A Mover and Shaker


We’re thrilled that our friend Elana MacGilpin, one of our Parenting Blog regulars, was recognized by the Connecticut Jewish Ledger as one of their 2011 Movers and Shakers!

The article notes that Elana is best known for is coordinating outreach programs specifically for interfaith families and couples. Elana is quoted as saying, “One of the great challenges and opportunities of the current and future Jewish community is to provide a warm and welcoming environment for interfaith families and extended family members who aren’t Jewish… Interfaith families are searching for ways to connect with the Jewish community and Judaism in ways that are comfortable as well as meaningful.”

Jewish communities don’t often enough single out for praise people working to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. It’s significant that both the Hartford federation president and JCC executive director sing Elana’s praises in this article. And the honor couldn’t happen to a nicer and more dedicated and capable person. Congratulations!

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

An Historic Advance by the UJA Federation of New York


Last week the UJA-Federation of New York released what could be the most important report ever written for the field of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

The report, of the Federation’s Task Force on Welcoming Interfaith Families, recognizes that there is potential for Jewish engagement among interfaith families that is not being fulfilled and recommends

an approach that unapologetically announces its welcome, provides sustained, networked, professionally staffed, and well-advertised gateway educational programs targeted to interfaith couples and families, and provides ongoing training for professionals and lay leaders.

At InterfaithFamily.com we have long advocated for the need for comprehensive, coordinated local programs for people in interfaith relationships. Our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, with InterfaithFamily/Chicago as its first implementation, is based on a three-pronged approach of web platform publicity, trainings, and programs. We find it incredibly affirming that the staff and board of the UJA-Federation of New York – one of the most highly-regarded organizations in the entire Jewish world – has now endorsed that approach.

After Julie Wiener wrote about the report in the New York Jewish Week, that paper yesterday published an op-ed by Jack Wertheimer, one of the most vehement critics of intermarriage.

Wertheimer first argues that welcoming interfaith families is not necessary because there is no evidence that interfaith families do not feel welcome in the Jewish community. I wonder if he has ever spent any time talking with interfaith families about their experiences. The Task Force did, and reported on what it heard in its deliberations. At InterfaithFamily.com we do, and hear about unwelcoming experiences all the time.

Wertheimer next argues that the voices of intermarrieds and their children themselves explain their complex or non-existing relationship with organized Jewish life. He actually suggests that material on InterfaithFamily.com supports his view:

Thanks to websites such as Interfaithfamily.com, it is easy to access [the views of intermarrieds and their children]. Many write candidly about the deep religious fissures running through families, about the impossible dilemmas posed by dual-religion households, about personal psychological barriers to participation in Jewish life.

The plain truth is that there are hundreds of positive personal narratives on our site of happy families who are not experiencing division or conflict over their different religious backgrounds and who are engaging in Jewish life and community. The fact the Wertheimer could summarize our material in the skewed way that he does suggests that he is simply blind to any reality that does not fit his world view that intermarriage is bad.

Wertheimer refers to “the religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life through endogamy.” I’ve written before that encouraging in-marriage is a strategy that is bound to produce fewer Jews by alienating the many who will intermarry anyway.

Wertheimer concludes by suggesting that the UJA-Federation of New York should assert that “intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and the perpetuation of Judaism.” To the contrary, we should all be deeply grateful to the lay and professional leaders of the Federation for rejecting that approach and choosing instead to embrace the reality of intermarriage and respond to it in a way that maximizes the opportunities for Jewish outcomes.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Interfaith Families Prefer Programs Marketed as “For Interfaith Families”


At InterfaithFamily.com we’ve always believed that programs designed and marketed explicitly as “for interfaith families” — sometimes called “targeted” programs — are very effective in engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. We’ve argued that the Boston Jewish community sees 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews in part because it is one of the few local communities that offers targeted programs. We’ve been dismayed at how little targeted programming is offered around the country, and with our InterfaithFamily/Chicago initiative we are piloting an approach that could turn that situation around.

