look at their websites and their rhetoric, a lot of their work emphasizes avoiding comments that would alienate an intermarried individual,” Cohen said, referring to the organizations engaged in outreach work. “It’s a good thing to do, but I don’t think that’s going to do the trick. What will do the trick are other things we’re doing, providing Jewish education to the intermarried and changing our own expectations of new initiates to Jewish life. It’s not a question of open arms, it’s a question of a helping hand.”

Sylvia Barack Fishman, chair of the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, has conducted research similar to Cohen’s on the place of the intermarried in Jewish life. She agrees with Cohen that the problem is not that synagogues are unwelcoming.

“Very, very few non-Jews who are married to Jews say they feel they were insulted or treated in a bad way,” Fishman said. She also added credence to the theory that competence was the bigger problem, saying that many of these non-Jews who didn’t feel insulted also said they were turned off when they couldn’t understand the Hebrew or strange songs being sung.

Fishman also had a theory for why outreach was focused on overcoming stigma. Many of the people leading these efforts are intermarried themselves, she said, and had to overcome the uncomfortable stares of an earlier era. “But this was decades ago and no longer relevant,” Fishman said.

Those who have been working to make sure that interfaith couples have a place at Jewish institutions think that these conclusions miss the point.

“It’s hard to tease out all the elements that keep people away,” said Edmund Case, CEO of “There is something to the issue of the competence. On the other hand, lots of people report negative comments that are made, off-putting things that happen. People have bad experiences when they want to have a rabbi officiate for their wedding and they can’t find one. For me, it’s not just one thing.”

Case and others argued that the notion of being welcoming as an institution also includes making people feel Jewishly literate. Unlike Cohen, who wants to remove the focus from being welcoming, for those professionals working with interfaith families, there is a whole series of interconnected barriers, and the comfort level is among the most important.

“I work with interfaith families every day, and the stories that I hear are not the stories of comfort that he is trying to suggest,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. “Some of the issue is literacy. But if you create a supportive environment in an institutional setting[,] then the issue of literacy can be mitigated. But you still have to demonstrate to people, irrespective of their background, that they are going to be welcomed and embraced, that there are others like them that are part of this community, that they will feel like they belong.”

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.

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  1. Nathaniel Warshay says

    So, if intermarrieds understand there is an invitation to them and that they are not for the most part offended by any of the denominations, then perhaps we need to stop blaming the mountain for being tall and look to Mohammad, so to speak, and his (or their in this case) desire not to ascend. Perhaps, Jews who marry non-Jews are not all that committed to Judaism in the first place, hence are less likely to become involved in Jewish religious life anyway. Perhaps, they would have been less likely to intermarry had they been more involved, whether it was attending shul, Jewish functions, etc.

    This note is not a criticism but a observation. For example, Jews who attend day schools are more likely to marry Jews.


    Is it because they learn to marry Jews in day schools? Their social circles are more likely to be inherently Jewish, thus, they marry Jews because that’s what they see? The homes of children who attend day schools are more Jewishly focused, thus, the children are raised with a stronger sense of the role Judaism plays in their lives?

    We don’t pick one but look at a variety of answers and consider the most obvious.

    So, it was obvious to ask if non-Jewish spouses feel rejected by Jewish congregations. And they were years ago, but mostly not any more.

    So, what is it? The next obvious point. The Jewish spouses are not interested. If they were, fewer of them would be intermarried.

  2. says

    Professor Cohen is taking a very narrow approach to “welcoming”. He is describing a situation where one is invited to a party, welcomed at the door, and then ignored for the remainder of the evening. I prefer to think of “welcoming” as a “no dead-ends” program. Each step of welcoming leads to the next step. And each step has a welcoming foundation to it.

    Creating engagement is not only an interfaith couples issue. This is an issue every Jewish organization has (especially synagogues) to come to terms with. This is an issue facing the Jewish community from every demographic that walks through the doors of the organization.

    Organizations quickly become “club like”, creating a barrier for those wishing to enter. For Jewish organizations to thrive and grow there must be an intentional effort to welcome, encourage, and program for member involvement.

  3. says

    Thanks to Steven for sharing these findings and ideas from his experience as a sociologist and researcher. I want to add the additional perspective of a rabbi and Jewish educator working “on the ground” with families and individuals who want to connect with Jewish life and community.

