I knew if I procrastinated enough on responding to Jack Wertheimer's op-ed on the UJA-Federation initiative someone else would do it for me. Ed Case of InterfaithFamily.com makes some good points in his blog, and the comments section of Wertheimer’s piece feature some very thoughtful responses. I especially liked Rabbi Eytan Hammerman’s comments.
But I still have a few of my own thoughts, and have written a way-too-long section-by-section response:
Jack W.: The underlying premise of the report is that large numbers of intermarried families containing a Jewish-born partner remain aloof from Jewish life because they do not feel welcome. Yet nothing in the report provides evidence that this is the cause for the staggeringly high rates of non-affiliation characteristic of intermarried families in this area and most others around the country …
Julie W.: My understanding from reading the report is that the task force interviewed large numbers of intermarried families and consistently heard they have had unwelcoming experiences. I think it is important to remember that, while many synagogues and liberal institutions have made great strides in making themselves more accessible, if they don’t publicize their changed status, a large segment of people, imprinted by negative experiences earlier in their lives or by hearing that intermarriage is unforgivable, will never even venture near the door.
Jack: It is one thing to reach out to intermarried born-Jews and children being raised exclusively as Jews by their intermarried parents. But is it not insulting to people of other faiths or no religion whose only Jewish connection is through a family member to assume that they are part of the Jewish community?
Julie: I am not sure why Wertheimer believes UJA-Federation of New York is making this assumption. My understanding of the report is that the federation sees the large population of unaffiliated intermarried Jews, their spouses and their children, as a pool of people who may have an untapped interest in involving themselves in Jewish life and may want to be part of the Jewish community, but currently feel intimidated by it, unknowledgeable about it or are simply unaware of what it has to offer. No one is talking about proselytizing; rather, the idea is to invite people to come in and explore whether Judaism might make their lives more fulfilling.
Jack: Missing entirely from the task force report are the voices of the intermarried and their children, explaining their complex or non-existing relationship with organized Jewish life. Thanks to websites such as InterfaithFamily.com, it is easy to access their views. Many write candidly about the deep religious fissures running through families, about the impossible dilemmas posed by dual-religion households, about personal psychological barriers to participation in Jewish life…
Julie: Jack is right that the task force report would have benefited from specific examples and quotes from the consultations the task force conducted with interfaith families. However, when I read his description of the content in InterfaithFamily.com, I have to wonder whether he and I are looking at the same website! I wish he had found space in his op-ed to provide more specific examples, because I am not sure to what he is referring. Certainly, there are essays on InterfaithFamily.com that honestly address the many challenges of being intermarried. However, virtually every essay on the site — even those by non-Jews — is from the perspective of someone whose family is involved or seeks to be involved in organized Jewish life in some way; many are by and about gentiles who, while uninterested in conversion (whether for philosophical or emotional reasons), are highly supportive of their Jewish partner, Jewish children and Jewish community.
Jack: … A few years ago the Boston Jewish community survey found that 60 percent of intermarried families claimed to be raising their children as Jews, double the national rate. The Boston federation immediately declared victory by asserting that this high percentage is a result of its strong outreach efforts.
But does this finding prove anything? Because survey questions can be understood in different ways, “raising children as Jews” may refer to an aspiration or to actual practice, to “Jewish and something else” or to some vague sense of Jewishness. Even more important, there is no evidence that higher rates of participation are the result of outreach rather than other possible factors. To measure the impact of outreach would require tracking people before, during and after their exposure to “welcoming” efforts” and to take all kinds of other variables into account…
Julie: I agree that the Boston survey doesn’t prove that outreach is the cause for the higher rates of affiliation/involvement among its intermarried families and that other factors could be at play as well. However, I think it is unfair and biased to undermine the study’s actual (rather than inferred) findings by saying intermarried families “claimed” to be raising their children as Jews. Any answer in a survey is a “claim”; researchers rarely require their subjects to offer proof. But why are intermarried families’ answers more suspect than in-married ones? Would Wertheimer say that when in-married, or Orthodox families, report raising children as Jews this is merely a “claim”? As we all know, there are many in-married couples whose ideas of raising children as Jews might be derided as “aspirational” or “vague,” and who fail to meet Wertheimer’s own (unarticulated in this op-ed) standards for raising Jewish children. As for the possibility that families are raising children "Jewish and something else," my understanding is that the survey specifically asked whether people were raising their children "exclusively" in Judaism, and that a separate percentage (different from this 60 percent) indicated they were raising a child in two faiths.
