The Communal Response to Intermarriage: A Time to Reflect, A Time to Resolve

mixed-family By Edmund Case

As the new year approaches, I’m cleaning out my office (I’m a replaced CEO, now a consultant after hiring a terrific successor for InterfaithFamily), sorting through twenty years’ worth of papers and repeatedly reminded that the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage has differed vastly from its response to all other issues. At a time at a time of self- and communal- reflection and resolution-making, I’m asking why that is so, and whether this might finally be the year that a massive, coordinated effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community begins.

I. The Communal Response to Intermarriage Is Different

The Jewish community is filled with talented, committed, and philanthropic leaders of organizations and funders. When there has been leadership and collaboration, the response to issues has been massive and near-universal. I’m thinking of the recent announcement that the Schusterman and Jim Joseph foundations will give $28.8 million over five years to BBYO; that it’s hard to find a community, federation or organization that is not actively addressing disability inclusion or teen engagement; about investments in day schools, PJ Library, summer camps, Hillel, Birthright Israel – all important, deserving efforts.

But no similarly massive, concerted response to intermarriage has been made.

Not that there haven’t been calls to action from respected places. In my clean-up I found a 1994 report of a Council of Jewish Federations task force that said, in response to the near-50% intermarriage rate in the 1990 NJPS, “The Jewish community has no choice [but] to respond with a broadened array of opportunities to engage the intermarried in communal life and community services,” and “With Federation leadership, services to the intermarried can be part of a total communal effort rather than just one of an individual organization.”

I found a speech for a 2005 JOI conference by Michael Rukin, z”l, a senior leader of CJP, Hillel and HIAS, who wrote that programmatic allocations since the 1990 NJPS showed that any call for more extensive outreach had been lost to programs that followed a strategy to “infuse the core Jews with greater knowledge, affiliation and commitment and the rest will follow.” “Fifteen years later, … the demographics of affiliation and intermarriage have not changed.” Rukin called for a “massive investment in creative programs of outreach to these families and their children,” “a significant change in the language (both verbal and on-verbal) towards” them, “a broad base of institutions working together,” “a major commitment from the federation system to infuse their agencies with a thrust of creative outreach programs,” a “renewed commitment from the religious movements,” and “the continued prodding of inspired philanthropists… with a rollout plan to massive numbers… [and] budget, way beyond the minuscule amounts currently available.”

The closest we ever came to following these recommendations was a 2008 Interfaith Initiative Funding Proposal, put together by a consortium of major foundations. Citing a “critical moment in the history of modern day Jewry,” the consortium said the “vibrancy, size and strength of the Jewish people” depended upon “a powerful new vision that empowers and enables the Jewish community to better serve” the “rapidly expanding population” of interfaith families with children. The proposal called for $7.5 million over three years to create a national entity, a “state of the art web site” (an enhanced www.interfaithfamily.com), and an array of integrated programs and services, targeted to interfaith families with children, in three pilot communities.

The consortium’s proposal wasn’t funded because of Madoff and a financial downturn. But I’ve never understood why, in the eight years since, that proposal, or something like it, wasn’t revived or redesigned, and then implemented by some new coalition of funders.

II. Why the Difference?

Why haven’t there been massive, concerted efforts to engage interfaith families? Some cite limited resources and competing priorities and not fitting with their strategies. But can anyone who wants to see more people more Jewishly engaged in any activity – learning, social justice, spirituality – question whether getting interfaith couples and families involved is essential to reaching those goals? Interfaith families are where the people we want to be Jewishly engaged are.

Some say we don’t need to address the issue explicitly, or offer targeted programs; if we build up pre-schools and camps and teen and college programs etc., those will capture enough interfaith families. But the leaders of those programs (including PJ Library and Birthright Israel) say that interfaith families and their children are their growth markets, and they aren’t satisfied with the numbers they’re reaching. One thing I learned over the last twenty years is that engaging interfaith families is a continuum that for many starts with addressing issues as they are dating and getting married; services and programs targeted at interfaith couples and families will result in many more of them getting involved later.

Some measure success by attracting large numbers of participants, and say that interfaith family engagement programs don’t. Another thing I’ve learned: engaging interfaith families depends largely on one-on-one or small group work with trained staff, or volunteers trained by staff, that don’t reach large numbers; interfaith family engagement work makes one Jewish family at a time, or at best, small groups of them. Another thing: “interfaithness” is a salient characteristic for interfaith couples during transitional, life cycle times but not all of the time. That makes it difficult to put on big-number programs; even at holiday times, interfaith couples may not want to be together with others like themselves the way that LGBT people and Jews of color might.

