Conejo and West Valley shuls rate high with newcomers


For a Jew who doesn’t belong to a synagogue, the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys are good places to shop around. A new report from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) gives a snapshot of the community as a whole and an assessment of its ability to react to newcomers, including interfaith couples, racial minorities and sexual minorities.
 
The JOI presented results from “The Jewish Outreach Scan of the West Valley/Conejo Valley” during a well-attended Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting at The New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Oct. 4. The survey was funded by the United Jewish Communities’ Emerging Communities Project.
 
Last summer, the JOI anonymously e-mailed and called 11 synagogues and four community agencies in the Conejo and West Valley, assessed the effectiveness of local Web sites and interviewed 30 Jewish communal professionals. The organization has conducted similar surveys in communities such as San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, Louisville, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
 
The West Valley/Conejo Valley drew a 77 percent favorable response rate, placing it second overall behind Ottawa’s 86 percent.
 
“The biggest surprise was … how well we did,” said Carol Koransky, Valley Alliance executive director. “But it’s true, as was pointed out to us, that doing 77 percent means there are 23 percent that aren’t being reached.”
 
According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 44 percent of Jewish adults are unaffiliated, while 28 percent are moderately affiliated. With the intermarriage rate currently hovering at about 50 percent, and with only about 30 percent of interfaith families raising their children Jewish, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, JOI’s executive director and former vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, said it’s important for synagogues to review their outreach strategies.
 
“Eighty-five percent of interfaith families are not affiliating with the Jewish community,” Olitzky said. “Unless they engage the Jewish community, it’s unlikely they’ll raise Jewish children.”
 
The scan did not compare response rates of area synagogues or agencies to one another. However, Olitzky recounted one anonymous phone call placed to a synagogue. When a receptionist told a caller to check back after the New Year regarding an “Introduction to Judaism” class for his non-Jewish spouse, the caller asked if the receptionist meant Jan. 1.
 
“The person on the phone said, ‘Honey, when I say the New Year, I’m talking about the Jewish New Year,'” Olitzky said.
 
In addition, the receptionist never asked for the caller’s contact information.
 
According to Olitzky, one of the biggest obstacles the Jewish community must overcome is its kiruv mentality, a Hebrew term that means “to bring near.” He said many synagogues wait for unaffiliated Jews to come knocking. Instead, Olitzky suggested that congregations think outside the shul and engage in what JOI calls “public space Judaism.”
 
“We spend most of our time in a secular environment,” Olitzky said. “We need to create programs where people will stumble over the Jewish community.”
 
Founded in 1988 as a vest-pocket organization for City University sociology professor Egon Mayer to conduct studies, New York-based JOI has expanded its mission over the last 10 years and now features a variety of outreach programming, including interfaith inclusion efforts and surveys of North American Jewish communities.
 
Prior to last Passover, a Conservative congregation in Northern California took part in a pre-holiday JOI program called Passover in the Aisles. Congregants spent time near a matzah display in a Palo Alto Albertson’s, talking with unaffiliated Jews shopping for their family seders.
 
Olitzky suggests this kind of activity can draw in those who might not come to a synagogue on their own; other suggestions are holding readings in bookstores, setting up tables with kid-friendly activities in front of a Target or Staples during back-to-school shopping or holding menorah lightings in malls the way Chabad does. “Why not take what Chabad does well and copy it?” he suggested.
 
Temple Beth Haverim has been doing just that for the last 10 years, holding menorah lightings at The Promenade at Westlake.
 
“We’ve just been providing it as a service for the community,” said Rabbi Gershon Johnson, who added that the Agoura Hills Conservative synagogue hadn’t looked on the activity as an outreach opportunity. He said the congregation would be more proactive this year about collecting names and phone numbers from unaffiliated Jews attending the event.

Olitzky said that adopting a retail mentality can help get people in the door, especially advertising membership discounts and free specials.
 
Debbie Green, vice president of membership at Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, said her synagogue drew in 40 unaffiliated Jews with an outreach program that advertised special no-cost High Holiday tickets. But she said follow-up has been a problem for Aliyah.
“One month later, we need to be telephoning them and offering free tickets to something else,” she said. “We’re one-time-event oriented, and we need to get beyond that.”
 