    Here’s some of what I’ve learned, and conclusions I draw from it. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts.

    You know how doctors get medical questions at parties? I had a similar experience once I became a rabbi. Eventually it led me to develop a form of independent, pluralistic Jewish outreach that has been amazingly successful.

    For my first 9 years as a rabbi, during which I served synagogues, I was struck by the dozens of Jews who told me, in all sorts of settings, that they’d like to connect with Jewish life, but … they didn’t know enough, didn’t think Judaism could offer a spiritual life, were bored by synagogue services, didn’t believe in God (usually meaning the anthropomorphic God of the Bible), were not Jewish according to Jewish law, were from a background other than the stereotype of a Jewish family, or …

    How could I, as a passionate Jewish educator, not have a useful response for these folks? Being a pulpit rabbi, my main focus was, appropriately, serving my congregation. So, I could talk with them once or twice, suggest they take a class, or send them to an Orthodox outreach organization. Often these did not seem like the best ways to address their needs. It could be that most of them weren’t really interested, but it still seemed wrong for liberal Judaism not to offer them a way in, or, as Steven calls it, a helping hand.

    I was also influenced by the fact that before I was a rabbi I was a community organizer. I knew that starting where people are and building relationships with them based on shared concerns and interests, rather than offering them a pre-determined program, is key to good organizing.

    I looked throughout the country for models of open-ended Jewish outreach and found very little. Eventually I decided to address this issue myself by starting what I’ve come to call a pluralistic Jewish engagement organization, Jewish Gateways. It has been amazing how, in our first four years, we have discovered that many people choose to join synagogues or otherwise engage deeply with Jewish life once they have the personal support, guidance, and information they need — again, what Steven calls hand holding.

    Most of these people would not have connected with Judaism in any other way. Many had been longing to do so for years.

    Some Jewish leaders have expressed the concern that organizations like this compete with synagogues. The opposite is true.

    When people connect with Jewish life in a meaningful and personal way, and then enter Jewish institutions, they bring their enthusiasm, plus their understanding of what it feels like to be on the “outside.” These are wonderful gifts. So, for example, one of our “grads” who joined a local synagogue went on to start and run a havurah program there. These sorts of experiences led the synagogue’s president and membership chair to meet regularly with Jewish Gateways so we can tell them what we’re learning and help them expand their outreach programs.

    Seeking to share these discoveries, learn more, and find colleagues, I searched again and eventually found several other pluralistic Jewish engagement endeavors throughout the country, each of which started independently through varying circumstances. About a year ago we formed a national “community of practice” and have been exchanging information and ideas regularly. Each of us has discovered, in a variety of ways, that many Jews and those of Jewish heritage are hungry for what we offer. The “we” is not about us; it is about enabling people to discover, in an open-ended environment, at their own pace, whether Jewish life is expansive enough and meaningful enough that it is worth pursuing, not for the sake of grandparents, children, or a nebulous sense of nostalgia or duty or guilt, but for themselves.

    Because these endeavors are local and not yet part of an identified field for Jewish professionals, we mostly fly under the radar. Yet we see from our experiences that these efforts need to be widespread. A hundred years ago or more, Jews in the U.S. created Jewish Family Service agencies, Hebrew Free Loan, burial societies, and the rest of an infrastructure that helped us become not only Jews, but also Americans. Today, our communities need to find ways to offer entrances into Jewish life with that same level of creativity and dedication.

    We who do this open-ended Jewish outreach want to share what we have learned more broadly. We also want to explore how to strengthen our efforts and build our capacity to serve the hundreds of people we know are there longing to find ways in to Jewish life. As one member of our community of practice said, “We need to keep researching and collecting data, but at the same time, we know this works, and we can’t keep up with the demand!”

    Finally, a few specifics we’ve learned:

    • Intermarriage is one barrier, but many Jews, intermarried or not, need a helping hand. Many adults who are Jewish or of Jewish heritage don’t know much about Judaism. They have good reason to feel uncomfortable entering Jewish environments in which they will not understand what is going on and what is expected of them. If in addition they are intermarried, the adult child of intermarried parents, a person of color, or other identities that fall outside the mainstream notion of who Jews are “supposed” to be, and to which people inside the mainstream Jewish community may respond with questions or discomfort, that adds yet another barrier.

