Insights on Engaging Interfaith Families from the NY Community Study


The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).

The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.

The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.

For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).

For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest that communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children” (28).

For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).

The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.

The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.

Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).

The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).

The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .

One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.

The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at

[1]The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.

[2]The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”

[3]Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Reflecting on December 2011


I was interviewed by a major city’s Jewish newspaper this week. The reporter asked if it had gotten “easier” for interfaith couples over the past ten years since InterfaithFamily got started. I said I thought there was more acceptance among parents of young adults who are intermarrying.

But there are still what I call “eternal” issues – not in the sense of never resolved, but in the sense that they confront each interfaith couple who is at all serious about having religious traditions together. Issues like what kind of wedding will we have, what kind of baby naming, and … what will we do in December.

This year JOI’s Paul Golin made a valiant effort to influence Jews not to tell interfaith couples not to have Christmas trees. Unfortunately it didn’t work.

Writing originally in Kveller and then in the Forward, Jordana Horn attracted a huge amount of comment by asserting that the point of Hanukkah is to celebrate people who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism, and to celebrate Christmas is to do just that — to celebrate the birth of someone who Christians believe is the son of God.

This argument is wrong and it’s pernicious. I say it’s wrong based on the eight years of December holidays surveys we’ve done at InterfaithFamily. They consistently show that interfaith families raising their children Jewish celebrate Christmas – with almost half having trees in their own homes – but not religiously. It is a warm family time, like Thanksgiving, that recognizes the traditions of the parent who is not Jewish.

It’s pernicious because the more that Jews tell interfaith couples that they shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, the less those interfaith couples will want to engage in Jewish life and community.

Kate Bigam in a guest post on our blog said it best:

I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism… The idea that my childhood – being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father – somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child.

Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community – which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.

People who are still uneasy about interfaith families celebrating Christmas might want to consider well-known Jewish journalist Sue Fishkoff’s experience. Sue grew up celebrating Christmas with her non-Jewish mother – and continues to do so.

I’d like to ask Jordana Horn, and Debra Nussbaum Cohen, who wrote a similarly negative piece, and those who share their views: if an interfaith couple said they were willing to raise their children Jewish, they just wanted to have a Christmas tree that they didn’t regard as a religious symbol – do you really want to tell that couple “no, not good enough, not Jewish enough, better you should go away?”

*  *  *

Julie Wiener featured Sue’s essay, and if you want to see more of this debate, check out her several blog posts.

This post originally appeared on 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 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 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 supports his view:

Thanks to websites such as, 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 and is reprinted with permission.

Choosing Life in the New Year, Part 2


I just read my friend Julie Wiener’s latest blog post put up just before Yom Kippur, Bad Day at the Mikveh, Good Day at the Beach. I usually agree with Julie but I’m not sure in this case.

Jessica Langer-Sousa, a Jewish woman who was intermarrying, wrote in the  Huffington Post that she was rebuffed by a mikveh lady who told her that her marriage would not be recognized in the eyes of God.

I don’t think Julie let the mikveh lady off too easily – she says the mikveh lady “no doubt behaved inappropriately and rudely: she could easily (and with no compromise to her own morals) have politely explained her concerns, then referred Langer-Sousa elsewhere” and she says that “Representatives of Jewish institutions do need to be welcoming and respectful.”

But I think she shifts blame to Langer-Sousa or tries to equalize blame when she says that “respect also has to be a two-way street. It’s not fair to expect everyone to agree with you, particularly when you are on their turf and your behavior violates something they hold sacred” and “I think it’s also important for individual Jews to give others the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to a single negative encounter.”

That doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like the editors of the Jerusalem Post in today’s editorial saying that intermarriage “plagues” the Diaspora and that there is declarative value in legislation to prevent it. Interfaith couples who are seeking Jewish connection and engagement – people like Langer-Sousa, who remember was wanting to go to a mikveh in advance of her wedding – shouldn’t have to experience the judgmental condemnation of the editors of the Jerusalem Post, or people like this mikveh lady.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Choosing Life in the New Year


When I was in sixth grade I won my Hebrew school’s essay contest by writing that Yom Kippur was my favorite Jewish  holiday. I figured — correctly, because I won — what kid would choose Yom Kippur?

