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Advocates of Outreach to Interfaith Couples Are Encouraged by New Survey

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July - August 2005

Advocates of outreach to interfaith couples, reports The Forward (July 8, 2005) “are touting a new survey that they say upends previous arguments against efforts to reach out to the children of mixed marriages.”  

The survey, released in July by the Jewish Outreach Institute, found that young adult children of intermarried couples maintain strong cultural ties to the Jewish community, despite low levels of religious identification.  

Titled “A Flame Still Burns: The Dimensions and Determinants of Jewish Identity Among Young Adult Children of the Intermarried,” the survey was based on 90 in-depth interviews with young adults, ages 22 to 30, living in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Although only 30 percent of the respondents consider themselves “Jewish” by religion, almost 70 percent affirmed that “being Jewish” is either “somewhat” or “very” important to them, and 78 percent expressed a desire to “transmit a Jewish ethnic identity to their children.” More than half said they had attended a Jewish cultural event, such as a film festival, art show or book fair, in the past two years.  

According to The Forward, “The new poll follows more than a decade of community soul-searching over interfaith marriage and its communal consequences, triggered by the finding in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that about half of Jews wed in the previous five years married non-Jewish partners. ... Jewish organizations have debated whether to focus their efforts on shoring up traditional sanctions against intermarriage in order to reduce the rate of intermarriage, or to work more aggressively to welcome interfaith families into community life, in hopes of encouraging their children to remain Jewish. Advocates of the more expansive approach hailed the new study as an affirmation that children of interfaith couples retain some foundations of Jewish identity. ...”  

Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Outreach, notes that the new data shows “that people care about their Judaism but don’t have good vehicles to express it in the current institutional structure. There’s absolutely a cause for optimism, provided the community doesn’t keep that frown on our face and our finger wagging.”  

Stephen Bayme of the American Jewish Community, a proponent of community efforts to discourage interfaith marriage, is skeptical. He says that cultural identification is “very laudable, but that is hardly a prescription for sustaining long-term identification.” He believes that the Jewish community should make priorities of promoting marriage among Jews and the conversion of non-Jewish spouses to Judaism, and, when those approaches fail, encourage interfaith couples to raise their children exclusively as Jews.  

Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said that effective outreach to the children of the intermarried, as with anyone, was mostly about “being welcoming and making personal connections.” The organization is developing a number of programs targeting this population. Two years ago, it tested the “grandparents connect” initiative in Orlando, Florida. The program sought to tap into the Jewish knowledge and commitment of grandparents to help educate the children of their intermarried offspring. Also, an eight-month curriculum for non-Jewish mothers was tested successfully in Atlanta several years ago and will be expanded nationally in September.  

The key is to find “entry points into Jewish life and broaden them,” Golin said. “It would be a mistake to write these kids off. For the most part, they’re not practicing another religion and they’re proud of their Jewish heritage. There’s still that spark.”  

Editorially, The Forward declares that, “The Jewish community needs to come to terms with the fact that it’s living in a new world where barriers are nonexistent and ideas flow freely. In today’s world, every Jew is a Jew by choice. Most Jews know this; it’s only the leadership of the community’s institutions that hasn’t come to terms with it. Judaism will continue to thrive only if individuals are encouraged to embrace it and made to feel welcome when they do. The question is no longer how to stop Jews from fleeing the community, whether by ‘marrying out’ or simply assimilating. Those are yesterday’s problems. The burning question today is this: Can the Jewish community make room for the many types of Jews who want to join?”  

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