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"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.

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7 Comments

Leah, I completely agree that the word "problem" in the article is exactly the problem. I'm about to get on a soap box here, but I've been following this topic for a while now and have a lot to say.

Steven Cohen used the term "welcoming strategy" -- but you can't be welcoming and call intermarriage a problem at the same time. So welcoming "strategies" are pretty much a waste of time if you're telling people that their choice of marriage partner is not ideal. Also, Cohen includes in-marriage among a list of many Jewish ideals and "shoulds." These ideals may all be equal to him, but we know anecdotally that Jews who have abandoned ALL those ideals and practices often hang on to the one last ideal they think will give them a shred of connection to Jewish identity: in-marriage. This is quite sad to me. Why is in-marriage held up higher than tikkun olam? If an intermarried family celebrates Shabbat together, is that LESS ideal than an in-married family celebrating Shabbat?

I would suggest that we need to go beyond both welcoming and "competency." Welcoming is an attitude, not a strategy. And being available to share Jewish teachings and practices is also a stance and an attitude, not a strategy per se. We need to actually go a step further and, once non-Jewish partners and family members are comfortable in the Jewish community, allow those valuable members of our community to--yes--CHANGE our community, for the better. I'm not talking about religious syncretism here, but different cultural perspectives that can enrich us. We need to stop pigeon-holing non-Jews as the "Other" (once we find a better word than "non-Jew"), but actually include them as equal members of the community who have a voice.

I think many Jews (perhaps even Cohen) are frankly afraid of that inevitable next step. What might happen to Judaism if the Jewish community is suddenly filled with non-Jews? Will it still be Judaism? Well, rabbinic Judaism was quite a radical leap too, and it turned Judaism into something completely different than it was before. So was kabbalistic literature and practice. So was hasidism. The current Jewish "establishment" needs to come to terms with its own myths of authenticity. It is those very myths--that mainstream Judaism as we know it today is somehow authentic and represents the ideal "norms" of Judaism--that makes Judaism appear inflexible and falsely static. But it's our flexibility and adaptability that has made Judaism so rich and diverse over the centuries, and sustainable.

There is no one monolithic Judaism. American Jews are perhaps the first Jews in history to have as much freedom and integration in the non-Jewish world--this a new phenomenon historically and we need to respond accordingly, not by retreating backwards in fear, but moving forward with an openness to, and even--dare I say it--an enthusiasm for change. Judaism has enough to offer the world that it won't disappear in that change, but it will be better for it. And yes, Judaism will look different once these changes have accumulated--it always has.

Chelsea Clinton's recent marriage to a Jew who seems fairly traditional and knowledgeable demonstrates that intermarriage is an identity issue, not one of literacy.

Excellent post.

I thank Ms. Berkenwald for her thoughtful response to my thinking on welcoming and engaging the intermarried. She has contributed to this important discourse, for which we should all be grateful.

That said with all sincerity, I do wish to clarify a few points where I believe I am misunderstood. To be clear, I am NOT in any way opposed to welcoming, of ANY Jews, to ANY Jewish community. Rather, I have simply raised the tentative hypothesis that welcoming is an over-played rhetorical strategy to engage those mixed married and other Jews who are now distant from Jewish life. We need other ways to characterize our efforts to engage the mixed married (and others) in Jewish life. Whatever we're doing right, it is not primarily about, "welcoming," at least as we commonly understand the term.

There are no signs that the Jewishly unengaged mixed married feel much more unwelcome and unincluded than other Jewishly unengaged people, be they single, partnered or in-married. To take a compelling statistic: Reform temples' new members who are married are roughly evenly divided between in-married and mixed married couples. Under such circumstances, and with the very scant data we have pointing to equal levels of discomfort between in- and mixed married, how can we put so much of our effort into a "welcoming" strategy?

Indeed, I believe the efforts of advocates of welcoming actually go well beyond welcoming. Their productive work includes engagement, education, public relations, diversifying programming, one-on-one relational organizing, and other methods that fall well outside the rubric of "welcoming." Hence, "welcoming" is not enough: It doesn't encompass what we should do, and it doesn't encompass what we do do.

Last, efforts to engage the mixed married need to be seen not only/merely as acting with warmth and integrity to an important segment of the population. They are not only/merely about bringing Jewish meaning to those who don't experience it. They are also about ensuring the perpetuation of a culturally diverse Jewish People in the United States and the world.

Somehow, for reasons which elude me, some advocates of outreach disdain efforts to ensure Jewish demographic continuity and cultural diversity. Thus, we need not only/merely to engage the mixed married in Jewish life, we also need to re-emphasize efforts to maximize the chances that Jews will marry Jews -- in part because we have a better chance of sustainig the Jewish future, and, frankly, because in-marriage remains one of those things that Jews should do -- just like studying Torah, working for a better world, acting kindly to others, celebrating our holidays, engaging with the State and people of Israel, and all the other "shoulds" of Jewish life and community.

Now most of us, including myself (!), often fall short of all these desirable and cherished ideals and behaviors (I won't list all my Jewish 'failings,' but I have a LOT of them. But, just because I personally fall short of the highest expectations of my history and People, that doesn't mean that I want my People and my learned leaders to change their message. I DO NOT seek for them to abandon preaching and teaching the ideals, principles, and norms that make Judaism not just an beautiful and attractive culture, but a system of ethical, moral, historic, and powerful precepts with which we struggle and adapt and diversify with our changing times and different insights.

In-marriage, Jewish learning, Tikkun Olam, cultural engagement, Zionism, Jewish morality, are all Jewishly good things. Not all of us accept these ideals, and hardly any of us live by them. We need to make room for those who differ -- in belief and practice -- even as we hold on to those ideals which make our People great, our tradition meaningful, and our community sustainable.

I'm an observant Jewess, so the following comments may be taken accordingly.

I'm surprised you say that Jews are not welcoming, both to their own and to those outside the fold. If anything, I think we do cartwheels in order to be accepted by the majority, gentile world.

We even go several steps further, intermarrying at a dizzying rate and in some cases, giving up our own heritage in order to be part of that great global villlage of universality.

I call it being "pareve." You're not this, and you're not that. Spouses who marry one of the tribe and do not convert, what does that mean? No commitment. You can always change your mind.

I myself read the NYT weddings and celebrations section each Sunday, although I call it My Weekly Dose of Aggravation, as noted in my blog post: http://www.afternoonschmoozer....

Nettie Feldman, host Afternoon Schmooze talk show www.rustymikeradio.com Blog: http://www.afternoonschmoozer....

Leah, thank you for this post and your kind words about JOI/IFF's op-ed. There was so much that was problematic about the Forward piece, that I actually missed the issue you are pointing out, about the "problem" language used in reference to intermarriage. It is of course something we have long argued against. I really appreciate what you have to say about it. As for those other issues with the Forward piece, I did a more in-depth breakdown here that you might find interesting as well. Thanks again, Paul

There is indeed lots of work to be done. When we begin to see intermarriage, as you suggest, not as a problem,but as an opportunity then perhaps we can put the Jewish community back on track.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. ""Being welcoming" is an end unto itself." 12 August 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/being-welcoming-is-an-end-unto-itself>.

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