Opening door to interfaith is critical, advocates say

Local outreach advocates have applauded a new report that calls for a welcoming embrace to intermarried Jews who now –or soon will — represent a majority of the American Jewish population.

"To give them an open door is really important," said Dawn Kepler, director of the Oakland-based Building Jewish Bridges: Outreach to Interfaith Couples.

"I think we should give them as much support and education as possible in what it means to have a Jewish home."

Kepler, who runs classes and discussion groups for families exploring their religious identity, considers the Bay Area a national leader in its outreach to interfaith families.

That's the approach advocated by the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, which recently released a study demonstrating how intermarried households are growing rapidly.

"If the creation of intermarried households is not at the halfway mark, it's clearly coming," said Paul Golin, director of communications and strategic planning for the institute and author of the report.

What's more, the study says, more children under the age of 12 already belong to intermarried families than to entirely Jewish families.

Kepler had no estimate of the percentage of intermarriage families locally. But a 1997 study by Lehrhaus Judaica, a Jewish studies program based in Berkeley, found that as many as 80 percent of Bay Area Jews marry outside the faith.

Rosanne Levitt, director of the S.F.-based Interfaith Connection, said the Bay Area has long been a home to couples who intermarry.

"San Francisco, the West Coast in general, always mirrors trends before the rest of the country catches us," she said.

Launched in 1986, her program was one of the first in the country to reach out to interfaith families with classes on holiday celebrations and talks on issues of child rearing.

"I think probably we're one of the most welcoming places in the United States," said Levitt. "That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement."

Spurred by periodic calls from interfaith clients complaining of ill treatment by the Jewish community, Jewish Family and Children's Services held a daylong conference on April 27 that drew some 45 lay leaders from local congregations and Jewish agencies.

Participants discussed ways of becoming more welcoming and inclusive.

"The Bay Area prides itself on being so liberal, but there's more that we can do," said Karen Erlichman, JFCS interfaith program coordinator.

The Jewish Outreach Institute report recommended that Jewish leaders turn their energy toward boosting the number of intermarried families raising Jewish children, rather than focusing on the rate of such couplings.

"Unlike intermarriage, this is a rate JOI believes the Jewish community can actually affect positively," the institute said.

Its study is titled "The Coming Majority: Suggested Action on Intermarried Households for the Organized Jewish Community."

One of its suggestions is for staff training "that, yes, there are Jews of color, for example, so they don't automatically ask a black person walking into your synagogue if they are 'lost' or 'somebody's nanny.'"

The report was published as the Jewish community awaits the release of the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which will update controversial intermarriage findings from the last survey in 1990.

The 1990 survey found that 52 percent of marriages involving Jews in the previous five years were to non-Jews, while 28 percent of Jews overall are married to non-Jews.

Since then, responses have ranged from efforts to stem intermarriage by strengthening Jewish identity to encouraging Jewish involvement among interfaith couples in hopes that they will raise Jewish children.

The latest report urges more outreach as a way to shift the demographic tide.

"Interfaith marriage is not the end of Jewish continuity — not raising Jewish children is," said the institute's executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. "The challenge is not necessarily in the rate, the challenge is in the response."

The 1990 study sparked a flurry of subsequent studies and reports on intermarriage. Some of them challenged the 52 percent rate, while others issued similar findings.

But Golin said the intermarriage numbers have been largely "misunderstood."

Any rate higher than 33 percent means more intermarriages than "in-marriages" are taking place, he said.

Golin's report maintains that even a conservative estimate of 40 percent means that for every 10 marriages involving Jews, four intermarriages, which result in four intermarried households, are being created. By contrast, the six out of 10 marriages between Jewish partners lead to only three in-married homes.

Only by seeing the intermarriage rate in these terms can the community begin to grapple with the importance of reaching out to the intermarried, Golin and Olitzky said.

"Increasing the percent of intermarried families raising Jewish children from 30 percent to 50 percent is an attainable goal and should be a primary mission for the Jewish community," Golin said.

While agreeing with the newest report's math, sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew University in Jerusalem said it only told "half the truth."

"In-married households have many more Jews in them: The spouse is Jewish, they have more children and most of the children identify as Jews," he said.

Admittedly, Cohen also is a critic of the outreach approach.

In-married Jews "generally do more to contribute to the communal health of American Jewry," through membership in synagogues and organizations, philanthropy, Zionist support and religious observance, he said.

Ira Sheskin, a member of the National Jewish Population Survey technical advisory committee and a University of Miami academic, remained skeptical of the latest report, claiming that it hewed too closely to the outreach institute's agenda.

Golin did not deny that the report backed up the institute's aims.

But "we believe we represent what the majority of American Jews want, which is more outreach and more inclusion, because they have intermarried relatives,'' he said.