But Yom Kippur was and still is my favorite holiday and it was a good one for me. The services and community at Temple Shalom of Newton were meaningful and sustaining for me.

I woke up this morning still hungry, made my favorite breakfast, opened my computer, and found a lovely — I’m being sarcastic here — editorial from the Jerusalem Post, Debating Civil Marriage, with this lovely (sarcasm again) quote:

Though according to recent surveys of Jewish Israeli opinion, this is no longer the case, there was once a strong consensus that Israel, as the sovereign nation of the Jewish people, has an obligation to fight intermarriage through legislation that encourages Jews to marry other Jews. Intermarriage and assimilation plague Jews of the Diaspora. The State of Israel should reflect through its laws the desire of the Jewish people to maintain continuity. Admittedly, preventing Jews from marrying non-Jews through legislation or a lack thereof will not stop intermarriage. Love will overcome any obstacle. But the fact that the State of Israel does not officially condone intermarriage has some declarative value.

This is so wrong on so many levels. “Intermarriage plagues Jews of the Diaspora” and runs counter to maintaining continuity? Israeli leaders continue not to understand intermarriage in North America, that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life and are actively creating continuity. My op-ed in the Jerusalem Post to that effect two years ago apparently didn’t impress the editors (at least they publish contrary opinions).

“Love will overcome any obstacle;” legislation won’t stop intermarriage? The editors got that right — but they support that legislation any way — because it has “some declarative value”? What “declarative value” does it have exactly? If it won’t stop intermarriage, the declarative value is that it will alienate the interfaith couples who have to work around it in Israel. And worse, from my point of view, it will discourage interfaith couples in North America, especially the partners who are not Jewish who do want to be involved in Jewish life and community. Who would want to be part of a community whose intellectual leaders do not want them?

At my services at Temple Shalom yesterday, I saw at least seven interfaith couples, and those are just the ones who I know well, and I saw several parents whose intermarrying children have used’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Yesterday, Yom Kippur, two couples, one in California and one in Pennsylvania, made requests for rabbis to officiate and to co-officiate at their weddings. The central lesson of Yom Kippur, as I understand it, is to “choose life.” For me, those interfaith couples at services and seeking Jewish clergy for their weddings are choosing Jewish life. The editors of the Jerusalem Post – they aren’t.

I try to be hopeful, especially at the start of a new year. There is a glimmer of hope in the editorial – apparently there is no consensus among the Israeli public that legislation aimed at preventing intermarriage makes sense. My hope is that that point of view grows and ultimately prevails.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Another Step Towards a Changing Judaism


My friend and wonderful writer Judy Bolton-Fasman’s most recent column is a great one, and not just because of the shout-out to In An Interfaith Family with a Jewish Heart, Judy writes about the bar mitzvah of the son of one of her oldest friends, Vicki, and her Lutheran-raised husband, Kurt. It’s a very moving account.

[The bar mitzvah boy] talked about how his beautiful mother and his generous father supported his Jewish learning. His non-Jewish grandparents read the Schechehiyanu… I took Kurt aside during the weekend and thanked him for being a beloved companion of the Jewish people.

Judy’s column, which I read in hard copy in the Jewish Advocate of Boston, reminded me of a blog post from a year ago describing a similar situation. J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist for the Forward, had written a column titled “Our Changing Judaism” about his experience at a family bar mitzvah where the father was not Jewish. I wrote at the time that “It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child” and concluded:

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.”

I welcome Judy’s piece as another step in that direction.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Attitude Antennae


My “attitude antennae” were buzzing this week – because of several notable expressions of attitudes, both negative and positive, about intermarriage.

