Jewish Leaders Try Nontraditional Engagement
The 2013 Pew study on Jewish Americans prompted some leaders to take a new approach in engaging intermarried and young Jews disinterested in the traditional religious aspects of Judaism.
By Shira Hanau
Immediately after reading the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report on Jewish Americans, Michael Wise went into his office, shut the door, and started writing up his response. Over decades of leading Jewish community organizations, Wise had heard colleagues bemoan rising intermarriage rates, which, according to the 2013 study, had climbed to 58 percent. But it was another statistic that caught his eye that day. While 93 percent of Jews in the Greatest Generation—those born between 1917 and 1923—identified as Jews on the basis of religion, just 68 percent of millennial Jews identified that way. The remainder, almost one-third of Jewish millennials, identified as “Jews of no religion.”
Within a few hours of reading the report, Wise had sketched out an idea for a project called Honeymoon Israel that he hoped would reach out to these two groups—intermarried Jews, and those who did not affiliate with Judaism as a religion. The goal of the program, which would eventually bring more than 700 young married couples to Israel on a ten-day group tour, would be simple. By connecting young, like-minded couples to one another, they would then form their own microcommunity, and these trip alumni would have a path on which to continue their Jewish journeys after the trip had ended.
“The American Jewish community had been spending its time going ‘oy vey,’ how are we going to prevent intermarriage? And to me that was absolutely the wrong question,” said Wise. “So I thought, how can we turn that around and how can we make a plus one instead of a minus one?”
As Jewish millennials show less interest in the synagogue memberships and denominational loyalties their parents and grandparents had, a new group of rabbis and community leaders is championing programs that speak to the individualized interests of young American Jews. With its open-minded approach to Judaism and to inclusion in the Jewish community—each trip includes intermarried couples, couples in which both partners are Jewish, and LGBTQ couples—Honeymoon Israel has been held up as a model for how to appeal to young Jews at a time of rising rates of intermarriage and dissociation from Judaism as a religion. As several Jewish leaders put it, it’s about “meeting young people where they are, not where they want them to be.”
“They’re showing up in radically different ways,” said Rabbi Avram Mlotek, a rabbi in Manhattan and the founder of Base Hillel, a community for young Jews in their 20s and 30s in New York City. Mlotek has served as the rabbinic leader on several Honeymoon Israel trips. “What that means is that it’s time for the Jewish community to reassess what it means to be a part of a community,” said Mlotek.
Before the 2013 Pew study, and the panicked rash of op-eds and sermons that followed its release, the fear that rising intermarriage rates would destroy the Jewish community had been raging for years. Intermarriage, viewed both as an opportunity for greater integration into American society and as a potential threat, had been a topic of discussion in American Jewish life since Jews first came to America. As intermarriage rates increased from 17 percent of those married before 1970 to 35 percent of those married in the early 1970s and 42 percent in the early 1980s,1 demographers watched closely for what these increasing rates of Jews marrying non-Jews might mean for the future of American Jewish life. But it wasn’t until a 1990 Jewish population study claimed to find an intermarriage rate of 52 percent,2 a number which was later recalculated to be closer to 43 percent,3 that the intermarriage discussion launched a widespread panic.
“The 1990s were sort of the turning point for communal hysteria over intermarriage,” said Michelle Shain, a former researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and now associate director at the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research. “There was a big shift after that study toward investing in Jewish education, Jewish engagement, Jewish continuity . . . that was largely a response to the anxiety that was fermented by the 1990 study.”
The following decade saw a number of policy responses, including the 1999 founding of Birthright Israel, a free trip to Israel offered to nearly every young American Jew between the ages of 18 and 26, and the development of outreach programs by the Reform and Conservative movements to involve intermarried couples and their children in Jewish life. But despite the commitment of philanthropic dollars to such programs, the 2013 Pew study found that the intermarriage rate had increased to 58 percent of those married between 2000 and 2013, a number which shocked many in the Jewish community.
After years of investment in programs to support “Jewish continuity,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history and Jewish studies at Temple University, many in the Jewish community had hoped the intermarraige rate would be lower. “They thought the problem was being addressed,” said Berman.
It was the shock that followed the 2013 study that prompted a host of new projects like Honeymoon Israel to take a new approach in engaging intermarried Jews and young Jews disinterested in the traditional religious aspects of Judaism. And though the 2013 survey marked the most recent national poll of American Jews, leaving observers to guess at the current rate of intermarriage today, some of these programs seem to be engaging populations that would otherwise be turned off to the Jewish community.
