A Terrible Message from the “God Squad”


We got a Google alert about an April 3 “God Squad” column that appeared in the Edmond Oklahoma Sun. In the column, Rabbi Marc Gellman responds to a young Jewish woman who wrote to him in pain, seeking advice because of her parents’ rejection of her Catholic boyfriend, even though she says she intends and her boyfriend accepts that their children will have the same connection to Judaism as she had. His response is a classic example of the wrong way for Jewish parents (and leaders) to speak to young adults about their interfaith relationships:

I’ve tried to write you an equally eloquent response that could have come from sensitive parents. It may not reflect your parents’ sentiments, but they are mine. I want you to understand how they view things, not so you’ll agree with them but so you might understand them. Hopefully, reconciliation will come on the far side of understanding.

To our dearest daughter:

We will always love you, and even in the heat of this disagreement, we believe in you and are happy you’ve found love. We don’t care about the color of your boyfriend’s skin, and we don’t hate his religion. What we do care about is your life and your duty to preserve the faith and traditions of the religion in which you were raised.

Our task in life is not merely to find love for ourselves, but also to honor and preserve the spiritual legacy and traditions bequeathed to us. Hundreds of generations of Jews before you have lived as Jews and sacrificed as Jews, even in the face of terrible oppression and death. If they could preserve their faith through times of hell, why can’t you preserve your faith in times of freedom?

The idea that Judaism will end in our family with you for no other reason than that you met a nice Catholic guy is devastating to us. There’s nothing wrong with him or with his faith, but there is something right about our Jewish heritage, and this fact must be weighed, even against your own personal happiness.

Furthermore, we disagree with you because of the rights of your future children. A child needs to be able to walk into a church or a synagogue and in one of the two places be able to say, “I am home here.” Despite your protestations, your children may not be able to do that with one Jewish parent and one onlooker.

May God forgive us, but we’d be more able to accept your conversion to Catholicism than your present plan. At least then your kids would have a single religious presence in the home and full and clear support from both of you to give them firm religious identities. Of course, if your boyfriend were to convert to Judaism, we’d be more than slightly happier, but that is his choice and cannot be coerced.

You get the idea…

I wrote this letter to the editor (and to Rabbi Gellman):

Rabbi Gellman’s response, conveying his sentiments about intermarriage, is based on two wrong assumptions. First, he says that children need a single religious presence in the home in order to develop a firm religious identity; the fact is that many intermarried parents — in Boston, 60% — are raising their children as Jews. Second, he says that a non-Jew willing to raise Jewish children has no good reason not to convert; in fact, many of the thousands of non-Jewish parents who are raising Jewish children have very thoughtfully decided not to convert for important reasons such as maintaining their own religious beliefs and lack of familiarity with Judaism.

Guilting young Jews with the notions that their ancestors preserved Judaism through persecution and that they should choose their Jewish heritage over their personal happiness, as Rabbi Gellman does, will alienate young Jews today who know that is a false choice. They know they can intermarry and still maintain their connection to Judaism and raise Jewish children — but being made to feel terrible about their choice by Jewish leaders is bound to push them away for Jewish involvement.

I surely hope this column is not picked up and published anywhere else.

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

The Critics Respond to the Boston Survey


Steven M. Cohen, one of the leading critics of outreach, has an op-ed on the results of the recent demographic study of Boston’s Jewish community in the current issue of the Forward, co-signed by demographers Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller.

Cohen et al first question whether the 60% figure for interfaith families raising their children as Jews reported in the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study is accurate, based on the way that the question was asked. They acknowledge that the Boston survey was conducted by “distinguished social scientists” who are “first-rate researchers.” We have to leave the technical aspects of the survey’s accuracy to the its authors, Leonard Saxe and his colleagues, but we are confident they are fully prepared to defend their methodology.

Cohen et al next challenge the survey author’s assertion that the 60% rate is “exceptional,” citing studies of six other cities, including Cleveland, St. Louis, Miami, Baltimore, Bergen County, N.J., and Hartford, as finding rates of between 59% and 66% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews.