    • Jews need Jewish professionals to respond to their needs and concerns. This may sound obvious, but … many Jews’ main perception of Jewish organizations is as places that want to recruit them, tell them what to do, get their donations, and encourage them to attend boring services or follow outmoded rules. As professionals we may protest that this is not our goal — we want to share the riches of Jewish life, or ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, or both — but what matters is not what we think, but how those we want to reach perceive us.

    • Synagogues are usually not the best entrance into Jewish life, no matter how hard they try. Yes, synagogues are central to Jewish life, yes, they need to be as accessible as they can, while maintaining their core values and integrity. But, synagogues mean prayer, and God, and people who we imagine already know about these things, and already know one another. Who would want to enter an environment in which people we don’t know are doing things we don’t understand that are supposed to address some of the core issues of life? If in addition you feel you’re a “bad Jew,” as many people do, for not knowing, and for not believing in the God you think you’re supposed to believe in … to be flip just to make a point, why try an unfamiliar experience, for which people may ask you to pay thousands of dollars, that may leave you disappointed and embarrassed?

    We need to create open-ended Jewish environments in which Jews can build personal relationships with people who can help them access Jewish life in ways that work for them. “Ways that work for them” does not mean bending Judaism to whatever they want. It means responding to individuals where they are, listening to and respecting their concerns and desires, supporting them to take next steps on their Jewish journeys, and helping them to find their place in Jewish life.

    I invite all those who care about these issues to enter into conversation with us!

    Rabbi Bridget Wynne

  4. says

    I want to echo the thought of Steven Cohen and Rabbi Bridget that competance is an important barrier to Jewish participation. Not only for the intermarried but for many marginally affiliated Jews. I have been working informally to support a group of pluralistic Jewish outreach workers who have begun convening as a learning community/community of practice.

    They are a growing group who feel that there is a great deal of hunger for more intensive Jewish engagement that is not being met by traditional institutions. They have set up new programs to do the kind of ‘hand holding’ necessary to help peripheral Jews begin to build their competance and confidence.

    These pluralistic Jewish outreach workers are discovering that once people are able to overcome the discomfort many of these participants are able to participant in congregations and other more mainstream Jewish institutions. So they are not competing with existing Jewish institutions but working to help expand the pie. Rabbi Bridget’s organization calls itself Gateways because she refuses to create a competing community but helps lead people through the gates into existing Jewish communities and affiliations.

    I hope these pluralistic outreach organizations will be supported as key component of the infrastructure of Jewish life.


  5. says

    I approach this issue as a Jewish educator. Through that lens, of course I agree with Dr. Cohen that the issue of competency is a high barrier that the Jewish community must address in order to further engage those who have not been involved in the Jewish community for any number of reasons. And yes, a large portion of those who are currently unaffiliated and unengaged are from intermarried families–either the couple themselves or their children. The Jewish community needs to create educational opportunities that help those who are interested in becoming more engaged in Jewish life to learn the skills necessary to do so.

    Where I differ with Dr. Cohen is in declaring the community welcoming enough to all those on the periphery. The only assessment that can deem “mission accomplished” in that arena is necessarily a superficial view of what it means to be welcoming. I will not dispute that the data is accurate for responding families–those who self-selected to respond, were within the net cast by the study, etc. I only question what is meant by welcoming. In my experience, the Jewish community, to a large extent, is often welcoming to newcomers to a point. Synagogue office staff in many, but certainly not all, synagogues are polite and generally encouraging, people are often greeted with smiles and words of welcome, schools (supplemental, JCCs, even many dayschools) often will make accommodations to include the children of intermarriage in the programs. Please come to this event, please donate to this cause, please pay dues. This is only welcoming on a transactional level.

    My vision for welcoming is on a much deeper level. I draw my inspiration from the notion of a covenantal community (b’nai brit), where each member is responsible to one another (kol yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh) on more than the most superficial level. This includes anticipating a person’s needs and attempting to fill them, or direct them where they can be filled. I look to Buber’s definition of the “I-Thou” relationship. For if our religious communities are not a reflection and a model of the ultimate relationship, then I question what the purpose of community is.