 

For more information about the Jewish Outreach Institute, visit www.joi.org.

‘Because Judaism Feels Right’


Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.

— The Book of Ruth

When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic — not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.

It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: “Why do you always talk about Jews?”

“Your father’s grandfather came from Spain,” his mother replied.

Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was “Ben Torah.” (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)

Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura’s spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 — a minyan of sorts — mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles’ pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.

With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.

Muroff’s group represents a new breed of converts.

“There’s usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting,” Muroff said.

By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.

They are not unlike Judaism’s most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.

“Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.

Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls “seekers.”

“These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah,” he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. “You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically,” he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.

No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.

“What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives,” Muroff said. “They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways,” he said.

He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.

Of course, people who convert “for marriage” can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.

“These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that’s not the only reason,” he said. “There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism.”

No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are “blessings” to the community, Schulweis said.

“They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment,” he said. “They elevate the congregation.”

Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: “I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions,” he said.

His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso — Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home — in Leon, Mexico.

“I wanted to find out more about my faith and background,” said Perez, now 22, “and my father said, ‘Well, if you’re not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'”

Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. “I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family,” he said. “After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link.”

Many spiritual converts talk about a “special feeling” for Judaism.

Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name “Shmaryahu” — meaning God watched over him — said it ultimately wasn’t just his lineage that prompted him to convert.

“When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God,” he said.

He told his wife, Rosie — renamed Esther at her conversion — and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.

His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, “If you go, we’ll go” — echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.

Susanne Shier, another of Muroff’s group, didn’t know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang “Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem.

“I started crying, and then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute — I’m not Jewish. Why am I crying?’ And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don’t know it.”

She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff’s class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.

“I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai,” she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other “Jewish souls” — and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.

“I’ve been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me,” Shier said. “But some things don’t make sense to my rational mind. There’s something in my heart that tells me something different.”

She and her son decided to convert. “It wasn’t really a difficult decision for us,” she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they’d immersed the week before.)

Shier’s son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.

“When you need that surgery, that’s when you decide if you really want to convert,” said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.

“I never liked church,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. When he went to synagogue, “I really liked it. It was a new experience,”

Sometimes it’s a double whammy — being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.

“People already look down on you,” he said. But for the most part — except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from — he has enjoyed being Jewish: “I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community.”

 

My Jewish Intermarriage


What did you and your spouse discuss after it was clear that you would have a chuppah and ketubah in your future? Probably something that turned out not to matter like, “How many kids do you want?” or “What is your dream vacation?” or “If we have twins, do you think we should dress them the same?”

If you were anything like my husband, Jeff and me, you probably completely overlooked the real marital make-it-or-break-it questions like: “During the Passover seder, do you think the adults should hide the afikoman and have the kids look for it, or the reverse?” Or “Even though neither or us keeps kosher, is bacon OK?” “Is there an exception if I’m following Atkins?” “What is your position on latkes? Scratch or box?”

Let’s face it. Every marriage between two Jews is an intermarriage. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, like a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Jew-by-birth who is not at all religious. Clearly if one spouse davens three times a day and the other spouse uses Mapquest to find her way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, a silver anniversary is not in their future. I’m talking about the rest of us.

Because so much of our Jewishness comes from how we were raised — and we were all raised differently — spouses never seem to be identical in the way they live their Judaism. My husband and I are a perfect example of this. Although we both grew up in families that were members of Reform Valley synagogues, our Jewish childhoods were day and night. When my husband was young, his family celebrated Chanukah, and dabbled in Christmas. In contrast, Christmas at the Jaffe home only meant that Bullock’s was closed, dinner was Chinese and that our station wagon would be headed to the nearest movie theater.

My husband’s family showed up at temple twice a year for the Big Two: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And although my mother-in-law became a temple regular after her children were grown, my husband did not chalk up a lot of synagogue time when he was a child. My brother, sisters and I, on the other hand, spent a huge chunk of our childhood at our synagogue, Temple Judea. We first started Hebrew school when we were still in diapers (or so it seemed) and continued through confirmation. We didn’t miss a holiday (OK, I don’t have any specific memories of Tisha B’Av), and much of my family’s social life revolved around our havurah and temple events. If sports camps existed when we were kids, we didn’t know about them; it was a given that we would go to Jewish overnight camps.