It is a statistical fact that if more than 50% of interfaith families raise their children as Jews, then the Jewish community will increase in size, not decrease. The Boston survey authors emphasized that contrary to the general presumption that intermarriage decreases the size of the Jewish community, in Boston it appeared to be increasing its size.

If studies of single cities–and, by the way, most Jews live in urban areas–are showing that more than a majority of interfaith families are raising their children as Jews, that is great news. It knocks out one of the major underpinnings of the opponents of intermarriage and outreach, that intermarriage decreases the size of the community. Sadly, Cohen et al don’t make that point in their essay.

Cohen et al next acknowledge that while not “exceptional,” the Boston rate is “unusually high,” “indeed in the high range.” But they say that this can not be attributed “primarily to targeting intermarried families.” Instead, they contend that Boston’s Jewish community is “special” with impressive institutions and “exciting opportunities for engagement” including in Jewish education of all sorts. They conclude that the Boston survey “makes no instrumental case for outreach.”

We are extraordinarily disappointed that Cohen et al are unwilling to include Boston’s targeting of intermarried families as even partially responsible for the 60% figure. It is a simple, undeniable fact that Boston relative to every other city in the country has the most coordinated, extensive and well-funded programs of outreach to interfaith families, and that the Boston federation, CJP, has made outreach to the intermarried a priority more than any other local federation, to the extent of saying so on every invitation to every CJP event. We believe that is what makes Boston special–or certainly at least part of what makes Boston special.

Cohen et al note that the most recent survey of New York city found that only 30% of interfaith families there were raising their children as Jews. Certainly New York city is “special” with impressive institutions and opportunities for education and other engagement. What New York city lacks is any coordinated, extensive and well-funded programs of outreach.

What really matters in all of this is the response of Jewish leaders who are in a position to make funding decisions–the lay and professional leadership of the federations, and the principals and staff of Jewish family foundations. I was frustrated recently when a leading federation executive, when I urged him to try to reach a 60% level of interfaith families raising their children as Jews in his community, said, “if only we knew what to do.” I was frustrated recently when the executive director of a major foundation said “we like to fund programs that work” with the unmistakeable implication that he did not belive that outreach programs do. I was frustrated on two separate occasions recently when staff of a major federation and a major foundation said they wanted to do research before funding any outreach programming.

Research is fine. Every study of the impact of outreach programs has shown that a significant increase in Jewish engagement after participation in the programs. We are confident additional evaluations of outreach programs would show the same result, and welcome them. But in the meantime, while waiting for more research, the Boston survey results should be regarded as compelling evidence justifying an investment in the same kind of outreach programs that CJP has funded. We say to Jewish funders: what are you waiting for?

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

Intermarriage Does Not Equal Assimilation


Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s Likkud party, was reported in an article in the Jerusalem Post to have said that there is no future for Jewish life outside of Israel because of “assimilation and intermarriage.” Netanyahu clarifies that he didn’t say that; what he says he said was that there is no future for Jewish life in the Diaspora without the state of Israel. But he still says “we have lost countless Jews in the Diaspora to assimilation and intermarriage.”

It is a terrible mistake for Jewish leaders like Netanyahu to equate assimilation and intermarriage, for reasons which I tried to explain–succinctly–in this letter to the editor of the Jerusalem Post:

Binyamin Netanyahu is wrong to equate assimilation and intermarriage. It is correct to say that many Jews have been lost in the Diaspora because of assimilation, which means giving up participation and engagement in Jewish life. But many intermarried families in North America are not assimilated–they are actively participating and enaging in Jewish life, and enriching the Jewish community.

It is very important that Jewish leaders not demean intermarriage. In San Francisco’s latest demographic study, more interfaith families were found to raise their children as Jews than nationally; the author of the study concluded that it was because of welcoming outreach attitudes and programs. I expect that the results of Boston’s demographic study, coming soon, will show the same. But intermarried families will not willingly enter the Jewish community if they hear intermarriage disparaged as a negative loss by leaders like Netanyahu.

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