Lower Barriers or Increase Meaning? A False Dichotomy for Interfaith Outreach

In my 15 years experience in Jewish engagement, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of intermarried households are mostly comfortable with their lives and decisions. If they are looking for anything Jewish at all, it’s for programs of meaning that might augment their life rather than overturn it.

by Paul Golin

Harold Berman has done a yeoman’s job promoting his book throughout the Jewish media, trying to explain why the liberal Jewish community’s approach to intermarriage is wrong – even though his own intermarried family’s Jewish journey was initially fostered by that very community.

“I know what’s wrong because I was once one of those people” may be a unique angle for publishers – but it’s not helpful if it only regurgitates specious misinformation that has already been dispelled. His most recent piece demonstrates confusion on four major points that engagement professionals must understand:

1. Outreach is not just about welcoming

According to Berman, advocates of outreach to the intermarried insist that “any lack of engagement on the part of the intermarried is due simply to the Jewish community not being welcome enough.” Later he elaborates, “We talk about welcoming and open tents and removing barriers while barely discussing just what it is we are welcoming people into….”

We’ve heard this before and it is simply false. My organization offers a program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children called The Mothers Circle. Over 2,000 women to date have participated in this 16-session course. (Many others have participated in shorter Mothers Circle offerings.)

What does Berman think is happening for eight months in The Mothers Circle? Are women just coming together to say, “Welcome! Welcome! Do you feel welcome? I feel welcome!”

Years ago my wife and I took the 92nd Street Y’s longstanding Derekh Torah program, a powerful experience that has stayed with us. Similar programs, such as the Reform movement’s Intro to Judaism course and the Stepping Stones program in Denver likewise positively impact their participants.

Of course, outreach offerings can always be improved. But I’d put any of these liberal Jewish communal offerings against the Orthodox outreach organizations Berman cites, confident that they reach many more intermarried couples and are as good, if not better, at providing a skill-set and solidifying commitment to creating meaningful Jewish households.

2. We do not have to choose between lowering barriers and deepening meaning

Berman claims that more intermarried families would be like his – conversion, Orthodoxy, aliyah – “but only if we take a different approach, one that focuses less on ‘removing barriers’ and more on transforming lives….” He cites Chabad as providing “meaningful yet accessible programming for the entire Jewish community,” but that disproves his own theory: Chabadniks are masters of removing barriers!

Decades ago Chabad recognized what many in the larger Jewish community have now come to realize: if Jews are not walking through the doors of Jewish institutions, we should go to them, because you can’t provide meaning to an empty room. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) we’ve refined what we call Public Space Judaism, we’ve been successfully evangelizing it for over a decade, and we’ve trained hundreds of Jewish communal professionals on our methodology. Chabad has also shattered many other barriers to participation in Jewish life, like the pay-to-pray model for the High Holidays.

To suggest that Chabad’s outreach is only about depth and meaning, while liberal outreach is only about lowering barriers, is absurd. It is a false dichotomy to propose we have to choose. We can do both. We need to do both. Lowering barriers will enable more people to access our programs, even as we work to infuse those programs with greater meaning.

3. Intermarriage is not the cause of liberal Judaism’s meaning crisisand Orthodoxy is not its answer

If Berman and I have common ground, it’s that the Jewish community can do a better job explaining the benefits and meaningfulness of participation – to all Jews, not just intermarried households.

But intermarriage is not the driving force behind declining engagement in liberal Jewish institutions. Broader societal forces – multiculturalism, acceptance of Jews/declining anti-Semitism, the marketplace of religious ideas, increasing secularity among all Americans, “bowling alone,” etc. – drive both the intermarriage trend and the decline in institutional membership.

At JOI we say that the question our community must help 21st Century Jews answer is: “Why be Jewish?” (Or for partners from other backgrounds: “Why raise Jewish children?”) When I consult with organizations or train those in our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program, I often ask what explicit messages they transmit about how their offerings benefit participants – and, more often than not, I’m met with silence.

