A new study has found that a significant majority of the children from intermarried couples in the Boston area are being raised Jewish — one reason for a surprising overall increase in the region’s Jewish population.
The findings from Boston could fuel and shift the long-standing national debates over Jewish demographic trends, a seemingly obscure but perennially divisive topic in Jewish philanthropic and religious circles.
Previous surveys of the national Jewish population have suggested that the community’s population is shrinking — particularly in the northeastern United States. The surveys also have set off much hand wringing over the increasing number of Jews marrying outside the faith, a trend that is generally believed to produce non-Jewish children and thus lead to a decline in the size of the community.
The new survey, however, indicates that in the Boston area 60% of the children of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews, and that the number of people living in Jewish households appears to have increased by 50,000 since 1995.
“The arithmetic of intermarriage is that it takes only one Jew to make a family, where it takes two with in-marriage,” said Leonard Saxe, the Brandeis professor who led the study. “If a majority of the kids are being raised Jewishly, that increases the population.”
The growth of Boston’s Jewish community and its success in attracting the children of intermarried couples is attributed largely to the city’s Jewish charitable federation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The Boston federation, one of the country’s most innovative, has in recent years emphasized programs that welcome interfaith families, but this has been only part of a larger drive to create more welcoming synagogues and communal centers.
“When we compare Boston to other communities, it seems to me that one is seeing one of the healthier Jewish communities in the United States,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. “The question to ask is, why is this so? It obviously has something to do with leadership and the culture of Boston itself.” According to the new survey, 265,000 people live in Boston-area Jewish households. The only places with larger Jewish communities are probably South Florida and the metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Jews make up about 7.2% of Boston’s population, according to the new survey.
The survey is the first community study to be conducted by a new social science research center at Brandeis, which is being groomed as the new national center for Jewish demographic studies. Saxe, head of the new institute, said his team had worked to develop methods for finding Jews who had been left out of past surveys, a fact that may explain partially the higher population figures in the new study.
Saxe said he hopes the recent Boston study will be a test case for how to better survey other Jewish communities, though he said even his team was not able to reach certain groups, such as college students who don’t have telephone landlines. The report estimates that the unreachable groups would add another 19,000 people to the estimated 265,000 living in the area’s Jewish households.
The most controversial findings of Saxe’s study undoubtedly will be those regarding intermarriage. The finding that 60% of the children of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews contrasts with the 30% in New York’s last demographic study, 36% in Pittsburgh’s last study and the 33%-39% in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
The Boston children that are part of that 60% are not just Jews in name, according to the survey. These Jewish children were enrolled in formal Jewish education — the same 92% rate as the children of two Jewish parents. The one difference between the two populations was that the children of intermarried couples appeared to receive Jewish education for a shorter duration.
The survey also unexpectedly found that Jewish women who intermarried were significantly more likely than intermarried Jewish men to raise their children Jewish.
Boston’s Jewish federation has been a national leader in reaching out to intermarried couples. The federation spent $321,000 on interfaith programs last year and has added a line to every mailing that says “Interfaith couples are welcome.”
Jewish Theological Seminary provost Jack Wertheimer and sociologist Steven M. Cohen have attacked this approach. The duo has argued that the Jewish community should focus on encouraging spouses to convert to Judaism rather than welcoming intermarried couples. After looking over the new study, Cohen said he believed that the success in Boston had little to do with the community’s outreach to the intermarried.
“For those who believe that welcoming has made the difference, they have to answer why Jewish women feel much more welcomed than Jewish men,” Cohen said. “If there is a difference, it’s probably attributable to Boston’s superb efforts in Jewish culture.”
Indeed, Boston appears to have higher levels of Jewish engagement beyond just the children of intermarried couples. The survey found that 40% of Boston Jews are not members of any Jewish organization, where in New York the figure is 48% and nationally it is 44% according to most recent national survey.
The president of the Boston Jewish federation, Barry Shrage, said he believes that the programs explicitly aimed at intermarried couples are one part of the puzzle. The federation has formed partnerships with synagogues to help them understand that inveighing against intermarriage can push interested couples out of the Jewish community. But he hopes that an even larger cause for the community’s success has been its conscious effort to beef up the intensity and Jewish educational opportunities in Boston.
“You can pursue people by lowering the barriers and watering down the content,” Shrage said, “or you can lower the barriers to entry and intensify the product. We want to talk about creating a community without barriers, but with a vision for Jewish life as high as Sinai.”