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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

Considerable disturbing evidence points to deeply challenging trends in America’s Jewish families — late marriage, intermarriage, reduced child-bearing and non-Jewish child-rearing. Nevertheless, prominent Jewish thought leaders are sharply divided over the state of the Jewish family and its implications for the Jewish future.

The divisions are well-illustrated by responses to a recent controversial manifesto – “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action” – signed by 74 diverse American Jewish leaders, rabbis, and scholars.2 Highlighting rising intermarriage and low birthrates, the statement provoked strong objections from readers who insisted that changing patterns of family formation are not particularly worrisome, or they are not an appropriate focus for policy discussion.

Some commentators dismissed the urgency of demographic concerns, concurring with Rabbi Aaron Potek who wrote, “By focusing our attention on ‘the numbers,’ the signatories seem to be more concerned with Jews than Judaism.”3 In similar fashion, Boston Hebrew College President Rabbi Daniel Lehman lamented what he characterized as the statement’s exclusion of “visionary” and “spiritual content.”4 David Manchester objected to language used to characterize the intermarried: “Labeling interfaith couples a ‘challenge’ minimizes the ways in which many of those parents have instilled an appreciation and love of Judaism in their children.”5 Yehuda Kurtzer faulted the terminology and notion of crisis.6 Jonathan Woocher disputed the very assertion of crisis: “Fundamentally, we disagree with the premise that American Jewry is in crisis and that the key issue facing the community is the ‘shrinking Jewish Middle,’7 a term given to the proximate middle of the Jewish identity spectrum, with Orthodox Jews on one side, and those who are only marginally engaged in Jewish life on the other. Both the Orthodox and the marginally engaged are growing in number, while those situated between them are in demographic decline.

In short, critics of the statements insisted, implicitly or explicitly, that the number of active Jews in the future is assured (dismissing concerns about marriage and childrearing), or that numbers are not critical to the quality of Jewish life in America.

Consistent with the critics’ thinking, one line of research takes a relatively sanguine view of intermarriage and its consequences. For example, a recent report (Sasson and Saxe, et. al. “Millennial Children of Intermarriage”) enlarges upon the upbeat findings of high rates of Jewish identification among the youngest adult-offspring of intermarriage reported by Sasson. The former asserts (accurately) that “most children of intermarriage … were raised Jewish in some fashion.” The report points to the high rates with which Jews are “proud” to be Jews, the growing number of intermarried couples’ offspring who identify as Jewish, and the effectiveness of Jewish educational experiences among the young adult portion of the intermarried. In so doing, the researchers call into question the traditionally negative assessment of intermarriage and its consequences.8

The “Call to Action” provoked considerable dissent and pushback from these and other critics, demonstrating that thought leaders and policy makers lack clear consensus on the research published thus far. Clearly, without the effective communication of hard evidence – one objective of this paper – it will be difficult to mobilize Jewish communal leaders in America and Israel to act vigorously to meet the challenges posed. If we may be permitted to quote from the New Testament: “For if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?”(1 Corinthians 14:8)

To contribute to this policy-related discourse, we demonstrate below that Jewish social networks (spouse and close friends), Jewish education, Jewish family formation, and Jewish inter-generational continuity mutually reinforce one another, recalling what JPPI once termed a “virtuous circle.”9 Put simply: More Jewish personal relationships nurture more Jewish engagement; and the more Jewishly engaged develop and sustain more Jewish personal relationships. Hence, fewer Jewish relationships mean less engagement and fewer Jews; and less engagement and fewer Jews mean fewer personal relationships among Jews in families or among friends.