We think that one of the reasons so little targeted programming is offered is that too many people have the notion that interfaith families are not interested in targeted programming, that they don’t want to be “segregated,” that they prefer to attend general programs for everyone. We’ve always believed that while some interfaith families don’t want to be singled out and prefer general programs, many others are interested in programs designed specifically for them, or in attending programs where they will find others like them. We’ve always believed that when couples first put a toe in the water of Jewish life and community, they are likely to be more comfortable with others like them, while later on they may no longer feel that need. These beliefs have often been dismissed as mere “anecdotes.”

Two years ago, we started adding questions to our annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys, in an effort to get some data on what interfaith families really do prefer. We finally analyzed the data in four surveys, and the responses of just under 500 intermarried parents raising their children as Jews confirm what we believed: significant percentages of interfaith families are interested in targeted programs and are attracted to organizations that offer them.

We’re issuing a press release tomorrow, and posting it below. You can find the full report on the surveys here.

Contact: Edmund Case, edc@interfaithfamily.com, 617-581-6805

Surveys Reveal That Interfaith Families Prefer To Attend Programs Marketed As “For Interfaith Families” Attracted To Jewish Organizations That Offer Targeted Programs As Well As Programs For Everyone

(Newton, MA) – October 19, 2011 – Jewish communities and organizations offer very few programs that are designed and explicitly marketed as “for interfaith families.” Many Jewish professionals say that interfaith families do not want to be “singled out” and prefer to attend Jewish programs that are for everyone. New surveys by InterfaithFamily.com (IFF) reveal for the first time that in fact, interfaith families are attracted to Jewish organizations and synagogues that offer programs marketed as “for interfaith families” and prefer to attend programs targeted to them as well as general programs for everyone.

Respondents to InterfaithFamily.com’s annual Passover/Easter and December Holidays Surveys starting in December 2009 were asked whether they preferred to attend programs described as “for interfaith families” or programs for everyone, and what attracted them to Jewish organizations and synagogues.
• Out of 498 responses from people who were intermarried and were raising their children Jewish, 13% said they preferred programs “for interfaith families” – and another 64% said that it “depends on the program.”
• Fully 88% of respondents said that it was “important” in attracting them to a Jewish organization or synagogue that it offered programs described as “for interfaith families,” with almost three-quarters saying it was “a lot” or “somewhat” important.
• In the most recent survey, 61% said that the program title “Raising a Jewish Child in Your Interfaith Family” would be more likely to interest them than the title “Raising a Jewish Child.”

“Our survey responses are illustrative of the attitudes and behaviors of interfaith families who are interested in Jewish life: significant percentages of them are interested in programs that are marketed as ‘for interfaith families’ and are attracted to synagogues and Jewish organizations that offer such programs,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. Respondents explained the reasons behind their preferences:
• they want to be with and share stories with others like them;
• interfaith families have unique issues and some topics are best addressed in interfaith family specific programs;
• programs for interfaith families are more comfortable for partners who are not Jewish.
Some pointed out that when interfaith couples start out, they may be more interested in interfaith family specific programs, than when they feel more integrated. And some pointed out that the fact that an organization offers programs for interfaith families is important as a statement that interfaith families are welcome.

The need for explicitly targeted programs at a wide range of Jewish organizations and especially at our gateway portals like Jewish Community Centers has increased and will continue to increase as interfaith relationships continue to grow and the population of adult children of interfaith marriages of the 80’s and 90’s reaches maturity and considers their religious choices. “This is an opportunity that the Jewish community ignores at its peril,” said Karen Kushner, the director of InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Program Providers. “Attracting interfaith couples and families to Jewish programming successfully will determine the Jewish future of the children of today and tomorrow.”

About InterfaithFamily.com
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them. Visit www.InterfaithFamily.com.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Remembering Leonard Wasserman


One of my heroes died last week, on October 7, erev Yom Kippur.

Leonard Wasserman was unique in my experience. He is the only Jewish lay leader I’ve ever known who became passionate about engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and then created an organization that works to do just that – Interfaithways.

