Continuing the Jewish Tradition by Enhancing the Welcome

Editors' Note:This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Jewish community here.

In autumn 2013 the Pew Charitable Trust issued a comprehensive research report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, that generated wide coverage in the press and both worry and affirmation among different segments of the Jewish community.

Key headlines of A Portrait of Jewish Americans were that there is a major trend toward secularism among Jews, especially young Jews; that there continues to be a lot of intermarriage; that intermarriage and secularism are related; and that this all leads to less Jewish engagement and fewer children raised as Jews.

The Pew Report does make it abundantly clear that there is a huge amount of intermarriage: 44 percent of all married Jews are intermarried; 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who married from 2000-2013 intermarried; 1.3 million adult U.S. Jews (25 percent of all adult Jews, 48 percent of Jews born after 1980) have one Jewish parent; 1.8 million children live in households with one Jewish adult.

In our view, the Pew Report's emphasis on secularism and its relationship to intermarriage is questionably based on survey questions about religion that lent themselves to unclear answers. It is not fair to tar the intermarried with the brush of secularism/not-religiosity; they are not less spiritual, or less interested in a relationship with the sublime, or less responsive to meaningful supportive ritual at times of sadness and of joy. Young Jews and interfaith couples are experiencing and interested in that call, but there is a split between spirituality and religion such that current forms of Jewish religious expression may not be satisfying their spiritual interests.

The Pew Report found that 61 percent of intermarried families are raising their children with some Judaism (compared to 96 percent of inmarried who say they are raising their children Jewish by religion); 20 percent Jewish by religion; 25 percent partly Jewish by religion and "partly something else"; 16 percent Jewish but not by religion or "mixed"; 37 percent not Jewish at all.

There is also now data on how the adult children of intermarriage actually turned out: the percentage of adults with intermarried parents who identify as Jewish has steadily increased, from 25 percent in the Jews who are now 65-and-older group, to 37 percent in the 50-64 age group, to 39 percent in the 30-49 group, to 59 percent in the 18-29 group.

A key challenge is what intermarried parents currently raising children are going to do, in particular around Jewish education for children of intermarried families. The Pew Report says only about 22 percent of interfaith families have their children involved in formal Jewish programs (compared to 82 percent of inmarried, four times as much), whether that is yeshiva or day school (5 percent), religious school education (13 percent), or Jewish day care or sleep-away camps (14 percent).

The Pew Report also shows that intermarried Jews have fewer Jewish friends and practice fewer Jewish behaviors than inmarried Jews: less attendance at synagogue services, participation in seders, fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting Shabbat candles, belonging to a synagogue, donating to Jewish organizations.

It is important to remember that surveys like this lump all intermarrieds together, those that are engaged Jewishly and those that aren't; if they would look at the behaviors of engaged intermarrieds they would look a lot like engaged inmarried Jews. The important question, then, is how can we help the intermarried become more engaged.

Our experience at InterfaithFamily suggests that interfaith couples may respond to a survey question that their religion isn't Jewish based on the reception interfaith couples have had over the years in Jewish communities. The Pew Report notes that 89 percent of intermarried Jews are proud to be Jewish but only 59 percent have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Perhaps that is because of the way they are treated or their perception of the way they would be treated.

Interfaith couples are still today reporting a lack of welcoming, a lack of more than toleration or acceptance—a lack of genuine, unreserved embrace. Explicit expressions of welcoming attitudes are often not forthcoming. Jews with one Jewish parent often feel excluded by the Jewish community, especially those whose mother is not Jewish. Negative experiences trying to find a rabbi to officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple are discouraging, as are restrictive synagogue policies on participating in worship services and at life cycle events.