Much as physicists couldn’t understand the mass of subatomic particles until discovering the larger forces of the Higgs field those particles operate in (seriously, it’s fascinating), liberal Judaism can’t address its crises until it understands the larger social context. Only then can we more meaningfully address those trends in the liberal tradition.

Berman is wrong to imply that this isn’t at all being addressed in liberal Judaism. Literally hundreds of creative and energized Jewish communal professionals in dozens of major organizations are working on “engagement,” and its requisite exploration of meaning.

But there is much work left to do. We must create many more avenues of Jewish expression than are currently available – and actively welcome everyone, regardless of background. The world has experienced a sea-change in recent decades. At best, liberal Judaism is half-stepping into the future – and, at worst, it clings to programs and models from the 1950s hoping things will somehow revert. There are truly fascinating things happening in liberal Judaism today (I loved Sukkah City, for example), but we need to expand and better promote them.

Berman tacitly admits that what he’s advocating isn’t ultimately about the intermarried at all, calling for “less [focus] on creating special programming for interfaith families and more on simply creating meaningful yet accessible programming for the entire Jewish community that will attract and inspire inmarried and intermarried alike.” In other words  – given the examples he cites – more Orthodoxy.

Orthodox Judaism is certainly a powerful answer to those societal trends, in that it rejects many aspects of those trends. If you find meaning in that, G-d bless you. I have yet to meet the Jew (intermarried or otherwise) who isn’t aware that Orthodoxy is an option. And I have yet to meet the non-Jewish partner who isn’t aware that Orthodox conversion is an option. Identifying those options among the full gamut of Jewish life is something I believe most outreach workers already do for interfaith couples; promoting only those options, to all Jews, is what I sense is being encouraged in Harold Berman’s advocacy.

In my 15 years experience in Jewish engagement, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of intermarried households are mostly comfortable with their lives and decisions. If they are looking for anything Jewish at all, it’s for programs of meaning that might augment their life rather than overturn it. If we are to be successful, it will be by providing programs that fill that need.

4. Intermarriage demographics show a positive turning tide

“But will their grandchildren be Jewish!” is a common smear leveled at Jewish intermarried families (and liberal Judaism in general). Berman repeats it, claiming, “According to some studies… as few as 4% [of the children of intermarriage] raise their own children as Jews.”

This statistic is decades-old and particularly deceptive because it measures the grandchildren of intermarriages that took place in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, before the rise in intermarriage, before any outreach efforts – when social realities that no longer exist meant intermarriage was always “marrying out.” I defy any sociologist to go on record claiming the 4% rate is holding steady today.

Looking at more relevant recent data, the phenomenal reality about intermarried families raising Jewish children emerges. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) found only 18% of intermarried households were raising their children “just Jewish.” Only 10 years later, despite many more intermarried households, the 2001 NJPS found that rate had increased to 33%! And more than 50% included some form of Judaism in their children’s identity. While there hasn’t been another NJPS, several studies in major Jewish communities (San Francisco, 2004; Boston, 2005; Chicago, 2010) confirm this growing trend.

If any other statistic increased this rapidly, we’d say it was “skyrocketing.” If it was the result of just one program, or funded by a handful of mega-donors, we’d praise it as the greatest success since Birthright Israel. The continuing ambivalence (at best) of so many Jewish communal leaders toward intermarriage is so ingrained that few are even aware of this trend, let alone celebrating it. If there is a response at all, it is that most odious and divisive question Jews continue to hurl at one another: “Yes but how Jewish are they?”

I’m concerned that Berman doesn’t see intermarried households as Jewish at all. Of all his false dichotomies, the most hurtful to me personally is the way he sets up “intermarried” and “Jewish” as opposites, in phrases like “going from intermarried to Jewish” and “an intermarriage gone Jewish.” Really, Berman’s only answer to intermarried families is this: Stop being intermarried; become “Jewish,” i.e., convert to Orthodoxy.

I understand why this would be the position from the Orthodox world, but what a sad turn of events if it would be if otherwise liberal sources held it up as a model.

Paul Golin (@PaulGolin) is associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.