Since at least the 1990s, one of the chief concerns of the American Jewish community has been the problem of intermarriage. With the perception that an increasing number of American Jews are marrying outside the faith, the problem of how to stop the attrition has been a major preoccupation. But a fairly simple strategy has also dominated the discourse over how to meet this challenge: Be more welcoming.
This is the guiding principle of organizations like InterfaithFamily.com and the Jewish Outreach Institute, which have tried to encourage inclusion of interfaith couples by normalizing their place in Jewish life.
But a new study now purports to challenge the assumption that all that’s needed is open arms.
Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who studies American Jews, recently conducted a survey commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The national organization wanted to better understand how to attract the children of intermarried couples and was looking specifically at summer camps in the Midwest. Cohen’s conclusions were fairly obvious. With a sample of more than 652 people, all of them parents of potential campers, those who were committed to raising their children as Jews — whether the couple was Jewish or interfaith — were more likely to send their children to a Jewish camp. It was as simple as that.
In the course of his study, however, Cohen did make an interesting finding. He was trying to gauge how comfortable both purely Jewish and intermarried couples felt in a Jewish religious setting. He discovered that not only was there hardly any difference in the amount of discomfort they felt, but both groups were quite at ease, when imagining themselves at a Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox service. Only 17% of the so-called “mixed married” reported feeling uncomfortable at an Orthodox congregation, and that number decreased as the denomination got more liberal.
Cohen’s conclusion was that most interfaith couples feel like they have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. The real problem, he said, is that they feel like they don’t know what to do with that invitation.
“It’s not that they feel unwelcome, but that there is a competence barrier,” Cohen said. “They feel that their kids will be expected to do things they don’t know how to do, and they themselves don’t want to be part of a community where they don’t know the choreography.”
He arrived at his conclusion about a “competence barrier” after a much higher proportion of intermarried couples surveyed in his study said they felt uncomfortable with Hebrew. But Cohen stated this conclusion with less confidence than he did his more central point: that outreach has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming.
“I don’t have the evidence to make a strong claim for competency being the issue,” Cohen said. “But I certainly can say that it’s not a matter of being more welcoming. So I don’t want to push the competence thing too far. But I am willing to say that stigmatization and the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”
Cohen and a few others point specifically to outreach groups that have been stressing the importance of not being offensive and of emphasizing inclusiveness. On the contrary, Cohen said, in “the age of Obama,” there is no longer a stigma attached to walking into a synagogue with a non-Jewish spouse, but what remains a problem is that that husband or wife then does not have access to what is going on once he or she is there.
“If you look at their websites and their rhetoric, a lot of their work emphasizes avoiding comments that would alienate an intermarried individual,” Cohen said, referring to the organizations engaged in outreach work. “It’s a good thing to do, but I don’t think that’s going to do the trick. What will do the trick are other things we’re doing, providing Jewish education to the intermarried and changing our own expectations of new initiates to Jewish life. It’s not a question of open arms, it’s a question of a helping hand.”
Sylvia Barack Fishman, chair of the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, has conducted research similar to Cohen’s on the place of the intermarried in Jewish life. She agrees with Cohen that the problem is not that synagogues are unwelcoming.
“Very, very few non-Jews who are married to Jews say they feel they were insulted or treated in a bad way,” Fishman said. She also added credence to the theory that competence was the bigger problem, saying that many of these non-Jews who didn’t feel insulted also said they were turned off when they couldn’t understand the Hebrew or strange songs being sung.
Fishman also had a theory for why outreach was focused on overcoming stigma. Many of the people leading these efforts are intermarried themselves, she said, and had to overcome the uncomfortable stares of an earlier era. “But this was decades ago and no longer relevant,” Fishman said.
Those who have been working to make sure that interfaith couples have a place at Jewish institutions think that these conclusions miss the point.
“It’s hard to tease out all the elements that keep people away,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “There is something to the issue of the competence. On the other hand, lots of people report negative comments that are made, off-putting things that happen. People have bad experiences when they want to have a rabbi officiate for their wedding and they can’t find one. For me, it’s not just one thing.”
Case and others argued that the notion of being welcoming as an institution also includes making people feel Jewishly literate. Unlike Cohen, who wants to remove the focus from being welcoming, for those professionals working with interfaith families, there is a whole series of interconnected barriers, and the comfort level is among the most important.
“I work with interfaith families every day, and the stories that I hear are not the stories of comfort that he is trying to suggest,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. “Some of the issue is literacy. But if you create a supportive environment in an institutional setting[,] then the issue of literacy can be mitigated. But you still have to demonstrate to people, irrespective of their background, that they are going to be welcomed and embraced, that there are others like them that are part of this community, that they will feel like they belong.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman