There’s a strange air of delight in the manner in which Steven M. Cohen describes the failure of the attempts over the past several decades to embrace the intermarried families (Welcomed, but uninterested: America’s intermarried Jews reject Jewish outreach, Ha’aretz, Oct. 26, 2016). The entire article feels like a death announcement delivered via a singing telegram. Cohen’s facts are sound, his conclusions are absolutely on the money, but does he have to sound so happy?
It comes down to this, Cohen states: 72% of non-Orthodox American Jews marry non-Jews, and over 20 years, the community’s attempts to embrace those intermarried families have failed completely.
The bulk of non-Orthodox Jewish institutions have “radically revised their policies, practices, and ethos to invite the intermarried,” writes Cohen, including in the same effort all kinds of non-traditional families, such as the LGBTQ Jews and “others who challenge the legacy notions of engaged Jewish families and individuals.” According to him you can’t throw a stone at a Jewish institution website on your computer screen without crashing the words “diverse,” “welcoming,” and “inclusive” somewhere in there. But they’re not interested, apparently.
Using the great, eye-opening Pew study of 2013 (A Portrait of Jewish Americans), Cohen points out that the signs of Jewish life in intermarried Jewish families are fast diminishing. 80% of non-Orthodox Jew+Jew couple with children belong to synagogues — only 16% of Jew+goy do. On High Holiday services, 92% of J+Js with kids show up for the services, only 32% of J+gs do.
Only 26% of J+g parents say being Jewish is very important to them — compared with 75% of J+Js. 13% of J+gs feel very emotionally attached to Israel, as opposed to 45% of J+Js. 33% of J+gs say they fast on Yom Kippur, 90% of J+Js do. 4% of J+gs light Shabbat candles, 60% of J+Js do. And 85% of J+gs have a Christmas tree at home, only 6% of J+Js. Only 31% of J+Gs give their children a Jewish education, compared with 90% of J+Js.
In short, once a Jewish person marries a non-Jewish person, there’s no stopping the process by which he or she and their offspring will move outside the Jewish community and into the community at large. It’s interesting to note in this context that the departure from the Jewish timeline does not have to do with faith, nor with observance. Those are more likely to serve as social markers than as dependable tools in preventing the religious drift. The only thing that virtually guarantees that one’s children remain connected to the Jewish community is one’s spouse.
Here is where Cohen’s astute and fearless observation is finally trapped by his political beliefs: “Those who seek to increase the participation of the intermarried in Jewish life need to stop importuning the institutions, and turn their sights elsewhere,” he concludes. “We need to recognize that few of the intermarried either attach to Jewish institutions or care very much about them.” Instead, he insists, Jewish families are where new Jewish families are grown: “Rabbis, committee chairs and educators can help,” he points out, “but parents and grandparents are critical to fully integrating their intermarried family members in Jewish life.”
It’s a sweet sentiment, and Cohen probably knows a handful of cases where the loving and non-judgmental family of the Jewish spouse made a difference in keeping the children in the Jewish realm. But the reality of the figures he cites suggests that in most cases, the most loving and accepting parents have also failed to make a difference — unless you would suggest that those 96% of families of mixed couples that don’t light Shabbat candles have all sat Shiva over them, an unlikely notion.
What works for the Orthodox in avoiding the sad drift of intermarried couples is the fact that the community and the families do not tolerate this possibility at all. The very idea of intermarriage is repulsive to Orthodox Jews, and the entire community is organically set up around the idea of the J+J exclusive union. If Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist communities kept all their religious differences except for the tolerance of intermarriage, they, too, would still be with us in fifty years.