Greg Merson, a 31-year-old Jewish New Yorker, said he doesn’t identify with religion. But since he went on a Honeymoon Israel trip earlier this year with his wife, Kristen, who is not Jewish, he has participated in a Passover seder and is talking about planning Shabbat dinners with friends.
“I had always made the argument that Judaism was a people more than a religion, and I think Honeymoon Israel put a finer point on that,” said Greg. He described his fellow group members as, like Kristen and himself, “feeling out how to incorporate Judaism with our lives together as couples” and credited the trip with solidifying the group into a community.
For Sharon and Thomas Lechleiter, their Honeymoon Israel trip was an opportunity to explore the role Judaism would play in their lives. Despite the fact that neither of them described themselves as religious, Sharon, who grew up Jewish, said she had always thought her husband, who grew up Catholic, might convert to Judaism. The trip helped them envision a Jewish life for themselves and their son as a family that didn’t force them to become religious.
“I understood that him just converting on a piece of paper to say that he was Jewish wouldn’t really mean anything to either of us,” said Sharon. For his part, Thomas said he felt “energized” by the message of welcome from the Jewish community they created on the trip. Since they returned, they have celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah with friends from Honeymoon Israel.
“I think we underestimate the desire of young couples, for people who were born Jews or converted to Judaism, to build and have a sense of community. Religion and practice of religion isn’t a critical piece of that,” said Wise. “Rather than writing off the Jewish member of a couple and saying intermarriage is the end of somebody’s Jewish engagement,” Wise views Honeymoon Israel as “a way of welcoming both of them in as members of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Shira Stutman, the senior rabbi at Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, DC, a hub for young Jews, actually sees intermarriage as an opportunity to engage the Jewish partners of non-Jewish spouses in Jewish experiences for the first time as an adult. As the non-Jewish partner discovers Jewish holidays and customs, said Stutman, “the Jewish partner gets to be reintroduced to Judaism, as if for the first time, in this really wonderful way.”
One of the primary reasons Stutman finds that young Jews don’t engage in Jewish activities is a lack of the requisite knowledge base. Even knowing when to sit or stand during a synagogue service, Stutman said, can make a difference in whether someone feels comfortable there.
“I think a lot of people just feel really put off by Judaism because they’re so lost,” said Stutman. “It’s embarrassing to go to synagogue, they don’t understand what’s happening so it’s even harder to get something out of it. So I think that sometimes they just give up.”
Despite the liberal-minded approach to Judaism offered by today’s community leadership, some are skeptical of an approach that lowers the barriers to entry to Jewish community. Shain, the researcher at the Orthodox Union, co-authored a recently published study of intermarried couples conducted by the Cohen Center, the results of which were published in a report titled Beyond Welcoming.4 The study’s authors found that intermarried couples overwhelmingly felt the Jewish community to be welcoming of them. But despite the sense of acceptance in the Jewish community, the researchers still found that intermarried couples tended to engage in fewer Jewish activities than couples in which both partners were Jewish.
“The liberal Jewish world has succeeded in making intermarried couples feel welcome, but that hasn’t brought these couples by and large through the door,” said Shain. “If welcoming isn’t the barrier, then what is the barrier? And I think it became clear to my colleagues and me that the barrier was a lack of interest. These couples were just not interested in what the Jewish community was offering.”
While the recommendation offered by Shain and her colleagues in the report was for Jewish organizations to offer more proactive outreach and nontraditional entry points to Jewish communities, Shain wonders if easing access to Jewish activities could have a counterproductive effect. “I worry that if we try to eliminate all challenge from Jewish life, then we’ll be left with nothing of value to offer,” she said.
In contrast to the Pew study’s findings about religious alienation among young Jews, Stutman says she finds young people to be open to religion, as long as they find it meaningful.
“In past generations, I’m Jewish because my mother is Jewish, because my grandmother’s Jewish, because of the Holocaust,” said Stutman. “But the young people I’m dealing with, they will be Jewishly involved if it’s meaningful to them, but if it’s not, they don’t have the same sense of guilt-ridden, reflexive connection to Judaism that they have to participate.”
That type of individualized identification with Judaism changes the way Stutman prepares her services.
“Fifty or sixty years ago, everyone shows up on Yom Kippur, even if the services were so incredibly boring, you still go,” said Stutman. “It does require, more than ever, Jewish life to be thoughtful and creative and vibrant.”
Stutman often finds, sometimes to her surprise, that ritual holds a strong appeal for young Jews. She likens rituals that require physical actions to exercise or yoga, the kinds of activities that young adults view as indispensable parts of their routines.