(I have no doubt that when my husband reads this, he will point out that the reason my siblings and I did not attend sports or rustic sleep-away camps had less to do with Jewish zeal, and more to do with my family’s complete lack of coordination and irrational fear of camping. And I admit that there is some anecdotal evidence to support that position.)

While many years of celebrating holidays together has put my husband and me mostly on the same Jewish page, our different upbringings occasionally seep through. I feel it every Passover when his family breaks into a song with an unfamiliar melody, when he chooses a salty noodle kugel like his mother used to make rather than the sweet ones that I grew up with, and when we have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

I know Jeff and I are not alone in trying to merge the religious habits of two different childhoods. Several friends who had very traditional upbringings are married to Jewish atheists, who could take — but mostly leave — services. These friends have become the synagogue version of the football widow, and frequently attend temple events without their spouses.

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be approaching a dozen years of marriage. So why am I dissecting our relatively minor Jewish differences now? Two reasons.

First, I have written a book about the main causes of divorce. The book is predicated on interviews with 100 divorce lawyers from all over the country. I asked each lawyer for their opinion on why people are getting divorced in droves. While not a single one of them mentioned disagreements over whether the prayer over the wine is spoken or sung, let’s just say I am hypersensitive to anything and everything that might cause marital friction.

The other reason that this is on my mind is that in a few months, summer camp will be in session. This year is the year that we intend to force our children to go to sleep-away camp purportedly for their own good, but really so that we can go on some great adult vacation. No doubt I will vote for a Jewish overnight camp, and my husband will lobby for River Way Ranch Camp. Each of our preferences will be based on what is familiar from our childhoods.

So if you know anyone trolling JDate for a husband, tell them to stop wasting their time on trivial discussions of common goals and values, and get straight to the important questions like: “If we were married, and attending High Holiday services, would you prefer to sit in front near the choir or in the back by the door?”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer living in Bell Canyon. She is also the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married,” which will be released later this month from Volt Press. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

A Place of Worship Where We Belong


It baffled my parents that I went with my husband and his family to Christmas Eve services, but he didn’t accompany me to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” my mother pointed out. “You’re celebrating his holiday, but he’s not celebrating yours.”

We do hold to my parents’ tradition of a festive erev Rosh Hashanah meal, complete with white tablecloth, fancy china, and ritual foods (wine, challah, apples and honey), and I reminded her of that. Synagogue or no, we were welcoming the Jewish New Year together in our home.

So she tried another tack: “Wouldn’t he go with you if you asked?”

The answer, of course, was yes; but I didn’t want to ask. I wanted his engagement with Judaism to be his choice — not because he felt obligated to my family, my tradition or me.

Besides, my Rosh Hashanah observance was pretty variable. I had tried one synagogue, then another. One year I barely went to shul at all, spending the day outside instead, reading poems and prayers alone under the trees. It was easy to include my husband in the home-based rituals I felt grounded in, but synagogue attendance was another thing entirely. How could I help him feel welcome in a congregation if I didn’t belong anywhere myself?

Year after year, the synagogue portion of Rosh Hashanah got more and more frustrating. I cut my attendance shorter and shorter, wanting to escape so I could do my homegrown Tashlich ritual with my friends. The nadir was the year I tried the temple nearest our house, got stuck in the upper balcony of the sanctuary and didn’t know a soul.

My resolution that High Holiday season? To find a congregational home by the following fall. I’ve lived in this cluster of small towns for almost a decade: people know me on the street, at the grocery store, at the community-supported organic farm. It felt wrong to be so rootless when it came to religion.

So I drove around. I sampled the area options: Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform. I liked the idea of attending services in the town where both my husband and I work, so I went to lunch with the rabbi there. I liked him immediately, but was nervous about explaining our situation: I still remembered our wedding-officiant search, when rabbis hadn’t always been kind.

