It doesn't happen often that a pop-cultural milestone like the 20th anniversary of "The Simpsons" dovetails with the release of a new Jewish demographic survey.
But that's exactly what happened when the plot of the Jan. 10 episode revolved around the marriage of a Jew and a Congregationalist, who also happen to be a clown and a princess, respectively.
When the long-running character Krusty the Klown -- aka Herschel Krustofski -- announced that he just couldn't go through with the wedding, the jester's father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, danced under the bimah in celebration of one less intermarriage.
In the end, the couple get together anyway -- as have an increasing number of local Jews who have married in recent years, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia."
While marriages between Jews and non-Jews have been depicted on film and television for decades, the Simpsons sketch, ironically, appeared the same week of the population study, which contains a plethora of data related to intermarriage.
The survey is already reinvigorating a debate about how the Federation, synagogues and other local groups should respond to the challenge of intermarriage, a challenge exacerbated by other demographic realities, such as a steep decline in Jewish children in the area.
In some ways, the figures are helping to frame a discussion that has taken place for as long as two decades: Is it still possible to reverse the trend of intermarriage among the young? If not, what are some of the best ways to ensure that intermarried couples, and their children, remain connected to things Jewish?
The survey found that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.
It also found a wide disparity in the affiliation and participation in Jewish life between inmarried and intermarried families. While 60 percent of endogamous couples reported belonging to a synagogue, the figure was only 9 percent for the intermarried.
In terms of donating to Federation, 58 percent of inmarried couples reported doing so, compared to 6 percent for intermarrieds.
At the same time, children of interfaith families were far less likely to attend Jewish summer camp or travel to Israel, according to the survey.
Philly's Not Immune
The study confirmed, for many, that Philadelphia is catching up to other parts of the country when it comes to intermarriage.
"The reality is that the children from interfaith marriages are participating relatively little in Jewish life," said Ira M. Schwartz, Federation's CEO.
But he also acknowledged that the central funding body for Philadelphia Jewry has devoted relatively few resources to interfaith outreach, though it did allocate to a specific interfaith organization for the first time last year.
Federation provided half the $150,000 budget for InterFaithways, a Philadelphia-area group devoted to making the community more welcoming. Federation's grant focused on an initiative to better equip rabbis to meet the needs of interfaith families.
"It is too early to say, but if I were to bet, I would say that, yes, there would be an increased amount of resources that will go toward this issue," said Schwartz.
First, "we need to take a step back and take a look at what's working," added Schwartz.
Federation staff and the lay leadership of its Center for Jewish Life and Learning are examining initiatives taken in cities across the country. Schwartz said that the assessment will coincide with decisions about Federation's next funding cycle, which are now only in the early stages.
Twenty years ago, when population surveys indicated that the intermarriage rates had spiked, communities around the country focused on preventing intermarriage by encouraging day-school attendance and other identity-building measures.
But during the past decade, attitudes began to change, with more mainstream groups questioning whether it was possible to stem the tide of intermarriage. Instead, many argue that resources were better spent on outreach that could increase the rate at which intermarried families raise their children as Jews.
A 2007 study in Boston garnered attention when it reported that 60 percent of the children of intermarriages were being raised Jewishly. That study was cited by some as validation of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies' heavy programmatic focus on outreach to the intermarried.
Steven Bayme, national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at American Jewish Committee and a critic of increased emphasis on outreach, questioned the Boston survey because it was so out of sync with other studies that found rates of raising Jewish children closer to the Philadelphia findings of 29 percent.
But Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said that the specific statistics aren't as important as what he sees as the undeniable reality that intermarried couples will one day make up the majority of Jewish families.
"What are the choices here?" he asked rhetorically. "We can tell everybody, 'Just say no.' That's not going to work. We are past it already, past the tipping point."
What institutions have to do, he added, is make Jewish spirituality and culture accessible to as many people as possible.
But according to Bayme, those who claim the Jewish community has been unwelcoming have missed the point.
"The Jewish community has been extremely welcoming. The question is, what's the level of interest and commitment among the mixed married toward leading a Jewish life?" he said, asserting that the Jewish establishment has been far too neutral about intermarriage and should be taking a more aggressive stand against it.
Philadelphia currently has only one organization, InterFaithways, devoted exclusively to helping intermarried families navigate the communal waterways. The group's vice president, Rabbi Mayer Selekman, and its executive director, Gari Weilbacher, said that more resources are needed, noting they were pleased that such a discussion has been spurred by the findings of the population study.
Selekman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom in Broomall, said that "there is no question in my mind" that spending more money on outreach has paid significant dividends.
The two also pointed to a specific survey finding -- one that at first glance might cause more alarm than encouragement. While 50 percent of intermarried respondents said that they considered being Jewish very important, only 13 percent considered being part of the local Jewish community very important. (Those numbers were 80 percent and 46 percent for inmarried.)
Instead of showing a lack of interest, those numbers point the way toward a reservoir of families the Jewish establishment hasn't tapped into, asserted Weilbacher.
Selekman said that the discrepancy suggests that Jewish groups may be repelling the very people they're trying to attract.
Forefront of Outreach
A number of Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, Weilbacher said, have been at the forefront of outreach efforts. Some Conservative shuls are starting to catch up, including Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.
Two years ago, the synagogue agreed to take part in Call Synagogue Home, a program sponsored by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute.
Mindy Fortin, a mother of three, who's married to a Catholic man and is a former board member of the synagogue, has overseen those efforts, which have included weekly classes with the rabbi for both Jewish and non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages.
"I understand the panic" over the numbers, she said. But she explained that all the difference in her own spiritual life has resulted from folks in her synagogue not writing her off, but encouraging her to become more involved.
"The biggest mistake is to equate intermarriage with apathy toward Judaism and write off immediately a Jew who has intermarried," she said.
When it comes to engaging these families, she said, "there is no one silver bullet." But, she added, it has to include more than just lip service.
"There is a really a huge difference," she said, "between being welcoming and actually serving" their needs.