Neil Steinberg, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, took a cheap shot in a column about the Super Bowl TV ad for Groupon that has been widely criticized as insensitive to human rights violations in Tibet. What intermarriage has to do with that, I don’t know, but he does the usual equating intermarriage with assimilation: “Judaism is circling the drain, with Jews shrugging, intermarrying and forgetting to raise their children in the faith…”

That’s what we usually hear from Israel, and there was another example of that this week – a member of the Knesset sponsored “Jewish Identity Day” in which many of the Knesset committee meetings discussed issues relating to Jewish identity, assimilation, intermarriage, and Jewish education. As reported in Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, one Knesset member equates Jewish women marrying Arab men as assimilation and says it can be prevented by intense education.

But this week I also read the most positive comments about intermarriage that I’ve ever seen coming out of Israel. Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and her husband Dr. Elan Ezrachi, an educational consultant, wrote the following in Ha’aretz:

Over the past 30 years, several demographic studies of Jewry in the United States have been published. For many years the dominant line was that mixed marriages were a disaster that would lead to a decline in the number of Jews. There is, however, another view that sees connections between Jews and non-Jews as in fact a possibility for expanding the definitions of identity and enlarging the ranks.

Beyond the demographic hairsplitting, it appears there is a phenomenon of historic dimensions developing there: Instead of fleeing from Judaism, entering Judaism; instead of black and white definitions, “hybrid” definitions that enable surprising connections between Jews and non-Jews. These new definitions are expanding the boundaries of the tribe.

While Judaism in Israel is moving further to the margins and concentrating mainly on whom to push out of the fold – the convert, the foreigner, the half-Jew or the new immigrant serving in the Israel Defense Forces – in American Judaism a dynamic of acceptance, embrace and widening circles is developing. This is another measure of the growing gap between Israeli society and the largest Jewish community in the world.

Finally, Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week feels positive about some gatherings of young Jews in Europe. Acknowledging that the typical view of Europe is “an ageing demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation,” he writes that many of the new Jewish start-ups in Europe “deal with intermarriage by, in a sense, ignoring it. Their programs tend to be open to everyone.”

Barbara Spectre, the American-born director of  Paideia, refers to what is happening in Europe as “the dis-assimilation” of Jewish life, with even young people who are intermarried or not considered Jewish by halachic standards asserting their identity and exploring Jewish roots and culture. She calls for a change in “rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders who refuse to “hear good news” about what she sees as “a great transformation taking place.”

This post originally appeared on 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, 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’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 and is reprinted with permission.

Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing?


J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist at the Forward, has written an important essay, Generation to Generation, Our Changing Judaism, that I wanted to share with the IFF community.

Goldberg was attending a family bar mitzvah at the Pelham Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue outside of New York City. He spoke with a cousin, a federation executive, who was “trying to figure out the next phase in American Jewish history.”  Then the bar mitzvah boy, a public school student, delivered an insightful homily on the Torah portion: “‘a religion can change and grow,’ Jon said. We’re not exactly the same community we were yesterday, he said, and our religion grows with us. ‘The Torah wants us to understand that.’”

Goldberg continues that the parents’ role in the ceremony was “downright astonishing:”

[W]hen the rabbi called them to the bimah for an aliyah, a Torah blessing, something new happened. … [H]e called the parents’ names: Geoff Lewis ve-Chana bat Yosef…. Jon’s father, doesn’t have a Hebrew name. He’s not Jewish.

Goldberg had been to b’nai mitzvah ceremonies where children of interfaith families “performed the traditional rituals as credibly as any other Jewish child,” but:

I’ve never before seen a traditional, old-fashioned Hebrew davening in which a non-Jewish parent was welcomed as a participant, honored like any other parent who brings a Jewish child into the covenant — perhaps even more so, since he was bringing his child into a covenant he had not taken as his own…. The inclusiveness didn’t stop there. Both parents stood before the open ark and offered blessings to their son — Anne in Hebrew, Geoff in English.

Goldberg describes his reaction:

At first it was a shock to watch. Almost immediately, though, it felt completely natural. Now I can’t get over the shock that this is still unusual.