It turned out that the rabbi had written his rabbinic thesis on intermarriage; that one of the congregation’s co-presidents is married to a Christian man; and that the congregation, although small (many Friday nights we have to skip the prayers that require a minyan), is welcoming and friendly. They use a siddur and a machzor, that they compiled themselves: a fair amount of Hebrew, and a lot of singing, but also excellent translations and transliterations. They’re user-friendly.

I started going to Shabbat services there, maybe once a month. And, as Rosh Hashanah approached, my husband asked, casually, whether I wanted company that year.

The congregation’s new building was under construction, so we met to worship in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn downtown. Several people shook our hands as we walked in, and greeted us by name. My resolution had worked: I wasn’t a stranger anymore.

We ducked out shortly before the end, and stopped for lunch together on the way home. He spoke of how the rabbi seemed smart, the people seemed friendly, the liturgy wasn’t impenetrable and he might go with me once in a blue moon.

Maybe the best part was the follow-up letter we got from the membership chairwoman, who had noticed us in the crowd. The synagogue’s standard membership form includes room for two adults’ names, birthdays and religious affiliations. Even as a non-Jew, my husband is welcome to be a member; when we join, both of our names will appear on the roster. It’s a far cry from the shul of my childhood, where at my bat mitzvah, my sister-in-law (then in the midst of her conversion process) was denied the chance at an aliyah because she “wasn’t Jewish yet.”

I doubt my husband will ever choose to consider himself Jewish, and I suspect I will always find special resonance in the home-based rituals we celebrate together with our circle of family and friends. Still, there’s something wonderful about finding a Jewish community, without changing — or hiding — who we are.

Reprinted courtesy

Style and Substance


What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that TheNew York Times wedding announcements can’t?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tellyou that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack inhard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I’m not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines thataccompanied the survey’s release are overripe. “Where have all the Jewishpeople gone?” read one news release. “Jewish Population Declining” screameda newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show:With fewer Jews, he asked, “Who will write all those sitcoms about Latinoand African American families?”

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group UnitedJewish Communities, reported that the nation’s population of 5.2 millionJews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey’s numbers are well within themargin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPSactually states in its methodological appendix that, “many researchersbelieve that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts ofthe Jewish population.” That decline you’ve been reading about all week? Itmay in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rateamong all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, asany weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate.This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and JoelSacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claireand Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paperreported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center inTisbury, Mass., “took part in the service.”

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I’d sayThe Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY!statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionalspredicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number thatlaunched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, asother numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepeninglevels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledgesthat in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted asintermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time theydefined intermarriage as “the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someonewho is non-Jewish at the time of the survey.”

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rateof intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead bedownright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down andacross the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place apremium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of theirchildren are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times morelikely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewishlife (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, homerituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don’t think for a second these numbers tell the whole story,or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it’s amovie. People’s feelings about their religion change depending, among otherthings, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, thesurvey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing,while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination ismore welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey – and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements – donothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as anonus, but as an opportunity.

Mixed Message


The “report card” for non-Orthodox American Jewish teens should feature either an A or a D, depending on which of two new studies you read.

With teen outreach a growing concern in the American Jewish community, a number of communities and agencies, including the Reform movement, have launched special teen initiatives and task forces in recent years. The Conservative movement has set itself a goal of doubling youth group membership.

But results of the two new studies are mixed enough that translating them into policy recommendations will not be easy.

The two research projects on affiliated Jewish teens — a national study of Conservative teens commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and a survey of Boston-area teens conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies — are the most comprehensive surveys yet of Jewish teen involvement.

Both studies consisted of interviews with approximately 1,300 teens who have celebrated bar or bat mitzvahs.

The Conservative study interviewed its participants twice, shortly after their bar or bat mitzvahs and then again four years later.

The Brandeis study surveyed teens aged 13 to 17 once in 1998-99.

Like most American Jewish youth, the majority of respondents in both studies had attended congregational Hebrew schools, rather than day schools.

The Conservative study was the more upbeat. The two studies’ findings differ in several key areas:

  • Feelings About Pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jewish Education

    In the Conservative study, 97 percent of respondents described their bar/bat mitzvah training as positive, with 44 percent of them describing it as “very positive.” In contrast, more than half of the Brandeis respondents said they seldom or never enjoyed Hebrew school, with two-thirds reporting they always or often felt bored there.

