Read Boston Study on Intermarriage With Caution

By Steven M. Cohen, Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller

Published December 08, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.
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The recently released 2005 Boston Community Study reported some seemingly startling findings with potentially powerful implications for the future of American Jews. It reported that 60% of children in intermarried homes are being raised as Jews: “The majority of intermarried households with children are raising those children as Jews. Doing so is near-universal among Jewish women in interfaith relationships and somewhat less so for Jewish men.”

Why is this city different from all other cities, this finding has had many asking. Advocates of outreach have one answer: It’s outreach. The distinguished social scientists who conducted the study offer a more complex view: It’s Jewish education, community-building, exciting opportunities for engagement, and more.

To us, the finding raises another question: Is the rate really 60%? If so, is it, as the report claims, “exceptional” — that is, much higher than elsewhere?

To start, we have some questions about the question, specifically with how interviewers in Boston asked parents about the identities of the children. They used a question rarely, if ever, used, especially without a series of answer categories read to the respondent: “In what religion is the [child] being raised?”, instructing the interviewer to “Allow multiple responses.” No specific prompts followed; not for several religions, not for “Jewish and something else,” and not for “haven’t decided yet.”

By contrast, most other studies have used formats similar to that used by Ukeles Associates in the New York Jewish Community Study. In New York, interviewers asked, “Is this child being raised… Jewish, Jewish and something else, not being raised Jewish, have not decided yet if the child will be raised Jewish?”

The way the Boston question is worded, people who are raising their children as Jewish and something else have no explicit option for their answer. They may be subtly dissuaded from doing so, instead saying just “Judaism.” In Boston, but not elsewhere, such parents needed to step up and volunteer a second religion for their child. In Boston, only 4% of intermarried Jewish parents named two religions, or what other studies call “Jewish and something else.”

At least 29 other American-based population studies conducted since 1993 also report rates for children in intermarried households raised as Jewish and something else. They range from 6% (Seattle) to 33% (Minneapolis), with a median of 15%. Boston’s 4% figure ranks last: 30th out of 30.

Question wording may have produced this exceptional result, and may have inflated the Jewish-only responses. The researchers forthrightly noted, “In part, the Boston rate reflects the fact that far fewer respondents report children being raised in Judaism and some other religion.”

Two studies in Miami, conducted 10 years apart, provide an interesting test of the theory that wording matters when asking intermarried Jewish parents about their children. In 1994, the Miami study offered no explicit option for a Jewish-plus-something answer, and found that 65% of intermarried couples’ children were being raised as Jews. In contrast, the Miami survey of 2004 explicitly included the Jewish-plus option and found this split in the answers for the children: 42% were Jews-only, and 22% were “part Jewish.” Intriguingly, 42% plus 22% comes very close to 65%. No, it’s not proof that the question matters; but it is strong evidence.

Even if, for the moment, we accept the 60% figure, we may still ask whether the Boston rate of children being raised Jewish in intermarried households is unusually high. The Boston study compared itself to the rates in New York (30%), Pittsburgh (36%), and the country as a whole (33%-39%). The researchers assert, “The estimated proportion of children being raised Jewish in Boston is substantially higher than that reported nationally or in other local community studies.”

But we also have other studies, some of which, as early as the mid-1990s, reported rates similar to those now reported in Boston. Among them are Cleveland (66%), St. Louis (65%) and Miami in 1994 (65%). Significantly, these three cities’ studies also failed to offer a “Jewish and something else” option. Of studies providing the explicit Jewish and something else option, we have Baltimore (62% for children raised as Jewish only, and another 20% saying “Jewish and something else”); Bergen County, N.J. (59%, and 8% respectively); and Hartford (59% and 15%).

Thus, Boston’s report of 60% sits on the high end of the spectrum of individual city studies, but it is far from an isolated case. At the same time, we need to recall that across the nation (and in Canada, according to the Canadian government census) only a third of the children of the intermarried are being raised exclusively as Jews. Insofar as Boston’s rate is indeed in the high range, how are we to explain the finding? Can we indeed attribute the Boston difference primarily to targeting intermarried families?

Anyone familiar with Jewish life in the United States recognizes that Boston’s Jewish community is special. Boston is blessed with Brandeis, a great university under Jewish auspice with a superb Jewish studies faculty and social science research facility. It boasts a highly developed Hebrew College, an extraordinary community relations council, a prestigious Jewish Community Center, and very impressive synagogue communities.

Over the years, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the local federation, has made unusually prodigious investments in Jewish education of all sorts and has developed a remarkable relationship with Israel. To explain their finding, Leonard Saxe, Charles Kadushin and Benjamin Phillips, the first-rate researchers at Brandeis who conducted the study, cite Jewish Boston’s “high rates of engagement… a broad range of Jewish institutions… [and a] noteworthy… network of synagogues, community centers and higher education programs.” They conclude, “It is not just that Boston is ‘welcoming’ to diverse families; it is that it has created exciting opportunities for engagement.”

Saxe and colleagues are right. Systematic studies have repeatedly shown that Jewish education and community engagement promote in-marriage. They also increase rates of conversion of born-non-Jewish spouses. In the event of intermarriage, they increase the likelihood of raising children as Jews. Committed Jewish spouses come into mixed marriages with a better chance of seeing their spouses convert and raising their children as Jews.

So while the Boston finding may be perfectly accurate, the question’s wording suggests a real figure lower than the 60% the study reports. Whatever the number, one thing is certain: In light of the other studies of some strong, veteran Jewish communities, the Boston number is, at best, not “exceptional,” but rather at the high end of a familiar range.

As such, it makes no instrumental case for outreach. It does, however, reinforce the effectiveness of life-long Jewish education as a strategy that makes a difference, a finding emphasized by the Boston study’s authors, as well as by the findings of many studies conducted by us and others.

Certainly, Boston, Boston’s Jews and Boston’s Jewish community are all exceptional. But the finding regarding the child-rearing patterns of intermarried couples is not.

Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Jack Ukeles is president of Ukeles Associates, Inc., a New York-based policy research, planning and management consulting firm. Ron Miller is research director of Ukeles Associates, Inc., and associate director of the North American Jewish Data Bank.

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