Poll: Few intermarried couples know of outreach though one-third interested

NEW YORK — Only a small fraction of intermarried couples are aware of — or even interested in — Jewish community efforts to reach out to them, according to a new survey.

Just 6 percent of respondents described themselves as "very aware" of outreach programs. Only 4 percent said they had ever participated in a Jewish outreach program.

Nearly three-quarters — 72 percent — of people involved in intermarriages are completely unaware of the Jewish community's programs reaching out to intermarried families.

The survey comes at a time when communal concern over embracing intermarried families has increased.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Study revealed a national intermarriage rate of 52 percent, spurring wide reconsideration of Jewish communal priorities. Many Jewish groups now devote significant resources to approaching intermarried families.

"We had no idea how few people are actually reached, which is probably a function of how little investment is made," said Egon Mayer, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a New York-based organization that promotes the inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community.

The national survey of those involved in marriages in which one partner is Jewish was conducted for the institute by the National Family Opinion Corporation.

Nearly half of those surveyed — 48 percent — said they are uninterested in outreach programs.

Slightly more than a third — 35 percent — indicated any interest in engaging with the Jewish community through such programs.

But of that 35 percent, two-thirds showed themselves unaware that the Jewish community provides outreach programs.

The adult children of intermarried couples are even less interested in Jewish outreach programs, the survey found. Less than 8 percent of this group reported any interest in such programs.

"Since two-thirds of those who are interested aren't aware that the community has programs for them, there is a very serious miscommunication" between the Jewish community and the intermarried, Mayer said.

A 1994 task force convened by the Council of Jewish Federations concluded that federations should do more to reach out to intermarried families. And some have: At least two federations, in Minneapolis and MetroWest, N.J., recently hired professionals whose job it is to work with the intermarried.

Hayim Herring, a Conservative rabbi who was hired by the Minneapolis Federation for Jewish Service to work with that population, among others, said he is not surprised by the institute's survey's findings.

"We've done a very poor job advertising what it is we have to offer," Herring said. "As an American Jewish community we spend so little on outreach that our first effort ought to be a public campaign to make people aware."

Thirty-five percent of interfaith couples interested in Jewish programming is "a very significant minority," Herring said. "How can we ignore that?"

The survey also found that 60 percent of those who said they have participated in an outreach program did so at a synagogue, where a rabbi led the program.

Most of those programs have been at Reform temples, nearly all of which offer courses and other programs targeting interfaith families, said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella for 857 Reform congregations.

Fully 60 percent of families who participate in the Reform movement's program "Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me" subsequently affiliate with a temple, Schindler said. The program began in Denver several years ago and has since been replicated in about 10 communities. It offers two years of free Hebrew school to the children of unaffiliated interfaith families.

"If every synagogue and Jewish organization in America were to do this, the percentages of those who convert would be infinitely higher," Schindler said. "I wish to God we had the money to advertise on radio, TV and in newspapers."

The question of where to devote scarce communal funds — to work harder to reach the unaffiliated intermarried or, instead, on programs to build Jewish identity among those already interested in Judaism — is a central policy question continually being addressed by Jewish organizational leaders.

Opinions differ dramatically on which is the correct focus to take.

Mayer was asked whether, given that just 35 percent of intermarrieds have any interest in being approached, the poll suggests that the Jewish community should not devote its limited resources to courting them.

"The data certainly challenge our premise," he said.

But "35 percent of a million [intermarried] households is a very large population, since there is a total population of 2.5 million Jewish households," he said.

Mayer said the survey's findings show the Jewish community needs to work harder — not only to reach the intermarried who may be interested in outreach programs, but also those who are not interested.

Not everyone agrees that the Jewish community should try to reach intermarried families.

The data show "that it's time to put to rest utopian delusions that the intermarriage crisis can be transformed into the greatest opportunity of modern Jewish history. It's demographic nonsense," said Steven Bayme, director of the Jewish communal affairs department at the American Jewish Committee. If only 35 percent of intermarrieds are interested in outreach, then most will not become Jewish.

"To simply chase after people who have no desire to be chased is a misdirection of Jewish communal resources," he said.

"The core of the Jewish future is not going to come from the mixed marrieds, but from those people who form Jewish families, including inmarrieds and converts to Judaism, and a minority of mixed marrieds prepared to commit themselves to bringing up children Jewishly," Bayme said.

Other findings include:

*Some 69 percent of intermarried respondents said the differences in religious backgrounds has posed no difficulty in their marriage. Those who said it did pose some problem said the greatest obstacles they face include feeling comfortable in Jewish organizations and synagogues, deciding how to celebrate holidays, getting along with in-laws and raising kids.

*Interest in learning about Jewish outreach programs declines with age. The most interest — 57 percent — was demonstrated by intermarried couples under 30.

*Non-Jewish women married to Jewish men are twice as likely to be interested in learning about Jewish outreach than are non-Jewish men married to Jewish women.