Is This the Truth?


Steven M. Cohen has written another provocative paper, A Tale of Two Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews, published by the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

As he has in the past, Cohen compares Jewish behaviors and attitudes–holiday observance, synagogue membership and attendance, having Jewish social networks, providing Jewish education to children, feeling attachment to the Jewish people and to Israel–of in-married Jews with intermarried Jews, looking at data from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01. The first conclusion of Cohen’s paper is this:

The gaps between the in-married and intermarried are so large and persistent that it seems that we are developing into two distinct populations: the in-married and the intermarried…. The identity chasm between in-married and intermarried is wide and gaping, suggesting the imagery of ‘Two Jewries.’… ntermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.

The fundamental problem with Cohen’s argument is that comparing the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of in-married couples with all intermarried families is uninformative and unhelpful. We know that probably one-third of intermarried families, sadly from a Jewish perspective, are raising their children as Christians (or in the other religion in the home). Obviously the lack of Jewish behaviors and attitudes of that segment of intermarried families skew the overall results. How is it helpful to set up a straw man of all intermarried families that can so easily be knocked down?

What is interesting and helpful is to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of in-married couples with intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews. In Jewish Identity among the Adult Children of Intermarriage: Event Horizon or Navigable Horizon? (2004), Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok of the Cohen Center at Brandeis do just that, and find that the gaps in outcomes are greatly reduced. The Jewish identity of a child of intermarried parents is determined not simply by the fact that the parents are intermarried, but largely by the environment the family creates. They conclude that treating intermarriage as a black hole for Jewish identity is a mistake.

What are the implications of this research? By failing to control for the environment in which intermarried children are raised, the outcomes of intermarriage truly appear to be an event horizon for Jewish identity, a place from which no recovery is possible… But this is not the case–intermarried households are diverse, and those raising their children exclusively as Jews are far from a lost cause… Tarring all intermarriages with the same brush will make the event horizon a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why does any of this matter? Cohen acknowledges that the purpose of his paper is to influence policy-makers. The logical conclusion for a policy maker to draw from information that there is a wide chasm in Jewish engagement between in-married and intermarrieds is to write off the intermarried and focus on increasing the Jewish engagement of the in-married. In contrast, the logical conclusion from information that intermarried families raising their children as Jews are closer in Jewish engagement to in-married families is to ask, “what can we do to encourage more interfaith families to raise their children as Jews?”

To the extent that the way that Cohen talks about intermarriage is widely disseminated, it will influence not just policy makers, but interfaith couples as well. After describing intermarriage as the great threat to Jewish continuity, Cohen’s second conclusion is that Jewish education “works”–and he ranks just how effectively day and supplemental schools, camps, youth groups and teen Israel travel work by how much they reduce intermarriage. Thus day school attendance reduces intermarriage by 14%; supplemental school attendance, 2%; camps, youth groups, Israel travel, 4% each.

Interestingly, Cohen acknowledges that Jewish education, camps, youth groups and Israel trips “exert salutary effects even in the event of intermarriage…. [E]ven in the event of initial intermarriage, accumulated Jewish education serves to further chances of Jewish continuity, either by increasing the likelihood of conversion… or by increasing the likelihood that the mixed married couple will raise its children exclusively in Judaism.”

If one believes this, then one’s goal should be to get more children of intermarrieds into accumulated Jewish education experiences. But one has to talk about intermarriage differently to attract those children. Cohen knows that the “true challenge to policy-makers is in the area of recruitment” and that how a message is communicated is important: “Clearly the Jewish community has a strong interest in promoting the use of Jewish education. The question is how to do that.” Simply put, you cannot “sell” intermarried parents on the virtues of day schools, or camps, or anything, on the basis that the experience will reduce the chances that their child will intermarry–especially if you talk about intermarriage as the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity.

Focusing on how many children of intermarried parents themselves intermarry is the wrong question; why not focus on the rate they raise their own children as Jews? Cohen says that a majority do not–but that is not the case in Boston, where the recently released 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey found that 60% of interfaith families there are raising their children as Jews, and thereby increasing the size of the Jewish community. Moreover, Cohen’s analysis focuses on children of intermarried parents who were themselves raising children in 2000-01. Most of the survey respondents were probably raised before 1990, at a time when there wasn’t a resurgence of Jewish educational opportunities, or outreach programs. Phillips and Chertok, commenting on a Hillel study of college students in 2004, note that “this cohort has grown up in a very different environment, one in which children of intermarriage are the norm, particularly in Reform congregational schools, and where just about everyone has a relative who is either not Jewish or is married to someone who isn’t Jewish.” It is too early to tell whether previous rates of engagement will continue.

My hope is that Steven Cohen can be persuaded to promote Jewish education experiences not on the basis of how much they reduce intermarriage, but rather on the basis of how much they increase the chances that the next generation of children will be raised exclusively as Jews. There are comments in his own paper that would support him doing so. He acknowledges that “The decision to raise one’s child as Jewish … affects whether one joins a congregation, observes Jewish holidays, … and a host of other resultant behaviors and decisions.” He says that “The aim, then, is to increase the cultural, spiritual and social capital of today’s Jewish children, so that they will marry other Jews and raise their own Jewish children when they mature,” suggesting that the end goal is not in-marriage for itself, but the raising of Jewish children.

Cohen makes some interesting comments about conversion. The final comment in his paper is that “only conversion substantially improves the chances that today’s intermarried couples will have Jewish children in two generations,” but the statement appears to come out of the blue and is not supported by any discussion. More interesting are these comments:

  • no statistical evidence supports speculation that the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent in 1983 diminished the frequency of conversion; there has been a long-term decline in conversion rates with no particular drop after 1983
  • people don’t convert in order to have their children accepted as Jews by rabbis; they convert in part out of genuine religious conviction, in part out of concerns for providing a religiously harmonious household and out of a willingness to accommodate the preferences of their Jewish spouses.
  • people are converting after years of marriage; Cohen says that it’s too early to tell whether the current rate of conversion–15% of non-Jews married to Jews between 1996 and 2001–will increase.
  • Most interesting, though, is Cohen’s comment that suggests that some number of non-Jewish spouses “switch their identities without the benefit of a formal conversion” and thereby have “conversionary marriages” that “report rates of Jewish involvement that approach those of in-marriages between born-Jews.” That is a comment worth exploring. What Cohen appears to welcome as a “conversionary marriage” may well overlap in significant part with what I would call an interfaith couples raising its children as Jews.

    The most tantalizing comment in Cohen’s paper is this: “For the intermarried, outreach efforts may improve engagement of the current generation….” In his op-ed in the Forward commenting on the Boston survey, Cohen questioned whether Boston’s 60% rate of interfaith families raising their children as Jews could be attributed “primarily to targeting interfaith families.” (emphasis added) That “primarily” is pregnant with the possibility that Cohen would attribute Boston’s success in part to its targeting of interfaith families.

    So in addition to my hope that Steven Cohen will promote Jewish education experiences not because they reduce intermarriage but because they increase the likelihood of future Jewish children, I also hope that he will come out explicitly in favor of programs of outreach to interfaith families.

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