Some say that staff-driven relationship building is too expensive. But other well-funded programmatic interventions are staff-driven and expensive, and there is no reason to believe that the cost-per-participant-per-benefit is significantly higher for efforts to engage interfaith families.

Some say they’d like to support or take action to engage interfaith families but don’t know what works. In fact, this isn’t rocket science. There’s been remarkable consensus, from the 1994 CJF task force report, through the Interfaith Initiative Funding Proposal, to today: interfaith couples need easy access to information, explicitly welcoming messages and experiences, and services and programs to help them while dating and getting married and to find community with other Jewishly-engaged interfaith couples at the outset of their journeys.

Some say that evaluation of interfaith family engagement programs is insufficient without random sample, control group research like there is for Birthright Israel. But steadily increasing numbers of the best feasible evaluations show that interfaith family engagement programs achieve their desired outcomes. Other areas of Jewish life haven’t had to wait for gold standard proof of program effectiveness. Where information was inadequate, significant research was funded, with a commitment to then fund the directions indicated by the research. Why hold efforts to engage interfaith families to higher standards?

III. What’s Needed for Change

I believe that what makes the response to intermarriage different is continuing negative attitudes. Back in 1994, the CJF task force said that “Some significant changes may need to occur in both staff attitudes and approaches at every level in Federation and community agencies and organizations” to treat “intermarried families with sensitivity and respect.” Not nearly enough change has occurred.

The traditional community in the US, let alone in Israel, sees any effort to engage interfaith families as intolerable promotion of intermarriage. Too many leaders still think we should discourage and can prevent intermarriage. Some think Birthright Israel, with fewer trip participants intermarrying than non-participants, is the antidote. It’s wonderful when young Jews marry other Jews, but as I’ve said before, sending everyone on Birthright is not sufficient: many people already have aged out of Birthright, and significant percentages of trip participants still intermarry.

The liberal Jewish community isn’t exempt from deep-seated negative attitudes. Some horror stories from the past few years: the active synagogue member, Harvard Business School grad, not herself Jewish, hearing someone at her synagogue say “we Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying;” the interfaith couple who reported, in a federation’s survey, that they were trying out services at a synagogue where someone said “maybe you people would be more comfortable somewhere else.”

Some think that negative attitudes among Jews about intermarriage will lessen over time because today’s young adults don’t think that way. I question how fast that will happen, given studies reporting college students questioning the Jewishness of other students.

In InterfaithFamily’s recent evaluations, some professionals have said that their lay leadership is “behind” in understanding the importance of welcoming interfaith families. But when rabbis say they can’t or won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, the Jewish stamp of disapproval on the relationship is unavoidable.

In the Hornstein Program I learned from Ron Heifitz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers that leaders move people to adapt their attitudes; the prime example was Lyndon Johnson who ironically, given his background, led Americans to give up their opposition to civil rights. Given the fractured nature of the Jewish community, I can’t foresee a single Lyndon Johnson able to move Jews to genuinely embrace interfaith couples.

Perhaps massive concerted action to engage interfaith families hasn’t happened because funders and organizations are consensus-driven. But lack of consensus hasn’t always prevented near-universal action in the liberal Jewish community – I’m thinking of the thankfully now widespread efforts to welcome LGBT people.

It may be that what is needed is a group of key leaders who jointly have the capability to lead an adaptation of attitudes in the community – and to fund and take action to engage interfaith families.

I admit to being a glass half-empty person. Over the past twenty years there has been progress, with ups and downs. Individual generous funders have led the way and enabled impactful efforts to engage interfaith families to occur. The InterfaithFamily/Your Community model with two full-time staff including a rabbi is now in place in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC. Cleveland has an affiliate with a full-time rabbi on one of its agency’s staffs. Honeymoon Israel is taking growing numbers of interfaith couples on impactful trips to Israel. There is ongoing activity in Boston, New York, Baltimore and elsewhere.

The award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas and the resulting matching challenge grant initiative has stimulated interest among some funders, which the Jewish Funders Network is continuing to address, and other funders are talking. On October 26 the Interfaith Opportunity Summit will bring key foundation and federation leaders together with interfaith family engagement practitioners and other organizational leaders to explore what is needed to engage interfaith families in Jewish life nationally and in local communities.

I am an ever-hopeful person, too. There’s a strong foundation for the massive concerted effort that’s needed, and there’s growing interest and awareness of the importance of the issue. What we need now is resolve – will this be the year?

Edmund Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily, is an independent writer, speaker and consultant.