Friday, November 17, 2006 | return to: national


Investment in interfaith outreach paying off in Boston, S.F.

by sue fishkoff, jta

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The majority of children in interfaith households in Boston — almost 60 percent, far above the national average — are being raised as Jews.

That's one of the key findings of the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston's Jewish community, and carried out by Brandeis University's Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation experienced similar results, according to planning director Karen Bluestone. The S.F. federation was one of the first in the nation to fund interfaith programming, she notes, following a 1986 Jewish communal study that revealed large numbers of intermarried families.

In the 20 years since, the Jewish population has more than doubled in the San Francisco Bay Area and intermarriage has increased, but increasing numbers of those interfaith households are identifying with the Jewish community.

A 2004 communal study showed that 40 percent of the children in interfaith households are receiving formal Jewish education, and 40 percent of the adults indicated that their interest in Judaism has increased in the past five years. The numbers are about the same for Jews and non-Jews, she said.

While Bluestone admits that "there's no causality in the data," she sees a correlation between increased outreach and increased Jewish identification.

"Due to the investments we've made since 1986 in outreach and training to be more welcoming to interfaith families, we've seen a rise in the number of interfaith families identifying as Jews and raising their children Jewishly," Bluestone said.

Researchers in the Boston study interviewed 400 Jewish households by phone and an additional 1,400 individuals from a list provided by Jewish organizations. The margin of error differed by question.

Some local Jewish leaders say a key factor, as it is in San Francisco, is the community's heavy investment in outreach programming — $321,000 this year, almost 1.5 percent of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies' $27 million campaign.

Those funds are given to programs aimed at interfaith families and individuals considering conversion run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies.

"There's no other way to explain it," said Ed Case, publisher and president of, a Boston-area nonprofit that encourages intermarried families to make Jewish choices.

The study's preliminary findings, announced Friday, Nov. 10, show strong growth of the Jewish community, which now stands at 265,500, or 9 percent of the total population. That figure includes 57,000 non-Jews living in Jewish households; indeed, the study found that half of area Jewish households involve an intermarriage.

The number of non-Jewish adults in Jewish households has risen from 25,000 to 42,500 since 1995, the study found.

As increasing numbers of those interfaith families identify with the Jewish community, more and more are raising their children Jewish. Institute director Leonard Saxe, the primary investigator on the study, called the 60 percent figure "exceptional."

In comparison, the National Jewish Population Study 2000-2001 reported that between 33 percent and 39 percent of children in interfaith households were being raised as Jews. The 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York put the figure at 30 percent in the New York area.

"When we first saw the 60 percent number, we said, 'that can't be true,'" said Gil Preuss, vice president for strategy and planning at Combined Jewish Philanthropies. But it made sense when he considered other figures: Some 37 percent of local intermarried families are members of synagogues, and more than 70 percent of the children who are being raised Jewish in intermarried families are receiving formal Jewish education.

Saxe and Combined Jewish Philanthropies officials are loathe to draw direct links between increased Jewish affiliation among the intermarried and increased communal investment in outreach programming, but Preuss said, "We hope it had some impact. Clearly we've tried to make the Jewish community and the CJP warm and welcoming."

Case says Boston's outreach investment rate is almost 10 times the national average given by Jewish federations, a figure the United Jewish Communities is unable to confirm.

"Boston has the most highly organized and best-funded outreach of any community, with San Francisco a close second," he said.

"Boston has sent a particular message of welcome, and the data shows that families are responding," said Paula Brody, outreach director of the Northeast Council of the Union for Reform Judaism. "If you put resources in this area, you will get results. You will get affiliation."

Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, says he hopes other Jewish federations will take their cue from Boston and San Francisco.

"Other communities are beginning to invest in outreach," he said, "perhaps not to the level we have, but people are beginning to understand that it's something that needs to be done."


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