Beyond Welcoming? Not So Fast

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(This op-ed originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission. It also appeared on j. The Jewish News of Northern California under the title “Welcome mat for interfaith families needs more unrolling.”)

The Cohen Center at Brandeis has released two extremely important studies. Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life, based on a large survey of inmarried and intermarried couples, aims to “identify the critical levers for promoting meaningful Jewish involvement by young intermarried couples.” We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It, a qualitative study, addresses the life stages and needs of interfaith couples.

The research confirms that interfaith couples and families, as a group, are less Jewishly engaged than those who are inmarried. Thankfully, there is no hint of criticism of interfaith couples, or of Jews who intermarry, or any recommendation to try to discourage or prevent interfaith marriage. The conclusions of the research are all designed to respond proactively – to identify policy and program initiatives to engage more young intermarried couples.

Len Saxe, writing in the Jerusalem Post, summarizes the research in two points. I wholeheartedly agree with the first, that “Jewish education and community building… should be the response to the challenges posed by intermarriage.” I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations to use a “more comprehensive, life-span developmental approach;” to develop “effective strategies to introduce intermarried families to [Jewish] settings and offer them opportunities to participate” including “non-religious entry points” and in order to “build the Jewish social capital of children and teens;” to make community building “integral to all programming targeted at young couples;” to take advantage of cross-generational engagement; and to focus on Jewish fathers in interfaith couples.

The recommendations in the We’ll Cross That Bridge study are particularly apt: to focus on building small communities of couples and families, and to offer not only integrated programs but also specialized opportunities where interfaith couples can talk with peers and “discuss and have examples for what their future family might look like.”

But Saxe’s second point, that “we have succeeded in making intermarried families feel welcome,” and the study’s heading that “Barriers to Engagement with Jewish Life Have Been Largely Eliminated,” are premature declarations of victory.

There is much to celebrate in the Beyond Welcoming study’s results. It is great news that “Most Jewish parents were very accepting of their children’s non-Jewish partners, as were most non-Jewish parents of their children’s Jewish partners.” It is great news that “In premarital discussions about what role religion would play in their future household, most Jewish+non-Jewish couples agreed on most issues and did not feel they made a lot of compromises.”

It is also great news that only 3% of interfaith couples “sought out a rabbi or cantor but were unable [to] find one who would agree to officiate.” But it’s not great news that 49% never considered having a Jewish officiant, and another 17% considered it but didn’t contact one. Of course, some of those couples had no interest in having a Jewish officiant. But how many didn’t consider it, or didn’t contact one, because they anticipated rejection?

As the We’ll Cross That Bridge study notes, finding a rabbi to officiate a wedding can serve as an entrée into Jewish community for interfaith couples, and “the experiences surrounding the search… sometimes influenced couples’ opinions of the Jewish community and how welcome they could expect to feel.” Facilitating positive experiences in those searches remains critically important.

Finally, it is also great news that the majority of young intermarried couples felt welcome in the Jewish community. Among interfaith couples, 33% of the Jewish partners and 42% of the partners from different faith backgrounds feel completely welcome in Jewish settings without qualification, compared to 62% of inmarried couples.

But the Beyond Welcoming study itself notes that respondents in interfaith couples who did not feel completely welcome “emphasized their feelings of being ‘other’ and not fitting in.” As one partner from a different faith tradition said, “I feel accepted into [my partner’s Jewish] family, but I am uncertain of how much this brings me into the folds of the Jewish community at large.”

Moreover, the We’ll Cross That Bridge study raises questions about the degree of success in making interfaith couples feel welcome. It recognizes the distinction between feeling welcomed as a guest and included as a member of the group:

In some cases, despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community. Some couples recounted being regularly welcomed when they attended activities at a synagogue but never really progressing to feel like they belonged in the community. Couples were also aware that some liberal denominations were more accepting of intermarried couples….

One of the couples interviewed actually defined feeling welcomed in terms of inclusion – as being “treated very equally as members of the community… that is really, really important to the fact that we feel at home here.” And while many of the couples interviewed “described being warmly welcomed by Jewish institutions,” one expressed being pleasantly surprised, suggesting that some couples still anticipate unwelcoming responses.

Couples who did not feel welcomed expressed several concerns that remain frontier issues in efforts to be inclusive. Some were offended by language that suggested that intermarriage is a “challenge” or that they are a “problem.” One said that while “the leaders of synagogues are great… it’s the people who are affiliated… who are not particularly welcoming.” Others expressed concern that if they decided to include both religions in their home life and identification, they would not be fully accepted. One felt the way the Conservative movement treats interfaith families was a “problem.”

The Beyond Welcoming study’s conclusion, that “the challenge going forward is to create access points that spark curiosity and enthusiasm about Jewish engagement,” is extremely important, and I hope that challenge will attract the extensive philanthropic support it deserves. But that conclusion, standing alone, is incomplete. There is still a great deal of work to be done to create an environment where interfaith couples and families really are welcomed, let alone fully included.

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