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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Remarks about the Boston study of interfaith families to the Union Board of Trustees in Atlanta, December 2006

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism
December 10, 2006

For my remarks this morning, I would like to share a few observations about the recently released 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey. This survey has generated something of an uproar in the Jewish world. For those of you who have not read the news reports, the survey results show that in Boston, the percentage of children of intermarried families who are being raised as Jews is roughly twice that of other communities in North America. According to the national population survey, approximately a third of intermarried families are raising their children as Jews, while in Boston, the percentage is nearly sixty percent.

Opponents of outreach and some community leaders have been quick to cast doubt on the survey results. The sample is too large, the sample is too small, the timeframe is too limited, the definition of "Jewish" used is too loose to be meaningful, the survey methods are questionable, etc., etc. Any survey can be challenged, of course, and most are. All that can be said now is that the research group that did this particular survey consists of well-known and respected demographers, and there is no reason at this moment to doubt its conclusions.

So what is going on?

Some suggest that the issue here is money. Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) – which is what the Jewish Federation is called in Boston – allocates funds for outreach programs. Some Jewish leaders, including Reform leaders, have suggested that there might very well be a connection between the survey results and these outreach programs and that therefore other communities need to consider allocating funds for outreach programs as well. In turn, there are those who fear that more money to outreach will mean less money for other things that they care about.

Still, I do not believe that this dispute is primarily about dollars. In the first place, Boston’s CJP does not allocate a large sum to outreach programming, and if other Federations were to allocate similar amounts, it would not have much of an impact on programs in other areas. Secondly, while I enthusiastically support such outreach programs and I would like to see more of them, no one can prove a direct connection between the relatively modest level of community outreach programming in Boston and the higher percentage of children there being raised as Jews. In fact, as the survey indicates, there are a variety of other factors that might contribute to these results and that are not directly connected to outreach allocations. For example, all Federation and communal agencies in Boston have worked hard to welcome interfaith families. This welcome is not mere lip service; it is loudly proclaimed, regularly reiterated, and is given expression in every aspect of communal activities and programming. More important still, the Boston Jewish community is simply a more intensively Jewish place than most other Jewish communities in America. It has a higher affiliation rate, a closer relationship between synagogues and Federation, a more extensive Jewish educational network, and a wider ranger of opportunities, both cultural and religious, for individuals who are seeking Jewish experiences to embrace.

Let me tell you what I think this debate is really about.

When Alex Schindler initiated the outreach revolution on 1978, initial responses in much of the community were far from positive. Over time, however, outreach has become widely accepted, at least in the superficial sense that we all talk about welcoming interfaith couples into our community. Nonetheless, change does not come quickly to an ancient people, and we Jews are slow to relinquish long-held prejudices.

The basic premise of outreach from the very beginning was that Judaism rejects tribalism. Yes, we acknowledged, there is a biological dimension to Judaism, but it is only one dimension of many. Judaism speaks the language of fate, but it also speaks the language of choice. A tribalistic view of Judaism would be one that exalts the prestige of blood and that roots Judaism solely in race; yet such a view, we made clear, is utterly contrary to our tradition’s most basic teachings.

The problem is that we are a people who has suffered millennia of exclusion and religiously-motivated contempt; throughout much of our history, we were forbidden on pain of death from welcoming converts into our midst; we saw persecution, even in the modern period, as our natural condition; and in the last century alone, we have experienced the Holocaust and ongoing efforts to destroy the newly-created Jewish state. All of this has strengthened the tribalistic elements of the Jewish psyche—even here, in North America, where our community is strong and secure. And these elements have been fortified in the last few years by the reappearance of anti-Semitism to Europe and the explosion of vicious Jew-hatred in significant parts of the Moslem world.

Not surprisingly, therefore, we still have many in our midst who hold tightly to a tribalistic view of Judaism—sometimes without even knowing it, and sometimes contrary to their own best instincts. And their conviction that only those of Jewish blood can really be part of us and can really contribute to Jewish life has found support in the many surveys that said that non-Jews who married Jews were not likely to raise their children as Jews and that, in the best of circumstances, most would remain on the fringes of the Jewish community.

And then, all of a sudden, comes the Boston survey, which says something else altogether. It says that a significant majority of non-Jews who marry Jews, when they are exposed to a vibrant and dynamic Jewish community, are prepared to participate actively in Jewish life; not only that, they are willing to raise their children as Jews; and not a few them will consider conversion and will ultimately fully embrace the Jewish tradition. In fact, what it shows is that under certain conditions, an intermarried family is about as likely as a family of uninvolved born Jews to raise their children as Jews.

As you might imagine, this study has proven to be terribly disorienting for many people. What we are hearing from many of them is discomfort at the fact that their most cherished assumptions about the nature of Jewish identity and about the status of the stranger in our midst are being challenged.

Will the study make a difference in shaping perceptions? I believe that it will. It offers data that is compelling and hard to refute. Still, I am a realist. In many ways, the survey reminds us of just how much work we still have to do.

We need to remember that most communities are not Boston—they simply do not have the same level of Jewish commitment, affiliation, and involvement. And absent such commitment, most intermarried families—like most unaffiliated families—will remain on the margins of the Jewish community. Also, with or without the Boston data, patterns of thinking rooted in centuries of oppression and outsider status will not easily give way to a more inclusive mindset.

On balance, however, the news is very good. This survey offers convincing evidence that Alex Schindler’s vision was right all along. It tells us that when we welcome the intermarried with a full heart and offer them meaningful Jewish involvements, we can draw them into Jewish life and greatly increase the odds that they will raise Jewish children. And maybe, just maybe, this data will finally begin to overcome the passive resistance of so many Jews who are as yet unwilling to accept that we are not a tribe but a religious people and that membership in this people is open to all who accept its teachings and responsibilities. Maybe, just maybe, it will begin to convince the tribalists in our midst that instead of working so hard to discredit converts, intermarried parents, and the children of intermarried who are being raised as Jews, our task is to encourage them, embrace them, and appreciate the ways that they can strengthen and enrich our community. Maybe, just maybe, we have entered a new era in our approach to the intermarried among us.


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