May 2024 News from the Center


After October 7

The JTA Teen Fellowship produced an excellent article, “For teens in interfaith families, the war in Gaza can be a stress test of their Jewish identities,” that describes the experiences of three Jewish teens from interfaith families. Fern Chertok, a leading researcher on interfaith families, said “[b]eing able to learn from different viewpoints is often a dividend for teens from interfaith families… They are the natural bridge builders.” Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal, who works with teens from interfaith families as director of her congregation’s religious school, made the most important point – she “doesn’t see a difference between how interfaith families or other Jewish families relate to Israel, given the disagreements and diverse upbringings among Jews.”

The JFNA staff responsible for a new JFNA survey described in eJP “newfound interest in Jewish life” after October 7, describing a “Surge” of people showing up who previously were not very engaged and who are “craving community.” The authors say this “explosive increase in interest and engagement … is an opportunity and responsibility of historic proportions;” a key response is to “increase belonging,” more training in relational engagement for staff and volunteers, more notice and welcome of everyone. So far, no data has been released on whether the Jewish engagement of Jewish respondents was affected by how their partners who are not Jewish feel in Jewish settings.

New York Community Study

The UJA-Federation of New York federation released the New York 2023 Jewish Community Study, discussed in the New York Jewish Week and in eJP.  

The JTA story only noted that “The rate of intermarriage is lower in New York than among Jews in the rest of the country.” While the overall percent of New York married couples who are intermarried is 37%, it is 46% of all non-Orthodox couples, and 57% of non-Orthodox couples who are 30-49 years old (compared to 34% of those who are 65+).

The eJP report quotes Ira Sheskin as attributing the 6% growth in Jewish households since the last survey in 2011 “in part to interfaith marriages” – “If two Jews marry one another, you get one Jewish household. If two Jews marry non-Jews, you get two Jewish households.”

The study found that 16% of adults in intermarried families report they are raising their children Jewish and 5% Jewish and something else (compared to 96% and 0% respectively in in-married families). Emily Sigalow, one of the study’s directors, is quoted in the eJP story as saying “a lower percentage of interfaith couples said they raised their children Jewish than expected… In other big Jewish communities like Los Angeles and Chicago, there are higher percentages [of people saying their children are Jewish]…” Sigalow “attributed the difference to how pollsters phrase the questions: ‘We asked about how children are raised, whereas others asked about their Jewish identity.’”

Importantly, as to 20% of the children in intermarried families, and 27% of the children in those families under three years of age, the parents have not decided yet on religious upbringing – representing a big opportunity. Moreover, 44% of adults in intermarried families reporting they are raising their children as “none of the above” – yet 66% of those families celebrate Hanukkah and 62% attend a Passover seder. This illustrates the lack of clarity and consistency around what it means to raise a child Jewish, or Jewish and something else, or neither of those choices.

However, only 27% of intermarried households with children held a Jewish naming ceremony, and only 17% have had or are planning to have a bar or bat mitzvah. The low figure for naming ceremonies is understandable given the large percentage of undecideds with younger children, but the low figure for bar/bat mitzvah, when children obviously are older, is concerning.

The study asked questions about the reasons people did not attend religious services, but unlike some other local community studies, did not give as a possible answer not feeling welcome.

Finally, the study asked respondents how important it would be that their grandchildren be Jewish and marry someone Jewish. They conclude from the answers that Jewish New Yorkers feel that “Jewish continuity is important” – suggesting, wrongly I would say, that marrying someone Jewish is necessary for Jewish continuity. In fact, intermarrieds in the survey understood this: while 42% said it was important that their grandchildren be Jewish, only 17% said it was important that their grandchildren marry someone Jewish.


In March I wrote that Noah Feldman’s new book To Be a Jew Today offers A Fresh Perspective on Interfaith Marriage. This month an article in the Harvard Law Bulletin (where Feldman teaches) says he “explores the tension in discouraging intermarriage amid societal expectations that we should be free to marry whomever we happen to love, writing that ‘there is something troubling about saying that I can only love someone if the person is part of my Us, not if the person is part of my Them.’”

Samir Mehta’s “For American Jews, interfaith weddings are a new normal – and creatively weave both traditions together” is a very pleasant recounting of the ways interfaith couples incorporate their families’ traditions. At the end, under the heading “Tough conversations,” she writes that “Not everything is fun and easy in the world of interfaith weddings.” Couples who she interviewed told her stories about their weddings – but some were about rabbis who would not officiate for them, or family members who disapproved. But she concludes, “Overall, however, most people’s weddings were happy memories that offered hints to the interfaith lives and household that they would go on to create together.”

