by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Edmund Case
Last month, as reprinted here on eJewishPhilanthropy.com, the Forward reported on a new study that found, as the article’s headline proclaimed, “it’s not a lack of welcoming that’s keeping the intermarrieds away.” The study, by Dr. Steven M. Cohen, was actually about engaging Midwestern children in Jewish summer camps, but Dr. Cohen took the opportunity to offer a new thesis, that the Jewish community is sufficiently welcoming toward intermarried families and therefore the work of outreach organizations is misguided.
We at the Jewish Outreach Institute and InterfaithFamily.com find it ironic that after working so hard to create a more welcoming community despite the hindrance of literally decades of policy papers from Dr. Cohen discouraging communal support for outreach, he is now recommending we declare victory and go home.
We challenge Dr. Cohen’s methodology of basing a whole new “thesis” on the response to just one question in his survey, and a theoretical question at that: “To what extent would you feel comfortable in the following situations? … attending services in an Orthodox synagogue; attending services in a Conservative synagogue; attending services in a Reform temple; attending services where they use a lot of Hebrew.”
He found that only 17% of interfaith families said they would “probably not” or “definitely not” feel comfortable attending services in an Orthodox synagogue (lower for other denominations), and based on that deemed intermarried families “no more unwelcome, uncomfortable, or excluded than the in-married.” He then found that 28% of the same people would not feel comfortable attending services that “use a lot of Hebrew,” and declared the real issue competency not welcoming.
These “findings” are problematic on multiple levels. First, we wonder how many of the survey respondents (intermarried or in-married) have ever actually stepped foot inside an Orthodox synagogue. So the 17% is based on a hypothetical, and even when applied to Reform synagogues (9%), the question does not ask about their real-world experiences. More importantly, once the question does ask about something they might have actually experienced while attending services – “a lot of Hebrew” – their discomfort rises to more than 1 in 4 intermarried respondents.
No additional questions on synagogue experiences were asked, nor were respondents simply asked “How welcoming is the Jewish community?” because this study wasn’t about how welcoming the community is; it was about how to entice more families into Jewish summer camps. We are saddened that the real focus of the news was lost, which is that the Foundation for Jewish Camp has undertaken a massive effort to help overnight camps welcome and engage more children of intermarried families.
We also disagree with the false dichotomy Dr. Cohen creates by separating out the “competency barrier” for interfaith families from the way they are welcomed into the community. He defines “welcoming” by its most surface-level meaning, “making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers,” and claims that those tactics alone will not be effective in engaging more intermarried families. But nobody in the outreach community has ever said “all that’s needed is open arms.” There has always been much more to it.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of all outreach programming we know of, including our own, are educational in nature, working to address the knowledge barrier as well as other barriers that intermarried families face to deeper Jewish involvement. The Reform movement could not have welcomed in so many interfaith families – while at the same time increasing the entire movement’s ritual practices – without educational programs like “Intro to Judaism.”
Just as important as education is policy change. It’s hard to imagine how many more intermarried families would have been lost to the community had the Reform and Reconstructionist movements not made a place in the tent for Jews of patrilineal descent. We still must work with the community for other policy changes, for example on issues of burial or membership, which can make the community even more welcoming.
We were, however, heartened by Dr. Cohen’s more nuanced breakdown of interfaith families, for which we’ve long lobbied and now applaud. Rather than lumping all the intermarried together regardless of their communal connections as in studies past, he grouped them by factors such as commitment to raising Jewish children and found that, “if you want to predict whether a family will send their child to a Jewish camp, you’re better off knowing about how involved they and their children are in Jewish life. Once you know that, it won’t help much, if at all, to learn whether they happen to be an in-married or mixed married family.”
There is still work to be done to get more intermarried families to that place. Yes, we clearly have a friendlier Jewish community today toward the intermarried than in 2000, and exponentially more than in 1990. Yet we continue to hear daily from intermarried families who experience challenges navigating entry into the community, and from Jewish communal professionals who know that their organizations can do better at welcoming newcomers – and not just the intermarried but all who would enter.