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The Many Dangers of Looking at Intermarriage Through a Pair of Rose-Colored Glasses
Not many years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that intermarriage constitutes a significant threat to Jewish continuity. For individual families, we understood that more often than not, the children of the intermarried would be raised as non-Jews.
And since intermarrying Jews have fewer children -- and because most of their children won't identify as Jews -- intermarriage implied fewer Jews in the next generation.
The community responded admirably, albeit inadequately, to this challenge. For many good reasons, it expanded funding for day schools and trips to Israel. Synagogues and JCCs became more welcoming and accepting of intermarried families. It supported a variety of "Jewish outreach" efforts aimed at bringing families closer to Jews and Judaism by teaching Jewish practices and values. In contrast, "interfaith outreach" seeks to make all mixed-married couples feel more accepted, even when they choose to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays in the same household.
Jewish identities today are more varied, fluid and mobile than ever. But with this said, we need to recognize that as a group, intermarried Jews are far less active in Jewish life -- however you measure it -- than in-married Jews. The large gaps cover number of Jewish friends, raising one's kids as Jews, belonging to synagogues and JCCs, living with Jewish neighbors, attending worship services, celebrating Jewish holidays, giving one's children a Jewish education, caring about Israel, giving to Jewish causes and their own assessment of the importance of being Jewish.
Every time we hear of an intermarried child who maintains an active Jewish life, we must remember that the more Jewishly engaged -- people reading this column, for example -- raise children with the best chances of maintaining Jewish continuity, even when they out-marry. Thus, some Jewishly engaged parents assume that the wonderful experiences of their Jewishly committed intermarried children must be a sign that we're "winning the battle." In reality, most intermarried Jews come from weak Jewish educational backgrounds, often with only one Jewish parent.
Some outreach advocates say intermarriage is a fact, feeding the fatalistic view that there's nothing that can be done to influence the rate. Yet there's much that is being done to affect the rate.
The Steinhardt Foundation/Jewish Life Network published my study, A Tale of Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews, to refute the wishful thinking and false optimism that has grown up around the intermarriage question (see www.jewishlife.org).
It simply reminds us that intermarriage continues to grow in number; that most intermarried couples raise non-Jewish children; and that the children of the intermarried overwhelmingly marry non-Jews.
However, Jewish education -- i.e., day schools, youth groups, Jewish camps, Israel trips -- lowers intermarriage. So does Jewish association, such as the experience of living in areas with Jewish neighbors, attending schools with large Jewish student bodies, and participating in Jewish cultural events, spiritual communities and social-justice activities.
I also highlight the growing conviction that we have to do better at promoting conversion -- in fact, making conversion the ultimate objective of outreach efforts.
A Tale of Two Jewries was meant for the Jewish policymaking community -- the philanthropists, those who advise them, the federations and other agencies that are making critical funding decisions. It says intermarriage poses a grave threat to the numbers of communally identifying Jews. But it also says that you can make a difference. You can invest in Jewish education. You can efforts by Jewish young people in social justice, culture and spiritual communities.
Or you can watch the Jewish population start to contract as my generation of baby-boomers begins leaving this world for the next, to be replaced -- or not -- by a numerically much smaller cohort of Jewish descendants.
The choice is yours.
Steven M. Cohen is a professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.