Part 1 in a 3 part series.
We might just be the last Jewish organization to respond to the big bad Pew Survey and we’re fine with that. It seems like every response so far is other people telling us what how we need to feel about it, whether we should be scared, take it as a a dare to engage singles in their 40′s suffering attrition, be optimistic, or think they got it all wrong. But here at New Voices, we (and by “we” I mean “me,” editor Derek Kwait) aren’t so into only getting one side of the story. To this end, we’ve engaged two of the best and brightest Jews in academia and two of NV’s best and brightest student writers to participate in an inter-generational, inter-denominational, inter-gender, inter-orientation, inter-community, inter-national (we included a Canadian)…in other words, inter-human dialogue on the Survey’s results in the hopes that, after hearing all these varied perspectives, you will be able to find yourself a little in all of them, and be a little offended by all of them.
By engaging such different Jews in conversation with each other here, we hope to engender better conversations among different Jews in campuses and communities out in the world, thus bolstering what all agree to be the most important thing about Jewish life: a strong and vibrant Jewish community.
Meet the conversers:
Dr. Steven M. Cohen [SMC] is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College in New York, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. He received an honorary doctorate from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, the Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, and a National Jewish Book Award. He had been cited as one of the Forward Fifty. In 2012, he was elected president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.
Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor [SBB] is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She teaches about the social science of American Jews, as well as about language and culture. She wrote the acclaimed book Becoming Frum, about the way Jews who become Orthodox later in life use language, has published many academic papers, and given lectures around the country about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, and American Jews. She edits the Journal of Jewish Languages and the Jewish Language Research Website, both of which she founded.
Eliana A. Glogauer [EAG] is New Voices’ chief editorialist. She currently studies government at IDC Herzliya, and is a co-founder of the Israel advocacy initiative, AskMeMore. She is the promised Canadian, from Toronto.
Jonathan P. Katz [JPK] is a New Voices contributor, and studies history and geography at the University of Chicago. Originally from New York City, he is also a polyglot and was a summer research intern for the Urban Land Institute.
1. How worried should we be about the rate of intermarriage?
SMC: A high intermarriage rate today means that lots of Jews have been unconnected to other Jews and to Jewish life in the recent past. Those who are least connected – living in areas of the country with fewer Jews, coming from homes with one Jewish parent or little Jewish involvement, experiencing little Jewish education, and having few Jewish friends – are the ones with greater chance of marrying non-Jews. So, if we have more intermarriage, then it means that we have experienced a weakening of Jewish connections, especially in the number of Jews who are linked to Jews in their families, friendship circles and neighborhoods.
But intermarriage not only tells us about the past. It also points to the future. It provokes less engagement in Jewish life, however you measure engagement – the importance of being Jewish, having Jewish friends, commitment to social justice, celebrating Jewish holidays, visiting Israel, reading Jewish-themed sites on the Internet, and, most importantly, raising children as Jews. This is NOT (NOT NOT NOT!!!) to say that all intermarried Jews are less engaged in Jewish life than all inmarried Jews. It is to say that the intermarried are FAR less engaged AS A GROUP than are inmarried Jews. To be sure, some intermarried Jews are quite active Jewishly; regrettably they are a tiny minority of the mixed married population. Bottom line: Most mixed marrieds are far less engaged Jewishly than in-marrieds.
One reason they are less engaged is that their housemates are non-Jewish. In other words, Jews with more Jews in their households are more Jewishly engaged, and intermarried Jews simply live with fewer Jews in their household. It turns out that non-married Jews living alone score almost as low as intermarried Jews on measures of Jewish engagement, showing that to be Jewish outside, you need Jews inside (your home).
Last, intermarried Jews raise children who are far less likely to identify as Jews as do inmarried Jews.
But the effect of intermarriage doesn’t end there. Even the Jewishly identifying children with one Jewish parent are far less engaged that the Jewish children of two Jewish parents. They choose non-Jews as their spouses 83% of the time. In other words, just about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarriages in turn marry Jews.