    And that question of relevance–the relevance of Jewish community to Jews and their families, or the relevance of Judaism itself, is the crux of the matter for me. I agree with Mr. Bronfman when he said that the problem isn’t that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews, but that they aren’t falling in love with Judaism. I am concerned that with all of the hand wringing about intermarriage and assimilation (as if they were the same thing), we have lost sight of the truth that JUDAISM HAS SOMETHING TO OFFER. I’ll paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel–Judaism is a series of answers, it’s up to us to find the questions. When we stop worrying about who is a Jew and start inspiring all who approach with what Judaism has to offer, we will find a way to overcome the challenges of demography and the worry about syncretism in one stroke. When we stop judging people for what they don’t do Jewish, we will open the possibility for them to find ways to connect to the meaning that Judaism has to offer–for them and their families.

    I know the challenges of intermarriage from the inside–my parents were intermarried in the 1970’s. I am not one of those professionals carrying the grudges of times past (suggested by Sylvia Barak Fishman), I am the next generation with the experience of the challenges and opportunities of this moment in time. As co-founder of Jews in ALL Hues, I work to create the space for other children of intermarriage to explore the intersection of their heritages and the chance to connect to Judaism. Yes, there is still much bias out there, I am sorry to say. Since I began this work, I have heard the most heart rending experiences of exile and the most inspiring experiences of reconnection. Certainly we need to find ways to retool Jewish communal professionals with the sensitivity to welcome those from various backgrounds into meaningful and authentic Jewish experience.

    It seems to me that being a child of intermarriage is a sort of “original sin” that many struggle a lifetime to overcome. We overcome it not by creating a fractured identity–forcing people to choose one aspect of their identity, but through integrity–by giving people the permission to explore the intersection of their identities AND helping them to find the form of authentic Jewish religious expression that is relevant in their lives (if that is what they are seeking).

  6. anonymous says

    The issue is meaning.

    If Jewish life/knowledge is meaningful, Jews, inter-married or not, will be motivated to acquire competence and affiliate with Jewish organizations.

    If Jewish life/knowledge is not meaningful – for whatever reason – Jews will have less interest in living Jewishly or acquiring knowledge. This is true for all Jews, intermarried or not, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox who decide to opt-out of Jewish life, even when highly literate.

    Being welcome is obviously important, knowing prayers and procedure is obviously important, but if it doesn’t impact you in any way, why would you bother?

  7. says

    Great article. Being inclusive and welcoming is only the first step. The challenge then is creating something with a contemporary voice that speaks to people and is meaningful. And doing so without alienating people for their lack of knowledge (or throwing around Hebrew words for the sake of it, when people don’t know what they mean). At we are particularly sensitive to these issues and have created a community that is intentionally not only welcoming but also allows people to engage easily once they arrive. There is great potential if more Jewish organizations can understand the underlying issues.

  8. says

    Thanks for this important conversation. I work for an independent Denver-based “outreach” organization called Judaism Your Way. We’re based on a dynamic and expansive vision of Judaism and Jewishness, working on the growing edge between what Judaism has been and what it can be.

    What we’re trying to accomplish is not simply about being welcoming, or even creating more literacy and cultural competence among intermarried families and disengaged Jews, though the work absolutely includes these goals. We recognize that progressive Judaism is reaching a crisis of purpose and identity, and we need to respond with something deeper, something roomier, something that addresses the new complexities of Jewish identity and connection that are emerging before our eyes, more “both/and” than “either/or.”

    There’s no question in my mind that Judaism is heading into uncharted waters. We’re swimming in an ocean of pluralism, multi-culturalism and globalism such that our challenges, our opportunities, our relationships, our fears, hopes — and the competencies we’ll need to swim well – have all become increasingly global in scope. Today it’s not even a matter of “being a Jew at home and a citizen on the street.” There is hardly a Jewish family in the United States today without relatives who are not Jewish. The challenges of the world are no longer just “out there” anymore but increasingly part of many, in some cases most of, Jewish conversations and activities, including in the home. Plus, the claims on Jews of the core viscera of Jewish communal identity and purpose – the Holocaust and Israel – are fraying. Most Jews no longer talk about their Jewishness except in terms of family, nostalgia and tradition. Fewer and fewer Jews are comfortable or engaged by thinking about Jewishness in terms of God or something equivalent that makes demands and speaks to eternal purpose. Liberal Jews are challenged as never before to answer the basic questions – Who are we? What does it matter that we are or that we do Jewish?

