Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities begins with the famous opening line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Sociologist Steven Cohen's new study on intermarriage has a similar title, but a different spirit.
Ignoring positive evidence from Boston and elsewhere that more intermarried families are raising their children as Jews, Cohen's "A Tale of Two Jewries" sees only the worst of times when it comes to intermarriage.
It is uninformative to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of in-married couples with all intermarried couples, as Cohen does. Sadly, one-third of intermarried couples are raising their children in another religion. It necessarily follows that intermarried couples, taken as an undifferentiated whole, are less Jewishly engaged than their in-married counterparts.
Cohen sets up a straw identity chasm between in-married and all intermarried families, and then knocks down intermarriage as "the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity" — the sound bite headline for which his paper will be remembered.
What is productive is to compare the Jewish behaviors and attitudes of in-married couples with those of intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews. When sociologists Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok made that comparison in a 2004 paper titled "Jewish Identity Among the Adult Children of Intermarriage: Event Horizon or Navigable Horizon?" they found greatly reduced gaps.
A child's Jewish identity is determined not simply by the fact that the parents are intermarried but largely by the environment the family creates, and in particular, by their decision to raise the children as Jews. Phillips and Chertok conclude that "tarring all intermarriages with the same brush" makes the loss of Jewish identity "a self-fulfilling prophecy."
The logical conclusion for policymakers to draw from an analysis that focuses on "two Jewries" is to write off the intermarried and support only increasing the Jewish engagement of the in-married. In contrast, the logical conclusion to draw from an analysis showing that intermarried families raising their children as Jews are closer to in-married families in their Jewish engagement is to support encouraging more interfaith families to raise their children as Jews.
Cohen concludes that Jewish-education experiences "work." In that respect, he's undoubtedly correct, but measuring their success by the degree to which they reduce intermarriage is a serious mistake.
The reason is that recruitment — how to promote the use of Jewish education — is the "true challenge," as Cohen says. But Jewish education can't be "sold" to the intermarried on the basis that the experiences will reduce the chances that their child will intermarry. "Send your children to our day school/camp/etc. and they won't succumb to intermarriage, the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity'' is not a message that resonates with parents who did intermarry and who are raising their children as Jews. Promoting those experiences on the basis that they increase the chances that the kids will make the same Jewish choices as those parents did — that is a credible, open and inviting idea.
Half of the children who identify as Jews today have one Jewish parent. Transformative Jewish education experiences — day schools, camps, youth movements, Israel travel and study, and intensive adult education — could have twice the impact, for little extra investment, if they attracted interfaith families and their children.
The timing of Cohen's paper is particularly unfortunate because after the recent finding that 60 percent of Boston's interfaith families are raising their children as Jews, policymakers and funders have a very clear road map to follow to seek comparable results everywhere by fully funding outreach.
The Jewish community has an opportunity to make this the best of times concerning intermarriage, not the worst. Seeing intermarried families as a separate, inferior portion of our population — as Cohen does — leads to a dead end; intermarried families, like anyone else, will not affiliate with a group that demeans them and offers little programming to welcome them.
The key to Boston's success is not the actual outreach programs, but the communal choice to adopt a welcoming, inclusive attitude toward interfaith families and respond to intermarriage positively.
Which shall we be: two Jewries or one?
Edmund Case is president and publisher of Interfaithfamily.com. Micah Sachs is its online managing editor.