The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (Brandeis University) has released findings from a qualitative study conducted for Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP) that describes some of the experiences and perspectives of the burgeoning population of interfaith couples in CJP’s catchment communities and focuses in particular on households with little involvement in home-based or communal Jewish life.
Thirty-two couples (each couple with one Jewish partner and a partner from a different religious background) were interviewed. Eligible couples either did not have children or had no children older than age eight.
For Most Couples Religion Has Limited Salience. Many of the Jewish partners interviewed described themselves as “cultural” Jews. The religious aspects of Judaism, ritual, text and mitzvot, were, at best, peripherally salient to their lives. Many of the non-Jewish partners interviewed also did not think of themselves as connected to a religious identity. Some grew up with little or no history of religious engagement or education. Like their Jewish partners, the childhood memories of many non-Jewish partners revolved around family and home celebrations of major holidays with limited reference to the theological underpinnings of these events.
What is Relevant to Couples is Tied to Their Stage of Development. Just as there are stages in the development of individual identity, there are also phases in the life of a couple, each of which involves navigating unique challenges and areas of growth and change. Our interviews with couples suggested four stages in the development of young couples: moving toward marriage/commitment, newly committed/married, new parents, and parents of young children. Interfaith couples seek ideas, content, and role models that are relevant to their current stage of family development.
Interfaith Couples Are Looking for Community, Not Membership. Many of the young couples we spoke with were looking for peers with whom they could feel a sense of community. Living at a distance from their families of origin, they were often keenly aware that they would like to have a stronger network of relationships that can be supportive in times of need. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish partners often mentioned that the strong sense of community among Jews was one of the most attractive features of Jewish living.
Authentic Welcoming is Necessary. In some cases, despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community. Some couples recounted being regularly welcomed when they attended activities at a synagogue but never really progressing to feel like they belonged in the community.
Denomination Matters (Sometimes). In most cases, the desire to affiliate with a particular denomination was related to the Jewish partner’s relationship to his/her larger extended family and the desire to find a congregation that would meet the ritual requirements of parents and siblings. Some Jewish partners wanted their children to have the same informal Jewish educational experiences they had growing up and this was related to movement-specific camps and youth groups. Couples were also aware that some liberal denominations were more accepting of intermarried couples and expressed preference for synagogues affiliated with these movements.
The complete report, “We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Get to It,” is available for download.