As for his suggestion that one needs to measure the impact of outreach by “tracking people before, during and after” their exposure to welcoming efforts, well obviously that would not just be difficult, but impossible — being asked from the moment one crosses the threshold to enroll in a study doesn’t seem very welcoming, and the very experience of answering survey questions might affect one’s feelings about it. Does Wertheimer believe such a high level of longitudinal study is required to prove to the impact of other, far costlier, programs in which the Jewish community invests, or just outreach? Perhaps we should do a similar study to measure the impact of promoting endogamy, determining whether communal calls for endogamy have any visible impact on an individual’s behavior. I would argue that preaching endogamy only (outside the population of traditional Jews, at least) is about as effective as teaching abstinence only. Which is to say, not very effective.
And just as many abstinence-educated teens go out and have sex but without using contraceptives, which they have never learned about or feel too ashamed to investigate, many endogamy-educated Jews who fall in love with a gentile will marry, but feel too ashamed to try to reconcile this with their Judaism: they will assume their marriage renders them utterly unfit for Jewish involvement, that they and their spouse are unwelcome (yes, unwelcome) and feel too ashamed or apprehensive to seek out Jewish community.
Why not offer a more nuanced and realistic perspective? Just as we might tell a teen that early sex can lead to all sorts of challenges and complications, BUT if you do choose to have sex, here’s how to protect yourself from pregnancy, disease and violence, we also might tell our community that, yes, intermarriage has traditionally been taboo; yes, it is more difficult to raise Jewish children and engage fully in Jewish life when one intermarries; yes, it is generally easier when one’s gentile partner converts, BUT if you do fall in love with someone who is not Jewish, we hope you and your partner make a home for yourself within the Jewish community and together continue and immerse yourselves in our many wonderful and meaningful Jewish traditions.
Jack: Rather than do the hard work of proving what is efficacious, we rely upon wishful thinking, while ignoring the damage caused by “welcoming” at any price. A case in point: the chairman of the task force asserted to this newspaper, “We are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it.” … As a statement about where the largest Jewish community in the United States stands on the religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life through endogamy, the neutrality of the UJA-Federation of New York is a devastating commentary on our times.
Julie: The UJA-Federation takes a stand on very few, if any, areas of religious controversy within the Jewish community, recognizing that New York’s Jewish population is large and highly diverse. Is it “devastating” that the federation doesn’t condemn people who do not observe all (or any) of the Shabbat restrictions, or those who eat non-kosher food or engage in premarital sex? Should the UJA-Federation take a position, preferably one Wertheimer agrees with, on every point of theological (and political) dissent within the American Jewish community? As for “the religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life through endogamy,” not all agree that promoting endogamy is effective (see my previous comment).
Jack: …In abandoning the Jewish commitment to endogamy, the task force does not reflect the views of large populations of traditional Jews in greater New York.
Julie: OK, that may be true, but it does reflect the views of large populations of nontraditional Jews and some populations of traditional Jews. I would venture a guess that far more people — even far more federation donors — will welcome the task force’s recommendations than will be angered by them.
Happy Chanukah, Jack! You will be pleased to know that my family (and many other intermarried families) will be celebrating the holiday in an unambiguously Jewish way. We will also be celebrating Christmas in an unambiguously Jewish way: Chinese food followed by a home screening of "Fiddler on the Roof"!