The second (perhaps annual?) Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism conference is being held May 29 and 30. As I wrote last year, although one of the motivations for the gathering then was “lagging Reform synagogue attendance and declining revenues,” nothing was said about inclusion of interfaith families as a way to reverse declining enrollment. I was pleased to see that this year, 18Doors’ Jodi Bromberg is a panelist, and I hope to report on what was said next month.

Also in the news:

  • In a positive development from Israel, the Supreme Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel would be recognized for purposes of Israeli citizenship. Previously, non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel were recognized, but not those conduced in Israel. One leading political figure “welcomed the ruling, saying, ‘We all need to live here in mutual tolerance and respect.’”
  • A report of a presentation by Dr. Tatjana Lichtenstein, a professor at the University of Texas, on the experiences of intermarried families in the Holocaust.
  • PRRI published a survey on “Family Religious Dynamics and Interfaith Relationships” but unfortunately did not report any data on Jews or Jewish families.

March 2024 News from the Center


The Jewish world’s attention continues to be focused on Israel and antisemitism. There have been mentions in the media of increased interest in Jewish identity, but they haven’t been connected with inclusion of interfaith families. The topic apparently was not discussed on the agenda or the sidelines at either the Jewish Funders Network or CCAR conferences in March.

One significant development was the release of prominent Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman’s new book, To Be a Jew Today – A New Guide to God, Israel and the Jewish People. Attention to the book has, not surprisingly, focused on what it says about Israel. But as my enthusiastic review published on the Times of Israel blogs says, Feldman offers A Fresh Perspective on Interfaith Marriage.

Feldman explains how the strong taboo against interfaith marriage has been overcome among progressive Jews by the competing values of free choice and romantic love. I was heartened by two points. First, Feldman suggests that traditional Jews could evolve Jewish law that they consider binding so as to accommodate interfaith marriages, as some have for gay marriages. Second, in what sounds like a radically inclusive Judaism in which partners from different faith traditions are thought of and treated as equal, he says that “the only challenge left” for progressive Jews “is to reframe the acceptance of interfaith marriage as affirmatively positive,” not just a reluctant concession to reality. I hope Feldman’s thinking on interfaith marriage gets the attention among Jewish leaders that it deserves.

Another significant development was the announcement of an important partnership between ADL and 18Doors that will address the need for programs and resources on antisemitism specifically for interfaith couples. As Jodi Bromberg said, “Couples and family members come from a place of love, connection and shared humanity—and yet, these conversations around antisemitism and allyship can be hard to navigate.” This partnership is a clear sign that the ADL recognizes the importance of helping interfaith couples remain allies and feel included in Jewish communities.

II do remain worried that statements, like one in the Boston Globe this week, that the Jewish people “are fundamentally alone,” and ongoing calls for strengthening Jewish peoplehood, by focusing on the “mainstream,” and putting our own oxygen masks on first, could result in pushing interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds away. I’m seeing more emails coming from Jewish organizations and professionals ending with “Am Yisrael Chai!” It’s a sentiment I share – may the Jewish people live and thrive.

But “Jewish people” is a shorthand term susceptible to different interpretation. It could mean Jews only. But it could include partners from different faith backgrounds who are not Jewish themselves. As I’ve said before, I wish people would use the term “Jewish community” because it’s more inclusive. The partners from different faith backgrounds and their extended families are the natural allies of the Jewish people – and the Jewish community needs all the allies it can get.

It’s very tricky. In The Jewish Mainstream, Adina Poupko writes that the Natan Fund, which she leads, has paid close attention to “outliers” – people not yet included in Jewish communal life – as “an early funder of LGBTQ inclusion, Jewish farming and environmentalism, new models of synagogues and grassroots communities, and Jewish arts and culture.” (She could have included interfaith families among her outliers – when I ran InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors), Natan was a very influential early funder).

But now, with Israel and the Jewish people at war on many fronts, she says we need to direct more of our funding to “the mainstream”:

“We need to shift from meeting people ‘where they are’ to providing them with opportunities to learn and engage and invite them over to where we are, where most Jews are. We shouldn’t be so accommodating that we turn our communities upside down or compromise on core tenets that are existentially important to nearly all of us.”

