In a move being hailed by advocates for interfaith families, UJA-Federation of New York — the largest Jewish federation in the country — is launching its first-ever initiative specifically focused on welcoming the intermarried and engaging them in Jewish life.
“We are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it,” said Howard Rubin, chair of the ad hoc Welcoming Intermarried Families task force whose recommendations serve as a blueprint for the new effort. “It’s just a reality we have to deal with.”
The ambitious strategy, endorsed by the UJA-Federation board last week, includes establishing a permanent task force under the auspices of the federation’s Commission for the Jewish People. The new task force will support educational programs “targeted for interfaith couples and families,” and an Internet portal to help connect families to the wide array of Jewish experiences and resources available to them.
The initiative also calls for offering training for professionals — within the federation, its agencies and the broader Jewish community — who, the task force found, are seeking assistance and guidance in welcoming interfaith families.
While the amount of money to be allocated for this effort has yet to be determined, Alisa Rubin Kurshan, UJA-Federation’s vice president for strategic planning, told The Jewish Week, it will likely be “substantial.”
The federation is following in the footsteps of Atlanta and Boston, whose federations are the only two others to make outreach to the intermarried a significant financial priority. In particular, UJA-Federation seeks to emulate the success of Boston, where approximately 50 percent of Jews intermarry but 60 percent of interfaith families are raising their children exclusively as Jews. The relatively high rates of interfaith engagement — national and New York rates are much lower — is often attributed to the Boston federation’s longtime support for outreach programs.
The federation, known as the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, invests $450,000 annually in targeted programs for interfaith couples and families, and has made a concerted effort to ensure such families feel welcome in general programming as well. All official communications include a tagline saying that interfaith families are included and welcome.
Explaining the motivation behind the initiative, UJA-Federation’s task force report says in its introduction that intermarried families “are a significant segment of the rich and increasing diversity of the New York Jewish community and have the potential, like other vulnerable or underrepresented segments of the Jewish population, to be more deeply engaged in Jewish life and to bring their unique perspectives, talents, commitments and resources to our joint enterprise. Study after study shows that intermarried families can and do take part in and contribute to Jewish life when provided with an open, welcoming community of meaning, as well as education and support at key life cycle moments.”
Ed Case, chief executive officer of InterfaithFamily.com, a website and national advocacy group based in suburban Boston, welcomed New York’s new initiative, saying it was “very affirming.”
“They basically have affirmed that interventions can lead to more people being raised Jewish, and it’s important for such a key institution to say that,” he said, adding, “They said very clearly that there’s a need for both general and targeted programs.”
Officials at the Jewish Outreach Institute, another national advocate for the intermarried, which offers a variety of programs for interfaith families, including the Mothers Circle for non-Jewish women married to Jews, also praised the new initiative, calling it a “major milestone for the organized Jewish community of New York.”
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the New York-based group, told The Jewish Week it is “refreshing” to see that the federation is focusing not “on whether to welcome” but on “how to engage” interfaith families. He added that he is “delighted to see an admission that interfaith families, when engaged, can contribute significantly to Jewish life.”
With a Jewish Community Study due to be released this spring by UJA-Federation here, it is not yet known what percentage of Jews in New York are currently intermarried. However, according to the task force report, “interim studies, such as Birthright Israel research and Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal’s (COJIR) scan of new families in several population centers, support the anecdotal sense that more and more interfaith couples and an increasing number of children of interfaith families reside in the New York area.”
The most recent study, from 2002, found that 22 percent of all New York Jewish couples were intermarried, up from 18 percent in 1991.
“When New York’s unique and large Orthodox communities are excluded, the rate for non-Orthodox Jewish couples in the eight-county area rises to 27 percent of couples,” the task force report notes, adding that “While this is low compared to the national average of 36 percent in 2001, it is a significant and increasing percentage of the New York Jewish population.”
Data from 2002 indicates that only 30 percent of interfaith families were raising “Jewish-only” children, and 18 percent were raising them “Jewish and something else.”
“The fact that the majority of children of interfaith marriages in New York are being raised without any Jewish upbringing is cause for concern in itself,” the task force report observes. “That other cities with a more welcoming approach have a much higher percentage of children being raised Jewish offers inspiration for change in New York.
It remains to be seen whether the effort — not yet widely publicized — will ignite controversy among New York’s many traditional Jews, particularly those who see intermarriage as deeply wrong and a grave threat to Jewish continuity.
Perhaps anticipating such reactions, the task force’s report notes that it is “not in the business of dictating religious beliefs, practices, and policies of synagogues or agencies.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of the Orthodox congregation, Kehilath Jeshurun, in Manhattan is a member of the UJA-Federation board, though he was not involved in the work of the task force.
He described intermarriage as “a catastrophe for the Jewish people,” but noted that one must deal with such situations rather than “bemoan” them.
“If federation is trying to deal with this as sensitively and intelligently as possible, perhaps one should give federation a chance to mitigate a catastrophe for the Jewish people.”
Rubin said, “We have done everything we can to be inclusive and avoid controversy,” adding, “At the end of the day, we’d like to see a bigger and more active Jewish community connecting people who want to participate and not pushing people away.” He noted that that intermarried Jews and their non-Jewish partners have “expertise, volunteer time” and “money” to share with Jewish institutions and synagogues.
Community leaders who for many years called for “inreach” over “outreach,” and have encouraged the Jewish community to be more aggressive in encouraging Jews to marry Jews, are cautiously supportive of the federation’s new approach.
Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department at the American Jewish Committee, told The Jewish Week that the federation’s focus on “welcome and inclusivity” is “very appropriate.”
However, he said, “My core concern is that in the well-intentioned desire of being welcoming and inclusive, we often become silent about promoting endogamy and conversion” to Judaism, he said.
Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and the author of “Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage,” told The Jewish Week that “everything that’s in the [UJA-Federation] proposal makes sense.”
However, she said, she is concerned that the initiative might “isolate programs for the intermarried” rather than offer “outreach to the intermarried mainstreamed with other kinds of education initiatives.
“What you need are programs that are sensitive to needs of families that don’t have Jewish backgrounds, as well as programs that are rich enough and rigorous enough for those with lots of background,” she said. “And you need everything in between.”
Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who has argued in Commentary magazine that outreach efforts have been a “resounding failure” and that “much of what has been done in the name of ‘outreach’ has been diluting” Jewish life, declined to be interviewed for this article.