I first met Leonard when the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly was last held in Philadelphia, in 2002. Rabbi Rayzel Raphael was escorting Leonard around the GA; he was on a mission to learn as much as he could about what was being done around the country to engage interfaith families. I don’t know exactly how old Leonard was, but even back in 2002 he appeared to be pretty elderly, and he was quite hard of hearing, but he was insatiably curious about our field.

That was a common theme over the nine years that I knew him – he always wanted to be current, to know if anything new was happening that could be put into use in Philadelphia. I think he attend every JOI national conference on outreach. He regularly wanted to take a train up to New York to meet with me there. A year or two ago Leonard asked if I could set up a meeting for him with Barry Shrage, head of the Boston federation and the most visionary leader in the federation world when it comes to engaging interfaith families. Probably well into his 80’s by then, Leonard flew to Boston with his wonderful colleague Rabbi Mayer Selekman, and continued to ask what the best practices were and how he could bring them to his home town.

I asked Leonard once why he cared so much about engaging interfaith families. The amazing thing to me is that none of Leonard’s four children were intermarried. He told me that he and his beloved wife Dorothy were honored one year by Philadelphia’s Jewish Family & Children’s Service. He said, smiling, that of course when one is honored, one is expected to give more money. He asked what the JF&CS needed, and the executive director at the time, Drew Staffenberg, said they wanted to get into providing programming for interfaith couples. So Leonard and Dorothy agree to fund the program that eventually grew into Interfaithways, housed for several years at the JF&CS, and then as an independent non-profit.

Leonard was unique in that he didn’t come to the issue out of personal experience – it was suggested to him, he studied it, he realized how important it was, and he took it way beyond the expected initial gift, to many years of supporting the organization that he created. And, sadly, he was unique in that I’m not aware of any other Jewish lay leader who single-handedly created and largely funded an organization dedicated to the cause of engaging interfaith families. It is too bad that there haven’t been any other leaders like him.

Over the years Leonard had some wonderful people working at Interfaithways. He did attract some foundation and individual support, but he was disappointed that the cause of engaging interfaith families did not attract significant funding from the Philadelphia community as a whole. Despite those setbacks, he never gave up and was determined to keep Interfaithways going.

This summer when I learned Leonard was failing I sent him a note. I told him I was sorry that the progress towards engaging interfaith families had been so slow, but that I was confident that we would get there some day, and when we did, he would have played an important role.

On a personal level, Leonard was a kind and gracious and generous man. I remember very well visiting him at his homes in Florida and in Bala Cynwyd, and I remember him driving me to lunch at the nearby Jewish deli– I don’t know if it was Hymie’s, or Murray’s, or Katz’s, but it was good. I will miss him very much.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Non-Jewish Mothers and Intermarrieds in the News


Sue Fishkoff wrote a great article for JTA, For non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children, things can get complicated, that has been widely reprinted.

It’s a good story that highlights mothers who are not Jewish who are raising their children Jewish and provides insight into factors that led them to that decision – not being pushed to convert; seeking a sense of community and joining a synagogue where friends belonged; taking a great program like Stepping Stones. It also highlights the importance of developing and articulating inclusive policies at synagogues.

Tablet has a kind of offensive “Trend Alert” by Stephanie Butnick, Intermarried couples inspire kind of offensive colloquialism. Stephanie takes issue with the use of the term “intermarrieds” in a headline in the (Los Angeles) Jewish Journal, Jewish Identity of Intermarrieds in Chicago and their Kids Up, reporting on Chicago’s new Jewish community survey. There’s nothing new – no “trend” here – with the use of the term “intermarrieds” to describe interfaith couples – we prefer the latter term because not all couples are, or can be, married. I don’t understand why Stephanie would want to provide a link to intermarrieds.com as evidence of a trend; I won’t even provide a link to that site because it is part of the fraudulent and deceptive so-called “Messianic Jewish” movement. But at least Stephanie highlights that the Chicago study reports that the “intermarrieds” have been “raising their children with stronger Jewish values, thereby contributing to the Jewish community’s increasing numbers.”

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Remembering Michael Rukin


I am sorry to report that Michael Rukin died on February 18. He was only 70. Michael was an important leader for many organizations including Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (CJP), Hillel and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. I’m sure much deservedly will be said about him in the days to come. I just want to share my own lasting impression of him.