Poupko thankfully is careful to say that she’s not suggesting “that we put our support for the outliers on hold.” The point of her essay may be that anti-Zionists should not be accommodated, which is a whole other question. But it would be terrible if Jewish leaders start thinking that, and acting like, we shouldn’t be accommodating to those not yet included in Jewish life.

Finally, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, writes that in the aftermath of October 7 Jews have been “made to feel utterly alone by the hostility of the world,” but that ironically the Jewish spirit of many has been awakened – what he calls “a tidal wave of prosemitism.” Rabbi Hauer caught my eye when he said that we must figure out how to lock in the wave of prosemitism “for those who have yet to firmly establish themselves within the Jewish communal family.” Given the Orthodox Union’s past statements, I doubt that Rabbi Hauer had interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds in mind. But there’s always hope.

Also worth reading:

  • In Kriah and a Crucifix: A Rabbi’s Story of Interfaith Mourning Rabbi Simon Stratford, an 18Doors Rukin Fellow, writes that “I’ve realized that in a person’s darkest hours, my role as a rabbi isn’t to set boundaries and limit the participation of mourners but rather to do what I can to make them feel included and supported in their grief.”
  • In The Story of Esther, the Story of Us,  Crystal Hill relates her own interfaith family to Purim’s story of Esther’s interfaith family and current concerns about expressing identity.
  • A group of Orthodox Church and Catholic Church representatives are recommending that the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church take steps to recognize each others’ marriages.

Noah Feldman on Intermarriage


I went to a fascinating “conversation” last night between Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, the president of Hebrew College, and Noah Feldman, the Harvard Law School professor and frequent New York Times contributor. Feldman’s July 2007 New York Times magazine article about the reaction of his modern Orthodox community’s reaction to his intermarriage was the subject of heated commentary that our Micah Sachs blogged about extensively at the time.

Hebrew College is a wonderful institution which had a major role in developing the Me’ah program of adult Jewish education, runs Prozdor, an outstanding supplmentary high school Jewish education program, and a few years ago created a trans-denominational rabbinical school, among many other things. Rabbi Lehmann, who only recently became president of the College, said that intermarriage had become a much bigger issue there particularly in the rabbinical school, with issues being presented about whether people who are intermarried could be admitted to the school, or whether people who developed interfaith relationships while in school could be ordained. (Coincidentally, we’ve just published an article by Edie Mueller about her experience fifteen years ago when she wanted to attend rabbinical school and was told she could not be admitted because she was intermarried.)  Rabbi Lehmann said that the issue of officiation at weddings of interfaith couples is also being raised among their rabbinic students.

It is difficult to capture the wide ranging conversation about intermarriage between Lehmann, Feldman and the audience. One interesting thread was when Feldman described an internal tension in the thinking of American Jews about how we should think about who people should marry. After pointing out that a Jew would experience as anti-Semitic a situation where a non-Jewish family objected to their child marrying a Jew, he asked why is it socially normative for only Jews, and possibly African-Americans, to say that they want their children to marry only other like them? Someone made the point that the child of a black person and a white person will still be black, therefore blacks have less reason to insist on endogamous marriage, but the same isn’t true of the child of a Jew and a non-Jew.

After saying that half of Jews are “voting with their huppahs,” Feldman said there is a deep and profound soul-searching going on in the Jewish community about intermarriage, with many people feeling that their Judaism is not incompatible with their being intermarried. I understood Lehmann to say in that context that intermarriage “will certainly weaken” Jewish affiliation or continuity or community, a point that I argued with him privately after the program ended. If there was a flash point in the discussion, that was it.  As is usual in my experience in this kind of setting, the points of view were all over the spectrum. A woman in the audience said with emotion that her intermarriage had not lessened her Jewish involvement in any way. A man in the audience said he was intermarried, very active in the Workmen’s Circle, and his three teenage sons were fluent in Yiddish. Another woman in the after-program private discussions said that the way to prevent intermarriage was for parents to forbid interdating.

Aside from the two audience comments, the one perspective that was not presented clearly by either Lehmann or Feldman was the view that intermarriage is an opportunity for enlarging and enriching the Jewish community. Feldman didn’t discuss how he and his wife are raising their children, and the importance of encouraging and supporting Jewish choices by interfaith couples and families in that regard was overlooked.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.