SBB: We should not be worried about the rate of intermarriage. If the rate were 80% or more, then we would have reason to worry about continuity in the coming generations. If the rate were 20% or less, then we would have reason to worry that we were too isolated and that our non-Jewish neighbors didn’t accept us as potential spouses. But anything in between – and especially the current rate in the 30s, 40s or 50s (depending whether you include Jews of mixed ancestry in the count) – suggests a balance, which I see as healthy. Surprisingly, a large percentage of Jews are still falling in love with other Jews, even though we live in an era of inter-ethnic friendships and marriages, especially common in the metropolitan areas in which Jews are concentrated. That is a credit to our communal institutions – synagogues, schools, camps, and others – which are still reaching a majority of American Jews.
EAG: We should be worried about the current intermarriage rate. Increasing intermarriage rates are ultimately a manifestation of the dilution of the brand of Judaism that is passed down through the generations. The continuity of the Jewish identity should be paramount, meaning that there should be an intrinsic understanding that marrying within the faith is of utmost importance. Intermarriage is the last symptom of a greater ill, both on an individual and a communal level. Once intermarriage becomes a viable possibility, the situation has already progressed too far – we need to ensure that a strong enough Jewish identity exists in order to prevent the fracture in identification of the importance of Jewish identity that leads to intermarriage. This is the only way to adequately address the issues presented by intermarriage, namely the overall weakening of Jewish identity and involvement within the Jewish community. As expressed by the survey, the current statistics do not support the hypothesis that one can intermarry and retain Jewish identity in the long term.
JPK: I think, to be perfectly honest, that we’re really beyond the point at which we can afford to worry about it. Just as an example, probably a third of the members of my minyan at this point – people who are college age or slightly older – are the children of intermarriages. Worrying about who’s marrying out is counterproductive in an age where pretty much everyone to the left of, say, “Conservadoxy” is OK with the idea.
The question should really be: how shall we keep and include those who intermarry and their children in Jewish life? Some organizations are working towards this – I myself actually ran an event here at the University of Chicago with R’ Michal Woll on this question. Jewish communities that have changed their stances or been more open to intermarried couples have actually grown quite dramatically – I cite Mishkan in Chicago as an example here. Other proposals – such as counting non-Jewish spouses as gerei toshav in communities – are also potential ideas.
Our current rhetoric on those who intermarry is counterproductive: it wards off people who would otherwise be interested in Jewish life, and creates a climate of “with us or against us.” Not to mention that there’s been rhetoric of “prevent intermarriage” for decades and we’ve seen precisely the opposite effect. Furthermore, if communities are to be more open to us LGBTQ individuals, they will need to be OK with interfaith partnerships. Dating solely within the Jewish community is unrealistic for most Jewish queers – even I, who profess to avoid it, do not limit myself. Our pool is smaller, folks.
Finally, this intermarriage worry relies on an idea of Jewish purity that is honestly utter nonsense. Jewish blood is as “pure” as bacon is “kosher” and we’ve really had “foreign” influences in our genome for centuries. My sister’s pale skin and my grandfather’s blue eyes came from somewhere, people.
2. How sustainable is a Jewish identity not based on religion?
SMC: Almost all Jews in the US who are Jewishly involved are BOTH religious and secular at the same time. It’s impossible to think of Jewish engagement that is not based on religion and it is impossible to exclude the non-religious dimension to being Jewish. The question presumes a Protestant conceptualization of being Jewish that does not apply to the Jews.
SBB: Within American society, Jews have thrived as an ethnic group because they have acted as a religious group. Among other “White” ethnic groups (kind of a misnomer in this case because Jews are racially diverse), like Irish, Italians, and Norwegians, the sense of group identity and cohesion has diminished more over the past century. For a majority of Jews – regardless of belief system – religion has served as the organizing principle for communal cohesion. The religion has built-in opportunities for expressing Jewishness with other Jews: not just the yearly calendar and lifecycle events but also the desire to educate children (and increasingly, adults). As the survey tells us, a growing percentage of Jews say that they have no religion. This approach to Jewishness can be sustainable if they continue to organize in ways parallel to religious Judaism: gather in communal contexts on a regular basis (not episodically) and educate their children in depth about what it means to be Jewish. We see this in some settings, such as those connected to Secular Humanist Judaism. There are also many great organizations “doing Jewish” outside of a religious context, such as in the realms of culture, politics, social justice, and Israel. If those kinds of initiatives emphasize frequent communal gatherings, they too can be sustainable over time. The key words here are community and relationships (with a nod to Ron Wolfson). So, yes, a Jewish identity not based on religion can be sustainable, but only if it involves intense community.