Back in 2006, CJP released its 2005 demographic study of the Boston Jewish community. A key finding was that 60% of interfaith families in Greater Boston were raising their children as Jews, compared to a national average of 33%. I took the position, including in an op-ed with the URJ’s Kathy Kahn in the Forward, that the 60% rate was a result of CJP’s allocating 1% of its annual spending towards engaging interfaith families in Jewish life.

We have a bulletin board in our office and put a copy of the op-ed on it under a sign that read, “Look what 1% can do!” Michael was at our office around that time and when he saw that sign, he attached a large yellow post-it note on which he wrote, “THINK ABOUT WHAT 10% WOULD DO!” with his initials and the date.

That note, which is still on our bulletin board, sums up for me Michael’s passionate advocacy for our cause. He was a rare bold thinker who understood the importance of vastly increased attention to efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. For that and many other reasons, he will be sorely missed.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Intermarriage Around the Reform/Progressive World


Our friend, and terrific journalist, Sue Fishkoff had a JTA story about the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism that missed what I think was a more important part of the convention.

The World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) is the association of Reform movements from all over the world. (Outside of the US, Reform Judaism is often called Progressive Judaism, hence the name of the association.) The WUPJ rarely holds its annual meeting in the US, but it did last week in San Francisco.

Sue’s story focuses on how Progressive Jews outside of the US have not adopted the American Reform Jewish movement’s doctrine of patrilineal descent which considers as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew. Sue attended a panel discussion on that subject, and reports that other than in the Liberal movement in England and in the former Soviet Union (and one congregation each in Ireland and Holland), no other Diaspora community recognizes patrilineal descent.

I wish Sue had been able to cover the panel discussion at which IFF’s Chief Education Officer, Karen Kushner, and our Advisory Board member, Rosanne Levitt, spoke about the importance of programming to welcome interfaith couples and families. And I wish she had been able to cover the evening session at which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner spoke, because what he had to say presents a compelling case in favor of patrilineal descent and other measures to welcome and include interfaith couples and families in Jewish communities – and not just in the US.

Yes, full disclosure, Rabbi Kushner is Karen Kushner’s husband – but according to the website of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, he is considered “one of the top leaders of  American Reform Jewry” along with Rabbis Eric Yoffie (head of the US Reform movement), David Ellenson (head of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary), and David Saperstein (head of the URJ’s Religious Action Center).

Rabbi Kushner was kind enough to share his remarks, What it Means to Me to Be a Reform Jew, with IFF’s readers. Some of my favorite quotes:

It turns out that “assimilate” has two definitions. The more common, of course, means to dissolve into the local culture. It’s in that sense that our enemies accuse us of being assimilationist. But the reason we’re still here is because the word can also mean, not to disappear, but to deliberately take in something from the outside and make it one’s own. For example: The music business has assimilated hip-hop. And we Reform Jews have assimilated some very beautiful but non-Jewish liberal Western ideas: The equality of women; the normalization of gay people; social justice for everyone, not only Jews. But we didn’t swallow these ideas whole. We received them, we shaped them, we grounded them, we assimilated them. We made them Jewish, we made them mitzvot. That’s what we Reform Jews do; it’s who we are; it may even be why God wants us around.

We have been so terrified a Jew might fall in love with a non-Jew, we forgot that, every year, tens, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews also fall in love with, marry, and have children with Jews. They may not yet be willing or able to become Jews, but they have, with their very lives, thrown in their lot with us. Like it or not, they are members of our extended family. And they deserve an honored place at the table—and maybe even to be counted in the minyans Reform Jews claim they don’t count.

The presence at the table of these potentially new members of our family reminds us that we have something precious. They help us reexamine, deepen, and cherish our own piety. Jews who have chosen Judaism through conversion or, yes, through marrying a Jew and trying to make a Jewish home, free us from ethnocentrism and smugness. These people are not the enemy; they’re a gift.

[It is] the 21st Century and intermarriage is here to stay. The only question before us now is whether or not we will acknowledge social and religious reality and see what, yes, Heaven, wants of us now.