“Judaism is an entirely embodied religion, we eat matzah, we sit in the sukkah, we go in the mikvah,” said Stutman. “The young people I work with are very attracted to that because they are very much connected to their bodies.”
Other rabbis who push back on the idea that young Jews are disinterested in religion say that Judaism itself needs revamping. They argue that rabbis need to show how Judaism is relevant to young people’s lives. That’s what drove Rabbi Samantha Frank, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College, and Rena Singer, a fourth-year student at HUC, to create Modern Ritual, an Instagram account appealing to millennial Jews.
Their posts feature photos of themselves wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, or holding a shofar with captions that include hashtags like #spirituality and #proudlyjewish. The colorful photos would look at home in a millennial-focused food or lifestyle blog but are instead accompanied by short essays about Jewish holidays or recent news articles. Frank summed up Modern Ritual’s appeal to its audience in just a few words: “It’s relevant to their lives.”
Singer and Frank view Modern Ritual as a way of updating Judaism’s aesthetic from the dowdy and old-fashioned to modern and bright. They said that social media was a natural, and necessary, home for Jewish content that would make Judaism appealing to young Jews. “It’s an extremely practical endeavor. People are on Instagram, let’s bring them real, meaningful Jewish content on Instagram,” said Frank. “There’s a problem when you google Judaism and you get hundreds of images of men in beards dressed in black,” said Singer.
They view their Instagram account as more than migrating Jewish content from one platform to another. To Frank and Singer, Modern Ritual is about updating the meaning of Jewish practice to fit modern sensibilities and to attract modern practitioners.
“That’s what they did when they wrote the Talmud,” Singer said, referring to the seventh-century Jewish text which forms the basis of much of Jewish ritual practice. “They created a new kind of Judaism for people who weren’t organizing their lives around the Temple anymore. And so what does that look like for us?”
For all the climbing rates of intermarriage and disaffiliation with Judaism as a religion, some studies have pointed to increasing numbers of people affiliating Jewishly. Contrary to fears that the children of marriages between Jews and non-Jews would be raised without Judaism, studies have reported steadily increasing rates of Jewish affiliation among the children of intermarried couples. A study from 20005 found that 33 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children as Jews, up from 27.8 percent in the 1990 Jewish population study.6 By 2013, that rate had nearly doubled, with 61 percent of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews.7
Bethamie Horowitz, a psychologist and New York University professor who has led numerous demographic studies of the Jewish community, described the old notion of intermarriage as “a one-way ticket to assimilation.” Today, she said, notions of intermarriage have changed. “It’s become much more reasonable that Jews who intermarry or people who are willing to marry Jews would have a mix of things in their household or have a Jewish household,” said Horowitz.
Some historians and demographers have begun to question the meaning of these statistics altogether, asking whether the focus on women’s reproductive choices offers valuable insight in the absence of information about individuals’ religious choices.
“There are lots of people who are intermarried who are super into Judaism, there are lots of people who are not,” said Jennifer Thompson, a professor of Jewish studies at California State University at Northridge. “These categories don’t really tell us anything and I don’t think religious Nones really tells us much either.”
Horowitz challenged the framing of many of the questions posed by the Pew Center, which, she argues, leads to a portrait framed by religious practice. “It doesn’t create opportunities for people who have other ways of relating to being Jewish to show how they’re Jewish,” said Horowitz. Mlotek, the New York City rabbi, echoed Horowitz’s observations based on his own experience with young Jewish adults. “If these young people are saying that Judaism plays an important role in who they are, but they’re not affiliating in any of the ways that the Pew study was offering, something shows us that that equation is off,” said Mlotek.
While careful to note that much of the Jewish community remained concerned with continuity and intermarriage rates, and that this emphasis was unlikely to disappear, Berman acknowledged a growing movement toward measuring individualized Jewish experiences.
“There’s more energy to abandoning this language of continuity and instead thinking of the richness of individual experiences and not necessarily having to benchmark that with marital and reproductive choices,” said Berman. “Maybe we are just a community open to people who are curious about pursuing any element of what Jewishness is.”
- Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, Religion & Public Life Project (Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013).
- Barry A. Kosmin et al., Highlights of the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (The Council of Jewish Federations, with the Mandell Bennan Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank and the Graduate School & University Center, CUNY, 1991).
- Nacha Cattan, “New Population Survey Retracts Intermarriage Figure,” Forward, September 12, 2003.
- Michelle Shain et al., Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life (Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2019).
- The National Jewish Population Survey 2000–01: Strength, Challenge and Diversity in the American Jewish Population, United Jewish Communities Report, September 2003.
- Kosmin et al., Highlights.
- Pew Research Center, Portrait of Jewish Americans.