EAG: I do not believe that a Jewish identity not based on religion is sustainable in the long term. The Jewish national, cultural and religious identities are, and have always been, strongly linked. Traditionally, it is accepted that the Jewish people solidified – codified – its position as a nation, a national identity and a religion upon its acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Different people choose to maintain different levels of religiosity, and place emphasis on different aspects of their interpretation of Jewish identity. That being said, I believe that, in order to retain and maintain a Jewish identity long term, we need to ensure the retention of important elements of the Jewish religion – the key elements that many associate with traditional Judaism, and thus differentiate the Jewish People from other religions, in order to preserve a strong national and cultural identity.
JPK: Pretty damn sustainable, given that we’ve actually had such identities for around a century and a half at this point. I can point to a few examples: Yiddishist groups in the 20th century such as the Worker’s Circle, groups of German Jewish intellectuals in post-Holocaust Germany (especially in the Frankfurt School), and modern-day secular humanist communities. The Zionist project was initially extremely secular and sought to eradicate a religion “poisoned” by exile – and religious immigrants to Israel in the 1950s were subject to a massive secularization and “Judaization” push by the Israeli state.
Of course, as a religious person, I am always happy to see those who want to become more religious become more religious. But forcing religion as a form of Jewish identity only distances people – and we really don’t want to do that. Furthermore, having religion be the be-all and end-all of Jewish identity denies the thousands of years of non-religious cultures we have.
3. What does “raising a child Jewish” mean to you?
SMC: Raising a Jewish child means raising a child whom you identify as Jewish. That qualifies as raising a Jewish child. Some people raise Jewish children with a richer engagement in Jewish life, and some with less.
That said, I of course would prefer if people who are Jewish would raise their children as Jews and as engaged Jews of one sort or another. I am not morally neutral about these issues.
SBB: Respondents might have different understandings of what that phrase means. Some might think it means having a child they consider Jewish, and others might think it means giving a child a Jewish education. For the sake of analysis, I think we should use the less restrictive definition: having a child they see as Jewish.
EAG: I believe that “raising a child Jewish” means bringing up a child to be engaged in Jewish life and involved in the Jewish community. I also believe that, in order to maintain Jewish identity, it is necessary to stress and incorporate the values espoused by traditional Judaism into family life. The major underpinning of Judaism is the home. A strong Jewish home can teach traditional Jewish values and provides an anchor in a stressful and turbulent world. The Jewish home is centered around family—attending synagogue regularly, participating actively in a community, keeping a kosher kitchen, celebrating the Jewish holidays and celebrating Shabbat together on a weekly basis are traditional key elements that have connected and held together the Jewish family for generations. Establishing a Jewish home is the gateway to a meaningful Jewish life. I believe educating a child regarding Jewish values and traditions to be of utmost importance.
JPK: I think this means “in honor of the values and cultures and history which we carry as (a) people(s)*.” This can take so many different forms – sending your kid to a Yiddish folkshul or Talmud Torah, keeping a kosher home, or Jewish-themed bedtime stories. The classic “day school-yeshiva-Jewish child-in-law” paradigm is ridiculous, outdated, and actually classist.
Of course the mechanics of what this looks like would differ based on the parents. As a decently observant person, I would raise my [still highly theoretical] children in a kosher home and send them to an after-school religious education program; however, I’d also like to see my child engage with some of the less prized aspects of our heritage. Some of the less American-friendly Ashkenazi foods? Klezmer?
I was not raised particularly religious – my mother and I both became religious in my teenage years – but I was raised in an extremely Jewish home. We had the usual trappings – Shabbat dinner, Passover seders, Hebrew – but also other ways in which values were transmitted to me. Even before she started going to shul, my mother substituted family history and the Bible for picture books when I was a small child; also, we definitely followed some quite Old World Ashkenazi superstitions. I still refuse to go to baby showers. Bad juju, yo.
*I would like to note that this idea of a “Jewish childhood” has become extremely Ashkenazi-normative. Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, African-American, and other Jewish groups all have their own traditions of child-raising and cultural norms, and the idea of what chinuch, or education, is varies across the Jewish world. Furthermore, the idea of a singular Jewish people masks the regional identities that really do matter.