We at IFF are glad that the Kushners and Rosanne Levitt put a positive response to intermarriage on the WUPJ agenda, and we hope the delegates from around the world took in their message and will bring it back to their communities.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

More Attitude About Intermarriage


I’m pleased to tell you that Shalom TV has made available an edited video of my GA session, Can We Encourage In-marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families? It’s even on the front page of the Shalom TV site! The video is 44 minutes long, and it may take a while to download. (If your cable provider carries Shalom TV, you can watch the program on On Demand, until January 2.)

I’ve previously blogged about how I felt about the session, and now I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who watches the video. Did I successfully convey in my presentation that every Jewish community could extend explicit welcoming messages to interfaith families, and offer relatively low cost programs and services that will attract and engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community? Do you agree with my observation that it seemed that Steven M. Cohen expressed his default position that intermarriage is “bad bad bad?” Did my message come across that Jews and Jewish leaders should stop talking about intermarriage as bad; we should promote Jewish experiences not as preventing intermarriage but as building identity and desire to have Jewish families; and we should encourage young adults to choose partners who will support their Jewish engagement – whether or not the partner is a Jew.

Coincidentally, Julie Wiener had a great article this week in a special section on singles in the New York Jewish Week: A Secret Love No More. She interviewed a number of people – including InterfaithFamily.com’s own Board member from Atlanta, Rebecca Hoelting – and recounts her own experiences, about whether or not there is growing acceptance of interdating. It’s definitely worth reading. Most interesting to me was Julie’s conclusion, which seems consistent with my main point at the GA session:

Whereas ending up with a Jewish partner, regardless of his or her level of observance or commitment, used to be non-negotiable for those who wanted to live a Jewish life, the new priority increasingly seems to be finding someone, Jewish or not, who is supportive of one’s Jewish pursuits.

If you do watch the GA video, please let us know what you think.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

What I Would Like To Be Thankful For


It’s Thanksgiving 2010. I have a lot of good fortune in my life and I try to be very grateful. That goes for my work at InterfaithFamily.com, too, but this year I’m not sure how thankful I feel. It has to do with Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage and whether they are changing and will change for the better. It’s related to my presentation at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Federations of North America, and to media reports since.

One of the most important books I’ve read is Ron Heifitz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers. I read it in one of my best classes at the Hornstein Program, organizational behavior taught by Susan Shevitz. His thesis is that the job of leadership is to move people to adapt their attitudes in significant ways.

What I tried to convey in my presentation is that every Jewish community could and should extend explicit welcoming messages to interfaith families, and could and should offer relatively low cost programs and services that will attract and engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. But the real question was, why don’t Jewish communities do that? Why do Jewish funders allocate less than 1/10 of 1% of their total spending to engaging interfaith families?

I believe it’s because Jews and Jewish leaders view intermarriage as bad, as something negative, or at best, with ambivalence. Whether it’s because of tribalism, or because of flawed research that suggests that intermarried couples because of the fact of the intermarriage are and will be less Jewishly engaged, or because of misguided views that intermarriage can be prevented or reduced – whatever the source, too many Jews and Jewish leaders, in the words of one of IFF’s users, can’t resist saying that intermarriage is “bad bad bad.” One of the primary goals of InterfaithFamily.com’s work is to move Jews to adapt from that attitude, towards seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.

The GA presentation was structured as initial remarks by me and then by Steven M. Cohen, followed by responses from three top federations executives. Now Steven M. Cohen is the sociologist most associated with the survey reports that conclude that intermarriage leads to much less Jewish attitudes and behaviors. Even though I think he has made a lot of progress over the years, and now says that he supports more funding for engaging interfaith families, and that he doesn’t want to alienate interfaith families – still, when he made his remarks, it was like he couldn’t control himself from his default position that intermarriage is “bad bad bad.”

Cohen repeated his severe critique of the Boston federation’s report that showed that the 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews were much like in-married Reform Jews in their attitudes and behaviors. He recited a litany of comparisons where they fall short of their in-married counterparts – all while studiously avoiding any comparisons where they “score” ahead. You would never ever know, listening to Steven Cohen, that interfaith families raising Jewish children in Boston actually light Shabbat candles more than in-married Reform of Conservative families do.

