Much of the American Jewish community is operating on a false premise. This premise, famously articulated 40 years ago by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, is simple: if the Jewish community welcomes rather than rejects intermarried families, then intermarried families will become engaged in Jewish life. Today, the power of “welcoming” is treated as axiomatic. Outreach efforts focus on lowering barriers and creating warm, inclusive spaces. Leaders who advocate for endogamy—such as rabbis who refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings—are castigated for pushing intermarried couples away from Judaism.
The problem is, seeing an open door and walking through it are two different things.
In a new study, my colleagues at Brandeis University and I surveyed a purposeful sample of more than 1,000 young couples, half intermarried and half “inmarried.” We found no evidence that the intermarried couples experienced “rejection” from the Jewish community. Instead, most of the intermarried couples—both the Jewish and the non-Jewish partners—reported feeling welcome in the Jewish community. Virtually every intermarried couple who wanted a rabbi to officiate at their wedding was able to find one. Non-Jewish spouses felt accepted by their Jewish in-laws, and differences in religious background were not fraught or contentious issues for intermarried couples.
Despite feeling welcome, though, intermarried couples continue to lag far behind inmarried couples on measures of engagement in Jewish life. Our study examined more than a dozen Jewish behaviors, from doing something to observe Passover to participating in activities sponsored by the Jewish community to watching Jewish or Israeli films. In each case, inmarried Jews were more likely to do the behavior than intermarried Jews, even if the inmarried Jew had far fewer Jewish childhood experiences than the intermarried Jew.
Only 34 percent of intermarried Jews said that they were raising their children Jewish by religion, and in 6 percent of cases the non-Jewish partner gave a different response when asked the same question. Almost none of the intermarried couples chose a Jewish preschool.
The report explains these findings by suggesting that many intermarried couples simply aren’t interested in Jewish life, particularly in its religious aspects. It recommends proactive outreach efforts and the creation of more nontraditional entry points to Jewish life. I stand by those recommendations, but I must also part ways with my co-authors and issue a caution.
In general, religious groups that are lenient and relativistic elicit far less enthusiasm from their members than religious groups that are more demanding and absolutist. Some scholars explain the success of “strict churches” through basic principles of economic behavior: when a religious community demands a lifestyle that is distinct from the American mainstream, some mainstream activities become untenable, and so members divert more resources to their religious community. Others point to the “IKEA effect”: when people invest their own effort in something, they value it more.
The evidence is all around us. The liberal Protestant denominations (like Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians) are losing adherents rapidly, while the number of Evangelical Protestants is rising. The Orthodox share of the adult Jewish population has more than doubled in recent decades, from 5 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2013. Fully one-third of today’s Jewish children are growing up in Orthodox homes.
In a bid to attract Jews on the periphery of Jewish life, outreach professionals strive to “meet people where they are,” to make Jewish engagement easy and fun. Programs are moved out of recognizably Jewish spaces and stripped of particularistic content. No barriers. No expectations. No stakes.
But our tradition suggests a different approach. Pirkei Avot 5:23 records Ben He He as saying, “According to the pain is the reward.” In other words, intellectual and spiritual growth happen only after we step out of our comfort zone and confront new, often uncomfortable ideas. We must find a way to be welcoming and, at the same time, to offer Jewish experiences that are challenging, demanding, and spiritually advancing. Because when we assume nothing and demand nothing, we are left with nothing.
Michelle Shain is assistant director of the Center for Communal Research at the Orthodox Union.