"Being welcoming" is an end unto itself
I recently read a piece called "New Study Finds That It’s Not a Lack of Welcome That’s Keeping the Intermarrieds Away" in the eJewish Philanthropy daily e-letter. It explained how a study done by Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who studies American Jews, determined that it was a lack of "competency" rather than welcome that was keeping intermarried families and their children from engaging with the Jewish community. I wasn't the only one who found this thesis problematic and offensive. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and Edmund Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, wrote a response arguing that there is still work to be done in welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish fold.
Rabbi Olitzky and Mr. Case point out that Steven M. Cohen has an interesting history with this issue:
We at the Jewish Outreach Institute and InterfaithFamily.com find it ironic that after working so hard to create a more welcoming community despite the hindrance of literally decades of policy papers from Dr. Cohen discouraging communal support for outreach, he is now recommending we declare victory and go home.
They also point out that Cohen based his whole thesis on just one question from a survery about engaging Midwestern children in Jewish summer camps. Hardly data on which to make assumptions about the general experience of intermarried families throughout the entire American Jewish community! They do a great job of breaking down the statistics from that survey, and I encourage you to read more here. But I would argue that you don't even need to look at the data to see that the issue of "welcoming" intermarried families has not yet been resolved; it's right there in the first sentence of the original piece, written by Gal Beckerman:
Since at least the 1990s, one of the chief concerns of the American Jewish community has been the problem of intermarriage. With the perception that an increasing number of American Jews are marrying outside the faith, the problem of how to stop the attrition has been a major preoccupation. [Emphasis Added]
It's language like this that makes me bristle every time I read something about intermarriage from "the Jewish establishment." Intermarried families are never going to feel welcome in a community where they are considered a "problem."
Beckerman quotes Cohen's use of the phrase "competency barrier" to describe the unfamiliarity intermarried families may have with Jewish traditions or practices -- a discomfort that often keeps them from participating. The word "competency" set off a red flag for me because I am currently reading Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In this best-selling series, the Swedish government uses the word "incompetent" to refer to adults declared legally incapable of caring for themselves, and is regarded as offensive and outdated terminology. I think it is hurtful to use the word "competency" to describe this unfamiliarity with Jewish traditions or knowledge. Competency refers to one's physical or intellectual abilities -- not one's familiarity or comfort with a knowledge-base. Calling it a "competency barrier" is essentially calling intermarried families "incompetent," and that disgusts me.
I do not come from an intermarried family myself, but I have close friends and relatives who do. My aunt's husband is Catholic, yet he is the one who makes sure we don't skip over the boring sections in the Haggadah when we get lazy on Passover. My friend's mother is a gentile, yet she bakes challah, knows more Hebrew prayers than I do, and sent her daughter to Camp Ramah. Incompetent? Give me a break.
I'm not saying that this so-called "competency barrier" does not exist. Surely comfort and familiarity barriers to engagement do exist, but they are not exclusive to intermarried families. I have experienced them myself -- yes, even with two Jewish parents who raised me with a strong Jewish identity.
Judaism is important to my family, but my parents can't read Hebrew and we only celebrate the major holidays. Growing up, they could not help me with my Hebrew school homework or Bat Mitzvah prep and my knowledge about religion and the Torah was extremely limited. These experiences were definitely uncomfortable for me, even as a child of two Jewish parents. I think it is an egregious error to assume that these barriers are unique to intermarried families -- and that as a result, intermarried families are the "problem."
The Jewish community could stand to be a lot more welcoming to anyone and everyone who is less familiar with Jewish traditions and knowledge, intermarried or not. The idea that "being welcoming" is something we should ever stop working on is absurd. Are we really the sort of people who consider "being welcoming" simply a means to an end? Isn't it an end unto itself, not to mention an important piece of our identity as Jews?
Only when we stop thinking of intermarriage as "the problem" can we begin to address the real barriers to Jewish engagement.