I’m still processing and absorbing UJA-Federation’s big New York Jewish community study, about which we’ve been writing up a storm lately, including a piece I contributed on multiracial families. From an “In the Mix” perspective, it’s interesting that, in contrast to some other landmark Jewish demographic studies — most notably the infamous 1990 study whose most memorable finding was the (later disputed) 52 percent intermarriage rate — intermarriage, while certainly addressed, really wasn’t this study’s central take-away.

Rather, if I had to sum up the study in a Twitter post, I’d say: Jewish world a seesaw with many Orthodox on one end, ‘Just Jewish’ and disengaged on the other & shrinking numbers in between.

And just as the Jewish “community” as a whole is composed of lots of very different subgroups that have little in common with each other, the intermarried population is similarly diverse and hard to generalize about, with some households virtually indistinguishable from (and in some cases more Jewishly engaged than) non-Orthodox in-married ones and others having minimal Jewish ties.

Here are a few highlights, with my preliminary reactions/commentary:

-Half of the non-Orthodox couples that wed between 2006 and 2011 are intermarried.

Not surprising.

“On Jewish engagement, intermarried respondents significantly trail the in-married. The intermarried are much less likely than the in-married to feel that being Jewish is very important, feel that it is very important to be part of a Jewish community, or feel attached to Israel. Since 2002, the large gaps observed then persist into 2011.”

Unfortunate, but not surprising.

“Not all intermarried households are totally detached from Jewish life — more than half light Chanukah candles, nearly half attend a Passover seder, and 3 out of 10 go to Jewish museums and cultural events.”

I love the almost passive aggressive double-negative rhetoric in the first part of this sentence. Shockingly, not ALL intermarried households are TOTALLY lost to the Jewish people.

-“Only 1 in 7 intermarried households belongs to a congregation (in some communities elsewhere in the United States, this proportion is much higher). But among those that do, we find much higher rates of Jewish engagement on almost all measures compared with those intermarried households that do not belong to a congregation. Affiliated intermarried households are close to the congregationally affiliated in-married in their observance of seasonal Jewish holidays, accessing Jewish websites, contributing to Jewish charities, and participating in Jewish cultural events and programs at Jewish community centers.

The finding that synagogue-affiliated intermarried families are similar to synagogue-affiliated in-married families echoes the findings of Boston’s Jewish community study a few years ago.
As for the low number of intermarried households joining synagogues, it’s worth putting this in a little perspective: only 44 percent of all New York-area Jewish households belong to a congregation, and when you take out the Orthodox (over 90 percent of whom affiliate with a synagogue), the numbers are considerably lower. I haven’t had a chance yet to confirm this, but my sense is that, in general, New York has lower synagogue-affiliation rates among the non-Orthodox than other American Jewish communities. Why? My personal theory is that whereas Jews elsewhere feel like an isolated minority and will seek out a synagogue for Jewish social and cultural connections, even if they don’t have any religious or spiritual interest in shul, liberal and secular Jews in New York, with its enormous Jewish population and pervasive Jewish flavor, don’t feel this need. Plus, whereas churchgoing is the social norm in many cities, and houses of worship highly influential, this is less true in New York.

“While some have argued that intermarried households do not feel welcome in Jewish settings, intermarried households do not express more discomfort with Jewish activities than other non-Orthodox groups. At the same time, the fact that relatively few intermarried households belong to a congregation suggests that perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing. Of the 46% of children in intermarried households being raised “not Jewish,” only about a third are being raised in another religion. Another 13% are “undecided,” suggesting that communal efforts to engage intermarried households should support efforts to raise Jewish children.”

Co-author Steven M. Cohen has made this point a lot lately, most recently in a Foundation for Jewish Camp study, that Jewish institutions are plenty welcoming to the intermarried. Not sure what I think of this assessment, but I do agree with the “suggestion” here that “perhaps” expanding efforts to engage intermarried households is “worth pursuing.”

… the affiliated intermarried are far more likely than the unaffiliated in-married to participate in adult Jewish learning programs or study informally alone or with a friend or teacher. They are also twice as likely to volunteer for a Jewish organization and visit Jewish websites, and are more likely to regularly participate in Shabbat meals, feel part of a Jewish community, give to Jewish charities (other than UJA-Federation), and attend services or a program at a Jewish community center.”

This is big, and it reflects what I’ve seen: synagogue affiliation is a much greater indicator of how involved/connected a household is than whether or not the members are intermarried.

Over the years, opposition in the Jewish population to intermarriage and one’s children intermarrying has steadily declined … To learn how attitudes to this issue are distributed in the population, we asked Jewish respondents the following question:
“Say a child of yours married a non-Jew who did not convert to Judaism. Would you be upset with that, or would that not upset you? [WAIT FOR ANSWER. IF UPSET, ASK:] Would you be very upset, or somewhat upset?”
The Jewish respondents’ answers were split almost evenly, with 50.5% not upset and 49.5% upset (33% of the total would be very upset). However, variations among the respondents by demographic and Jewish-engagement characteristics speak to very wide differences in the population. In general, more engaged Jews express greater concern with intermarriage, as do the more traditional … More than three-fifths (61%) of people who report they contribute to UJA-Federation would be upset … A majority (56%) of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset with their children intermarrying. In contrast, several groups report very low levels of upset with intermarriage. Most notably, only 6% of intermarried Jews would be upset, as would only 12% of the converts to Judaism, 30% of the synagogue unaffiliated, and 20% of Jews whose religion is “none.”

I wish they had offered more options initially other than “upset” and “not upset.” I suspect many people, like me, would have an answer somewhere in between. Something like “somewhat disappointed” or “depends on other factors, like whether or not they plan to be involved in Jewish life and what decisions they’ve made about how they will raise future children.” Or, as my mother (herself intermarried) would no doubt answer, “not upset, so long as partner is a Democrat.”

TO BE CONTINUED SOON.

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