The debate over the impact of intermarriage on the future of the American Jewish community frequently returns to one question: does outreach to the intermarried work? What do we really know about the long-term effects of outreach to the intermarried? To date, most of what we know about intermarried families comes from large, general population studies such as the National Jewish Population Study and the more recent study by the Pew Research Center. While both are extremely valuable in understanding overall patters of Jewish engagement, there are little data on the effects of specific programmatic interventions.
Over the past nine years, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) has been implementing The Mothers Circle, which serves mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage or interpartnership. The program combines basic Jewish education through the lens of parenting with exposure to Jewish communal resources and a supportive network of other women in a similar family structure. Graduates of the program say that creating this warm and nonjudgmental space in which to explore the various challenges of raising children in a religion with which they are unfamiliar was among the most impactful elements of this program.
To date, The Mothers Circle has been offered in over 150 communities across North America through a variety of events and programs, and has graduated over 1,700 mothers from its intensive, 8-month (16-session) educational course. JOI’s latest study looks at the extent to which The Mothers Circle full course has helped participants take the journey toward greater Jewish engagement, creating Jewish homes, and raising Jewish children. Data were collected from 148 alumnae who have completed the course some time in the last seven years.
The study found that even five or more years after completing the program, these mothers are engaged in Jewish life and affiliated with Jewish institutions at levels similar or higher than that of the general Jewish population. For example, while 54% of respondents were synagogue members when they took the course, 75% are synagogue members now (compared to a 31% synagogue membership in the general Jewish population). The study notes that while this high rate of synagogue affiliation partially reflects the natural life cycle of Jewish families (there is an expected increase in institutional affiliation as children mature and enter school age) the increase in synagogue membership is significant even when the maturation of children is controlled for.
The Jewish engagement of these mothers extends beyond synagogue membership. On a range of Jewish engagement measures (from attending Jewish cultural events, to volunteering for Jewish causes, to having conversations on Jewish topics with friends and family) these mothers engage at levels similar to or higher than those of the overall Jewish population. Furthermore, the survey respondents report that their engagement with the Jewish community has increased since the conclusion of the course. One third of the respondents say that they are “much more engaged” with their local Jewish community as compared to when they took the course; another third say they are “slightly more engaged.”
For many, this higher engagement translates into leadership roles in their institutions. Nearly one fourth (24%) of the respondents are volunteer leaders in their congregation. Moreover, it’s not only the mothers’ engagement that has increased, but the participants’ Jewish spouses have also increased their engagement levels with the local Jewish community. Forty-three percent of the respondents say that their spouses’ connection to their Jewish heritage has become stronger as a result of their participation in the course.
The respondents’ children, too, experience increased levels of participation in the organized Jewish community following the course. Nine in ten (87%) survey respondents provide Jewish education to their children (66% did when they took the course). And the Jewish education of their children translates into strong Jewish connections. Respondents report that 91% of their children have Jewish friends, 93% celebrate Jewish holidays at home, and 85% celebrate Jewish holidays in Jewish institutions.
What this study highlights is that by providing populations such as women of other religious backgrounds with the skills and resources needed to engage successfully with Jewish institutions and Jewish life – by better equipping these women to raise Jewish children and create Jewish homes where there otherwise might not have been one – we can increase Jewish engagement of intermarried households and further grow the North American Jewish community. In order to capitalize on the success of The Mothers Circle and to reach new women in different ways, JOI continues to expand its programmatic offering. New programs include, for example, The Mothers Circle Holiday Prep Classes (for the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover) and The Mothers Circle Gathering, an in-home Shabbat experience, which have already served hundreds of mothers, and are expected to grown substantially in the future.
For the full report or to ask questions about “The Long Term Impact of The Mothers Circle,” please contact JOI’s Program Officer for Evaluation Zohar Rotem at [email protected] For more information about Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) please contact JOI Field Staff Manager Amanda Kaletsky at [email protected] or 212-760-1440.