    This isn’t the first time that our people have entered into unknown territory. When the Romans destroyed the Biblical template for a Judaism based on connecting to the Sacred by bringing the produce of the land to a central location, we emerged with an Oral Torah and a decentralized rabbinic Judaism. When vast portions of our Eastern European ancestors were looking for spiritual sustenance, we emerged with Hasidism. When our people had the opportunity to leave the European ghettos and become citizens in western Europe, we created Reform and Conservative Judaism. When the European empires began to break up and the forces of nationalism began to rise, we created Zionism.

    Each of these creative and hugely adaptive revolutions in Jewish consciousness gave the Jewish people fundamentally new ways to understand our place in the world, new stories or midrashim to tell, new understandings of our responsibilities, and new beliefs about who we were and what our possibilities could be.

    So much of the current conversation is about how welcoming of inter-marrieds we need to be, how welcoming we actually are, not to mention what it is that we’re welcoming people to.

    When seen in a pluralistic, globalized context, the practicalities of creating welcoming communities for a rapidly growing intermarried Jewish population is evidence of a fundamental challenge not just to the tachlis of welcoming, but to who we Jews think we are, what it means to be Jewish, and whether being Jewish is still serving a sacred purpose that is helping to move humanity forward, as our people has done so many times in the past.

    That’s why I think we need to start asking some additional questions: How does one both develop the competencies of being Jewishly grounded while also embodying and expressing one’s multiple and multi-faceted identities? It’s a given that our Jewish worlds are evolving and changing. So how, in the midst of this creative upheaval, can we help people be more Jewishly fluent while at the same time model to them how to generously host, extend to, be curious about and have expectations of other evolving cultures and faith traditions?

    The next question then becomes: What are the beliefs that will support those competencies? And what kinds of practices express those beliefs?

    That’s why I think it’s time for another creative revolution in Jewish consciousness, grounded in a freshly articulated midrashic initiative, built on, for starters:

    • Abraham and Sarah’s 4-doored tent and their welcoming expertise,
    • Jacob’s blessing of his mixed heritage grandchildren, saying to them, “Through you shall all Israel be blessed,”
    • Moses’ non-Jewish wife, Tzipporah, enabling the Exodus to proceed by circumcising her son,
    • the presence of non-Jews (the mixed multitude) at that most Jewish of all events – the Exodus from Egypt.
    • the Torah itself was revealed through Moses, an inter-married Israelite, who was raised in an Egyptian household*

    When the Jewish stories that we share and teach more accurately reflect and respond to the complex both/and lives that we are living, then, it will no longer be a question of welcoming or outreach. Then, I believe we’ll be witnessing, once again, a creative unfolding of Jewish peoplehood.

    Rabbi Brian Field
    Judaism Your Way
    Denver, Colorado

  9. says

    Dr. Cohen’s research confirms what I have seen over the last ten years of working in the field of Jewish outreach with interfaith couples, Jews and non-Jews exploring and entering Jewish Life.

    Statistically, as one of the most educated demographics in the country, Jews are accustomed to feeling knowledgeable, confident and competent in so many areas of life. It would also follow that such a person would choose another worldly educated person (Jewish or not) as a life partner. Walk into a synagogue or many Jewish ritual circumstances and often this feeling of confidence and competence changes for the average (Hebrew School educated) Jew and their partner who has even less exposure to things Jewish. This is an unusual and uncomfortable situation from which it would be natural to retreat.

    I and a few of my colleagues around the country have established Pluralistic Jewish Engagement organizations exactly to meet people where they are at. Mine is Thresholds: for the Jewishly Curious in the Northern New Jersey/NY area. Welcoming and open, yes. But more than that, we educate in a personal, supportive, practical and spiritually compelling way without pre-conceived ideas of where people should go or be. We translate Jewish ideas and the Jewish experience into a language and experience they understand and are often yearning to deepen. Outside of but in partnership with the established institutions of our communities, we offer a safe and neutral place to learn and grow Jewishly.

    I’m encouraged to see that the latest research supports the visions of my rabbinic colleagues and me who have struck out of the established institutional models to meet the needs of the thousands we have encountered and serve, often one person, one couple, one family at a time. I know that my own research has shown that such education and support has a profound and lasting Jewish impact. What is now crucial is that the philanthropic community recognizes the power and realizes the need to support our often grass-root mission and movement.

    Rabbi Leana Moritt
    Thresholds: For the Jewishly Curious
    Tenafly, New Jersey