Beyond Gee-Whiz Figures in Population Study

Reform and Conservative Still Split on Intermarriage, Ritual

Reform Bridge: A recent study of New York Jewry found an enduring gap between Reform and Conservative Jews on matters like intermarriage and adherence to ritual.
Reform Bridge: A recent study of New York Jewry found an enduring gap between Reform and Conservative Jews on matters like intermarriage and adherence to ritual.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 24, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
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They used to talk to each other constantly and cooperate on most issues. Now they mostly shout. How badly the dialogue has deteriorated into partisan bickering can be seen in some of the reactions to the New York survey, with liberals and conservatives alike pointing to the likely decline of Democratic voting power as the most important takeaway. You’d think Jewish life had value beyond its contribution to the Democratic and Republican party machines.

One of the survey’s less-noticed surprises is the continuing difference between Conservative and Reform Jews. It’s a surprise because conventional wisdom says the denominations have lost their meaning. Supposedly, they’re meeting in the middle as Reform Judaism becomes more traditional and Conservative Judaism is no longer defined by rabbinic law. If that’s so, the message hasn’t gotten out to the pews. The survey asked respondents about a wide range of Jewish attitudes and practices, from regular synagogue attendance to fasting on Yom Kippur, participating in Sabbath dinners, visiting Jewish websites, frequenting Jewish museums or cultural events, discussing Jewish topics with friends and much more. On virtually every measure, including rates of intermarriage, Conservative Jews outscore Reform Jews by 10 to 15 points or more, putting them midway between Reform and Orthodox, as they’ve been historically.

Reform Jews, said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, “are a more assimilated group.” Where Reform Judaism plays a crucial role is in providing an avenue for engagement of interfaith families. A quarter-century after voting to recognize patrilineal descent and reach out vigorously to the intermarried, “a whole generation of children has grown up in our congregations,” Freelander said. “And the Jewish behaviors of those families and children who went through those religious experiences are indistinguishable from those with two Jewish parents.”

The New York survey actually shows a slight gap in Jewish practices and attitudes between in-married and intermarried congregants, but intermarried congregants still outscore unaffiliated in-marrieds on most measures by hefty margins. “We see this as a success story,” Freelander said.

The question is whether intermarried families can be convinced in larger numbers to join synagogues and give their children those experiences. Nationwide it’s still a minority. A few cities have had significant success, though. None has done better than Boston, where the local Jewish federation spends heavily to work with intermarried families in their homes. The result: Close to two-thirds of intermarried families say they’re raising their kids Jewish. A few other cities have had similar results. Is it just a numbers game? Not at all. If half of all intermarried families raise their children Jewish, the Jewish community breaks even. Every family above 50% is a net gain for the Jewish future.

Ultimately, the more diverse experiences that are brought into the Jewish community, from interfaith families to Conservative Jews to Hasidim, the richer and more vibrant American Judaism will be. And as Judaism is enriched, so will it enrich America. As God said to Abraham, “Through you the families of the land will be blessed.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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