  • Gender Differences

    The Conservative study concluded that gender explains “very little about individual variations among the sample population.” In contrast, the Brandeis study reported that girls are more likely to participate in formal Jewish education as teens, feel positively about their Jewish education and find Israel experiences personally meaningful.

  • Attitudes Toward Intermarriage

    Fifty-five percent of the Conservative study teens said they think it is very important to marry someone Jewish, while only 32 percent of the Brandeis respondents agreed.

    Some of the differences may stem from the fact that the JTS study focused on Conservative teens, while the Brandeis study included teens in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and independent congregations.

    For example, the Conservative teens differed from Reform and Reconstructionist peers in their strong opposition to intermarriage, the Brandeis researchers said.

    That’s not surprising, since the Conservative movement forbids rabbis from officiating at intermarriages and does not allow non-Jewish spouses to become congregation members.

But on other issues, the Brandeis researchers said, the Conservative teens — approximately one-third of the total — had attitudes similar to those of other respondents.

It’s also possible that no single metropolitan area, like Boston, is representative of the national scene.

Some commentators said the phrasing of the questions could explain the divergent findings.

Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has authored a number of key studies on American Jewish identity, pointed out that Hebrew school and bar or bat mitzvah training are “not at all the same.”

For example, bar or bat mitzvah training might include tutoring and experiences at day school, and a small percentage of the respondents in the Conservative study went to day school.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center, agreed.

“The personal attention kids get in direct preparation for the bar/bat mitzvah is seen more positively” than Hebrew school, Saxe said.

Other differences may be due to spin.

Saxe described the divergences between the two studies as the difference between seeing the cup as “half empty” or “half full.”

“Do we celebrate the involvement and the knowledge of a substantial group of our B’nai Mitzvah,” Saxe asked, “or do we worry about the people who didn’t get to the bimah in the first place and who didn’t end up continuing to be involved?”

Neither study found particularly high rates of post bar/bat mitzvah Jewish education, such as part-time Hebrew high school.

Twenty-seven percent of the Conservative teens graduated from a Hebrew high school program. Only 22 percent of the 11th -graders in the Brandeis study were enrolled in formal Jewish education.

Other key findings of the Brandeis study include:

  • Parents have a strong influence on teens’ attitudes and behavior when it comes to issues such as continuing Jewish education, intermarriage and the importance of raising children as Jews. For example, teens whose parents strongly oppose intermarriage are more likely to oppose intermarriage than peers whose parents are less concerned about the issue.

  • Secular schools exert a “powerful, even dominating influence” on teens. More than a lack of interest in things Jewish, academic demands help explain the decline in Jewish involvement.

Key findings of the Conservative study include:

  • The overwhelming majority of teens said they want to maintain or increase their level of Jewish observance.

  • Ninety percent of teens attend synagogue on the high holidays, 75 percent have “some connection with organized Jewish activities” after their bar or bat mitzvahs and half have been to Israel.

The intensity of the teens’ Jewish involvement dropped significantly between their bar or bat mitzvahs and senior year of high school. The exception is opposition to intermarriage, which increased as the teens matured.

The decline in intensity was most marked in the teens’ feeling that Jewish education is “very important to their sense of Jewishness.” Two-thirds of respondents felt this after their bar or bat mitzvahs, but only half did four years later.

Synagogue attendance also fell, from 65 percent who attended services at least once a month at age 13 to just 40 percent four years later.

Yet the authors of the Conservative study take heart that patterns of Jewish identity set in the early teen years persist through high school. The feeling that being Jewish is very or somewhat important, for example, decreased little in the four years after their bar or bat mitzvahs — from 98 percent to 90 percent.

The Conservative study shows that “early educational experiences play a crucial role in shaping the Jewish identity of the younger generation,” said Barry Kosmin, executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research and one of the study’s authors.

In the study’s conclusion, Kosmin writes that “the myth of the bar/bat mitzvah as an exit from Jewish life, at least in today’s Conservative synagogues” has been “debunked.”

The conclusions of the Brandeis study are more nuanced. Judaism is “important” to today’s teens, the authors write, but “only as it fits into their lives and their goals in a secular, pluralistic society.”