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'They persist in seeing interfaith marriage as a loss'

Survey finding Birthright alumni more likely to marry Jewish raises some hackles

Jewish Futures Project poll finds 55% of participants select coreligionist partners, but critics say commitment to Judaism shouldn’t be measured by marriage alone

Illustrative: An Israeli couple photographed for their wedding at a blossoming almond tree field in Latrun on February 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli couple photographed for their wedding at a blossoming almond tree field in Latrun on February 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

NEW YORK — Those who travel to Israel with Birthright are more likely to stand under the wedding canopy alongside another Jewish person, according to a newly released study.

Known as the Jewish Futures Project, the study showed that 55 percent of those who participated on a free 10-day trip to Israel with Birthright had a Jewish spouse or partner, compared with 39% of non-participants. The research also showed that Birthright participants were more likely to raise Jewish children and stay connected to Judaism.

And while the study’s findings aren’t in dispute, it has become a Rorschach test of sorts. Those who are vocal proponents of Birthright say the study validates a long-held hunch that the Birthright experience strengthens one’s bond with Judaism. By contrast, those in the interfaith community said the study telegraphs a message that marriages between two Jewish people are more desirable than those of different faiths.

“What drove me absolutely nuts about the report was that it’s looking at Jewish commitment through the lens of just one thing — marriage,” said Rabbi Deborah Reichmann, rabbi and spiritual advisor for the Interfaith Family Project in Washington, DC. “Doing that negates everything else about what it means to have a Jewish identity. It perpetuates the stereotype that intermarriage is the worst thing a Jew can do.”

Illustrative: Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 18, 2014. (Flash90)

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, begs to differ. As the study’s lead investigator, Saxe said reading the results as a condemnation of interfaith marriage misses the study’s point.

“It’s an issue only if you make a big deal about it. There is no judgement assigned to it. There was nothing prescriptive about it,” Saxe said. “In terms of engagement it’s just a fact that it’s lower among intermarried couples.”

Dr. Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis and the study’s lead investigator. (Courtesy)

The study, which was 20 years in the making, used survey data collected from 2,477 people taken over the second half of 2019 who applied to Birthright between 2001 and 2009. It compared people who went on the trips to those who applied but were not accepted. In the period studied, the program was open to Jewish adults aged 18 to 26.

Saxe said the researchers focused on marriage simply because marriage is a good measure of how attached a person is to their Jewish identity. He stressed no one should conclude from the study that intermarriage leads people away from Judaism.

“It’s not necessary that people need a Jewish partner, or two Jewish parents, in order to engage in Jewish life. Interfaith families absolutely raise Jewishly engaged children,” he said.

In fact, Birthright made it possible for children of interfaith marriages to go to Israel, Saxe said, adding that today 20% of Birthright participants are children of interfaith marriages.

Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), was surprised by the negative reaction to the study.

Young American Jews participate in a Birthright event in Jerusalem (illustrative photo: Dudi Vaknin/Flash90)
Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)

“All this study is saying is when you are immersed in a positive Jewish experience [such as Birthright] you are more likely to meet, and fall in love with, someone who is Jewish — and that is a positive aspect of the program,” Fingerhut said.

Four out of 10 Americans, or 39%, are married to someone who is from a different religious group, according to the Pew Research Center. An estimated 72% of non-Orthodox Jews marry someone who isn’t Jewish, according to Pew.

Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. (Courtesy JFNA)

It’s precisely because the numbers of interfaith marriages continue to increase that Susan Katz Miller finds the marriage question obsolete.

“There is a small circle of longtime researchers who persist in seeing interfaith marriage as a loss to the Jewish community. That body of work using interfaith marriage as an indicator of disengagement from Judaism is archaic,” said Katz Miller, who authored two books on interfaith marriage.

Author Susan Katz Miller. (Stephanie Williams Images)

A recent survey of interfaith couples by the interfaith organization 18Doors and the Benenson Strategy Group found that more than half of those who said they weren’t presently engaged in Jewish life wanted to become involved — but had yet to find the right fit. Other respondents said they felt that communities in their area weren’t accepting of interfaith couples.

To remedy that, Katz Miller and others said Jewish institutions must do more to reach out and help those in interfaith marriages mark life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals.

“We are all part of extended interfaith families at this point. Soon, more than half the young rabbis, cantors, religious educators, will all be interfaith kids,” Katz Miller said. “Progressive Jewish institutions must approve ordination of rabbis in interfaith relationships, and must allow rabbis to perform interfaith life cycle ceremonies, unless they want to further alienate the extended progressive Jewish community.”

The study also looked at continued long-term engagement with Jewish life.
According to the study, because Birthright participants are more likely to be partnered with other Jews, they are more likely to raise their oldest child Jewish, circumcise their oldest son, remain connected to Israel, be synagogue members, volunteer for Jewish or Israeli causes, have Jewish friends, celebrate Jewish holidays and attend Jewish religious services.

Soon, more than half the young rabbis, cantors, religious educators, will all be interfaith kids

According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of young adults in the Millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, said they grew up in a religiously mixed family.

“It’s clear that even one Jewish parent makes an impact on Jewish identity and participation, and we should nurture that. We need to create paths that allow for both interfaith and Jewishly-partnered families to thrive in our communities,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, who is the joint CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the Rabbinical Assembly.

Illustrative photo of Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright/JTA)

To that end, USCJ rabbis work in a multitude of settings — including congregations, campuses and summer camps — where they encounter interfaith couples and their children, Blumenthal said. He added that the organization strives to create opportunities to participate in synagogue life, ritual experiences, and education.

“Our USCJ congregations are more welcoming than ever, and many allow for full membership and leadership roles for beloved partners of other faiths and backgrounds. Our rabbis have developed pre- or post-marriage welcoming ceremonies or ceremonies to dedicate a Jewish home, as well as inclusive rituals for various life cycle events,” Blumenthal said.

Additionally, there are education curricula, such as the Miller Introduction to Judaism program sponsored by the American Jewish University, that are used throughout North America to help people of other backgrounds learn about and become more comfortable in Jewish settings, he said.

Rabbi Deborah Reichmann, rabbi and spiritual advisor for the Interfaith Family Project, Washington, DC. (Courtesy)

Still, Reichmann said she found the way the study examined Jewish engagement lacked nuance. It negates those in interfaith marriages who volunteer for organizations that aren’t identifiably Jewish and who celebrate both Jewish holidays and other holidays, she said. Jewish people express their Judaism and Jewishness in many other ways than by marrying another Jewish person and having Jewish children, Reichmann said.

“People could be volunteering for environmental groups or social justice groups. Maybe they are involved in their school. They are doing tikkun olam in their own way,” Reichmann said, using the popular Hebrew expression for “repairing the world.”

In his former position as president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Barry Shrage worked to strengthen synagogues commitment to interfaith families.

“Core to my work are issues of Jewish identity. We were the first federation to support outreach to interfaith families,” said Shrage who is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University.

In the end, Shrage said, the big take away from the study should not necessarily be who marries whom, but rather that a trip to Israel has a lasting impact.

“The data from the study is clear on that, but the last thing in the world it says is to be a good Jew you have to marry someone Jewish,” he said. “Birthright is about identification with the Jewish people and developing a love of Jewish people. It’s is all about outreach to Jewish people on the periphery.”

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