Opinion

Welcomed, but Uninterested: America’s Intermarried Jews Reject Jewish Outreach

Seventy-two percent of non-Orthodox American Jews marry non-Jews. But two decades of a dubious strategy to engage intermarried Jews by rebranding Jewish communal life as 'welcoming' and 'inclusive' has completely failed.

A Judaism conversion class at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv, February 2014.
Nir Keidar

For two decades and more, America’s “Jewish outreach industry” – devoted to increasing the inclusion of intermarried Jews in Jewish life – has advanced an unquestionable observation and a dubious recommendation.

The undeniable observation is that intermarried Jews are highly unengaged in the Jewish community. The dubious recommendation calls upon congregations and Jewish organizations to be more welcoming of the intermarried on the assumption that the intermarried feel unwanted in Jewish communities. If only synagogues, JCCs and other groups would open their doors and their hearts to the intermarried, the argument goes, many intermarried Jews and their families would overcome their alienation. They’d walk in droves into the Jewish precincts they have heretofore avoided.

If only things were so simple.

At one point, in the not-so-distant past, Jewish leaders – lay and professional – evinced some discomfort with then relatively infrequent instances of mixed marriage. But with 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marrying non-Jews, there’s hardly a Jewish leader without an intermarried sibling, child, or parent. Reality has a way of changing one’s perspective.

Indeed, over the last two decades, large numbers of Jewish institutions have radically revised their policies, practices, and ethos to invite the intermarried, as well as LGBTQ Jews and others who challenge the legacy notions of engaged Jewish families and individuals. Today, the words, “diverse,” “welcoming,” and “inclusive” inevitably punctuate the rhetoric and websites of congregations and other Jewish entities.

Indeed, if one asks the intermarried if they feel unwelcome in Jewish life – and we did on the Jewish Community Survey of New York: 2011  – the small number who say so resembles comparable figures for non-married Jews.

So, if feeling unwelcome doesn’t keep the lid on the participation of the intermarried in Jewish life, why are they so infrequent participants in Jewish institutions? After all – using the Pew study of 2013, and focusing on married couples with children home – we do indeed find large gaps in the affiliation rates of the inmarried and intermarried. Among the inmarried with children, fully 80 percent belong to synagogues as compared with just 16 percent (!) among the intermarried. For Jewish organizations we find a gap of 56 percent vs. 14 percent. And for actually showing up – such as at High Holiday services – we find another extraordinary gap: 92 percent for the inmarried parents as against only 32 percent for their intermarried counterparts.

In short, however one measures such things, one can say that the inmarried are three, four, or five times as likely to participate in Jewish community life as are the intermarried.

Now, are unwelcoming Jewish institutions to blame for this gap? Are Reform temples, JCCs, Federations, and Hadassah chapters really driving away the intermarried? If they were, then we’d expect to see much smaller gaps between the intermarried and inmarried with respect to Jewish identity indicators bearing little relationship with the institutions – how people feel about being Jewish or what they do at home.

In point of fact, when it comes to Jewish feelings or home practice, the intermarried trail the inmarried by gaps as wide as those characterizing their institutional involvement. Again, among parents, just 26 percent of the intermarried say being Jewish is very important to them as compared with almost three times as many – 75 percent – among the in-married. For feeling very emotionally attached to Israel: 13 percent vs. 45 percent. What about fasting on Yom Kippur? For the intermarried 33 percent vs. 90 percent for the inmarried. The Shabbat candle-lighting gap is enormous: 4 percent vs. 60 percent. And, yes, there is one religious practice where the intermarried stunningly surpass the intermarried – Having a Christmas tree in the home: 85 vs. 6 percent.

And, in like fashion, we find a similar gap with respect to providing one’s children (age 7-12) with any sort of Jewish schooling: 31 percent for the intermarried as against 90 percent for the inmarried.

In short, the absence of the intermarried from Jewish communal life is as massive as their absence from Jewish life in their homes or their hearts – but no more so. Congregations and other institutions are not the cause of the alienation of intermarried Jews from Jewish engagement. Thus, correcting their alleged failures-to-welcome will do little or nothing to engage the intermarried in Jewish concerns and practice.

Those who seek to increase the participation of the intermarried in Jewish life need to stop importuning the institutions, and turn their sights elsewhere. We need to recognize that few of the intermarried either attach to Jewish institutions or care very much about them. In contrast, almost all the intermarried – certainly almost all those who are in the early parenting years – have loving parents, people who care deeply about their own children and their grandchildren.

It is these parents and grandparents – increasingly the Boomer generation – who can be mobilized not merely to welcome the intermarried, but to make their non-Jewish children-in-law and grandchildren feel thoroughly loved and accepted in Jewish families. Rabbis, committee chairs and educators can help. But parents and grandparents are critical to fully integrating their intermarried family members in Jewish life.