There was a little moment of drama at the end of the session. I think Steven could sense that the last question had been asked. He took the mic and recited another litany, of things like Jewish summer camps, day schools, Israel trips, social networks that get young Jews together – and said that these steps could or would prevent or reduce intermarriage. I kind of grabbed the mic and said, we don’t have to promote those things as preventing intermarriage, we can promote them as building strong Jewish identity and desire to have Jewish families and children. There was a smattering of applause at that point, and the program ended.

That was really my point: Jews and Jewish leaders should stop talking about intermarriage as bad; they should promote Jewish experiences not as preventing intermarriage but as building identity and desire to have Jewish families; they should encourage young adults to choose partners who will support their Jewish engagement – whether or not the partner is a Jew.

The room was packed. I estimate there were over 200 people there — at 8:15 am! Several people came up and said very positive things to me afterwards, but it’s hard to gauge overall reaction. I heard indirectly that one of the federation executives on the panel told one of his donors that he had been sensitized that it is a problem to say that in-marriage, rather than strong Jewish identity, is the goal. To that extent, the program was a great success, and I’m thankful for that. If others felt that way, I’d be even more thankful.

I didn’t make good notes of the three federation executives’ remarks. Barry Shrage, the head of the Boston federation, basically said that saying don’t intermarry and fearing intermarriage won’t work, that we need to address interfaith couples with positive messages. Steve Rakitt, the head of the Atlanta federation, said the message should be to promote positive Jewish identity, and talked about the Pathways program to engage interfaith families that the Atlanta federation funds. The Boston and Atlanta federations are the only two that allocate any significant funding to programs to engage interfaith families. I’m thankful for that, but if more federations would follow suit, I’d be even more thankful.

Jay Sanderson, head of the Los Angeles federation, seemed to say that welcoming interfaith families wasn’t the right issue to be talking about – he said that we need to be welcoming everyone. My response was that yes, it’s important to be welcoming to everyone, but we need to have some services and programs that specifically address the unique needs of interfaith couples and families. Even after this session, my feeling is still that federation executives would just as soon not talk expressly and explicitly about engaging interfaith families.

I hope you will be able to evaluate the session for yourself. It was filmed by Shalom TV and their founder told me afterwards that it would be on their site, but it hasn’t appeared yet and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will. You can read my complete remarks on our site, and a shortened version on the Huffington Post and on eJewish Philanthropy.

So I got back from the GA and there was a spate of news stories coming out of Israel. On November 16 the Jerusalem Post reported that the Knesset held a special session on assimilation in the Diaspora and a new study showed high rates of intermarriage in the Diaspora. As usual, the Israeli view was to equate intermarriage with assimilation, the loss of Jewish identity and engagement. I’ve tried in the past to explain What Israelis Should Know About Intermarriage in North America – but it doesn’t feel like many are getting the message there. I’d be more thankful if they did.

On November 17, Alan Dershowitz was interviewed about his new novel that includes a romance between an Arab man and a Jewish woman. The interviewer from The Jewish Press, which is by its own admission mostly for Orthodox readers, says, “Intermarriage is generally thought of as one of the worst sins a Jew can commit” and asks why he protrayed the interfaith romance. Dershowitz gave what I consider a bad answer:

I don’t think I portray it in a positive light. I think I portray it realistically. I portray it the way I see it among my students. I’m trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not suggesting it’s a good thing. I don’t support it. But I see it all around me. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. Many of them will eventually convert to Judaism but we’re going through a very challenging period now with intermarriage. I can’t ignore that in my writing.

I would have been thankful if he instead had said, “I don’t accept your question – most young Jews today do not consider intermarraige to be a sin. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. That just goes to show that young Jews feel that they can live Jewishly with non-Jewish partners – isn’t that great! That’s what we should hope will happen.”