He then makes two conclusions. First, the father was “one-half of the couple that raised this Jewish child. How could he not be part of the celebration, not share his joy with the community as his child becomes a man?” Second, “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed?”

I think I was particularly taken with Goldberg’s essay because I spent most of the end of February and early March traveling around the country trying to raise funding for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. Two comments stuck with me and made me wonder whether attitudes are really changing. A genuinely welcoming Reform rabbi said that he did not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because he favors Jews marrying other Jews and thinks that by officiating for interfaith couples he is communicating an inconsistent message. The executive director of a Jewish foundation said he wants his children to marry other Jews and is not sure that’s work is conducive to that — although he wants to welcome couples once intermarriage has happened. Lydia Kukoff, our new Board member, told me that these are the same things she heard forty years ago, when she was a founder of the effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.

It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child, to question “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed,” and to give praise (very well-deserved, in my opinion) to Rabbi David Schuck who “dared to open [his community’s] gates as few other rabbis have done.”

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.” I hope Goldberg’s essay will help move us in that direction.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

A Stupid, Ill-conceived Approach from Israel


Yesterday Ha’aretz reported that MASA, which it describes as “an organization that works to strengthen ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews,” had “launched a scare-tactic campaign that urges Israelis to combat assimilation in North America by working to prevent the “loss” through intermarriage of their own Jewish acquaintances.

This has got to be the most stupid, ill-conceived effort coming out of Israel in many years.

MASA is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government that helps finance and market semester- and year-length Israel programs for Jews outside of Israel. (The Jewish Agency for Israel is the organization in charge of immigration and absorption of Jews from outside of Israel.)

According to Ha’aretz, the 10-day Hebrew-language campaign features a video clip with a top Israeli TV reporter stating that more than 50% of young Jews assimilate. It likens Jews who marry outside of the religion to missing persons, with fake notices and pictures that as part of the campaign will be plastered on walls around Israel. MASA hopes the campaign will spur the Israeli public to commit to the cause of preventing marriage to non-Jews, which Jewish Agency officials believe is tantamount to a “strategic national threat.”

Equating intermarriage with assimilation is the classic mistake that Israeli leaders repeatedly make, as anyone who follows the Israeli press knows. I have long thought that Israeli leaders have no conception whatsoever of the realities of intermarriage in North America. (Last year when the annual convention of the United Jewish Communities was held in Jerusalem, I proposed a session to be called “What Israelis Should Know About Intermarriage in North America,” but the idea was rejected.)

Israeli leaders simply do not understand that many intermarried couples, and the adult children of intermarried parents, are actively engaging in Jewish life.

And they most certainly do not understand that many more would do so if they were welcomed, not described as a “strategic threat” by the community they want to participate in.

Indeed, the “strategic threat” to the liberal Jewish future lies in not doing whatever can be done to attract and support Jewish choices by people in interfaith relationships.

The MASA campaign is a step in exactly the wrong direction. According to Ha’aretz, the ad asks anyone who “knows a young Jew living abroad” to call MASA and concludes, “Together, we will strengthen his or her bond to Israel, so that we don’t lose them.” Half of those “young Jews living abroad” have intermarried parents and many of the rest are put off by condemnations of intermarriage. If MASA thinks it will successfully recruit those young Jews to its programs by marketing them as an antidote to intermarriage, it is very sadly mistaken.

It wasn’t that long ago that Jewish identity building programs in North America – birthright Israel, Jewish summer camps, day schools – marketed themselves as preventing intermarriage. After some effective lobbying took place, that rarely happens today. A significant percentage of birthright Israel trip participants have one Jewish parent, and the leaders and funders of that program realized that denigrating intermarriage would deter that population from participating. The leaders and funders of camps and day schools likewise realized that they couldn’t sell their programs to intermarried parents by arguing that they would prevent their children from intermarrying.

My hope is that the North American leaders of the United Jewish Communities and the philanthropists who have funded these programs and who have influence with the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel will use that influence wisely to lobby for an end to MASA’s counter-productive campaign.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.