I don’t want to overlook the more positive news and views. On November 18, there was a wonderful short piece in the Jewish Exponent by our friend Gari Weilbacher, the managing director of Interfaithways in Philadelphia, with yet another story of Jewish engagement in an intermarriage. On November 21, Sue Fishkoff reported that the Conservative movement is tipping towards openness to the children of intermarried couples. And on November 23, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger interviewed sociologist Arnold Dashefsky, who said:

On one hand, intermarriage could be a boon to the Jewish population. If the non-Jewish spouse decides to become Jewish or if the couple raises its children as Jews, they might actually increase the Jewish population. … [T]here is a portion of the Jewish population that is intermarried that is also committed to living a Jewish life, even if the spouse hasn’t converted. In our interviews – and I stress that they do not constitute a representative sample of all intermarried couples – in many dimensions, some couples had Jewish behaviors similar to or exceeding the larger Jewish population. In [some] areas – synagogue membership, lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles, participating in a Passover seder – intermarried couples actually exceeded the American Jewish population as a whole… Fasting on Yom Kippur was identical among the two samples…. We believe that the Jewish community should offer encouragement to those members of intermarried couples who wish to affirm their Jewish identity and give the non-Jewish spouses support and recognition that this is something they want to share in.

I would be thankful if more sociologists talked about intermarriage like Dashefsky did.

How thankful do you think I should feel? Am I right to feel that there hasn’t been enough progress fast enough towards a positive attitude that sees intermarriage as an opportunity for Jewish engagement? Or is there progress that I’m not seeing and is it happening as fast as reasonably could be expected?

Either way, I hope you have a good and thankful Thanksgiving.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

What the Camp Study Was Really About


Our blog post, Why Intermarrieds Stay Away, on Steven M. Cohen’s new theory that the Jewish community is plenty welcoming of interfaith families, attracted many very thoughtful comments. I mentioned that this new theory was revealed in a study done for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, but until recently hadn’t had a chance to look at the study itself.

It’s a shame that all of the publicity seems to have focused on Cohen’s new theory, because the study – Recruiting Jewish Campers: A Study of the Midwestern Market — wasn’t about that issue at all. The Foundation for Jewish Camp had partnered with the Jack & Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund on an initiative to provide camps with the market research, marketing consultation, and training tools to enable them to reach new families. The preface of the study, which was the result of the market research, states that “enormous opportunity exists to engage a much larger number of Jewish children and teens. Particularly important is the opportunity to engage the children of mixed married families.” One of the specific goals of the research was to address this question: “How can Jewish camps reach out to Jewishly unengaged families and those mixed married who are raising their children as Jews in some way? How should their messaging and communication change for the same purpose?”

There is a lot of interesting discussion in the study. I was particularly glad to see the recognition “that if you want to predict whether a family will send their child to a Jewish camp, you’re better off knowing about how involved they and their children are in Jewish life. Once you know that, it won’t help much, if at all, to learn whether they happen to be an in-married or mixed  married family.” I’ve argued with Steven Cohen for years that instead of reporting on the Jewish behaviors of all intermarrieds as compared to all in-marrieds, it would be more helpful to report on the Jewish behaviors of Jewishly-engaged intermarrieds as compared to in-marrieds, because if the gaps are lower – which they are – the policy question becomes how can we get this population to be more Jewishly engaged.

Another interesting point made is this: “Camps need to recognize that messages which testify to their Jewish cultural depth and sophistication … probably alienate parents (and children) who feel ill-at-ease or unfamiliar with more intense Jewish cultural environments, such as may be symbolized by use of Hebrew letters and phrases.”

One recommended strategy aimed specifically at attracting the children of intermarrieds is “to focus initially (if not well beyond) on the selected subset of the mixed married who are congregationally affiliated. The congregationally affiliated mixed married are so much more engaged in Jewish camps–and  so much more aware of them–than their counterparts who are outside congregations.”

Another strategy: “the likely efficacy of offering scholarship assistance. Those who are the least attracted to Jewish camp are the ones who find camp least affordable.  Financial aid or incentives may be especially valuable in  prompting the least interested (such as many mixed married families) to sample Jewish camp for the first time.”

You can find the complete study on the Foundation for Jewish Camp website, or the Berman Archive website. It’s worth reading.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.