Regular readers of this blog know that I have, on more than one occasion, criticized sociologist Steven “Intermarriage Is The Greatest Threat” Cohen. But to tell you the truth I’m starting to feel a little sorry for the guy.
While I doubt he cares about my blog missives, and while there is of course something noble about sticking to your opinions even when they are no longer fashionable, Cohen, who is a professor at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, seems to be increasingly out of step with the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.
I just watched the video of his appearance last month, alongside InterfaithFamily.com’s Ed Case and several Jewish federation execs, at a Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly session entitled “Can We Encourage In-Marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families?”
Now, I actually share Cohen’s desire to see increased support for Jewish summer camps, educational programs, Israel trips and a variety of other programs that engage people in Jewish life.
But arguing, as he repeatedly does, that all this is important because it helps reduce the intermarriage rate, is not just offensive to those of us who are intermarried or the products of intermarriage, but uninspiring to say the least.
Cohen is a bright, articulate and highly educated man, yet he seems to have gotten trapped into this weird circular thinking, in which means and ends become confused. In Cohen’s mind, intermarriage is bad because it (according to outdated statistics examining intermarriages that occurred a generation ago or more) leads to fewer Jews, and Jewish education/engagement is good because it decreases intermarriage rates and, therefore (according to Cohen) produces more Jews.
Whether or not Jewish education/engagement does is in fact reduce intermarriage rates, I will save for another day, but if I understand Cohen’s view correctly, Jewish engagement has no intrinsic value to him and is not the end goal, but is instead simply a means to get Jews to marry Jews. (And even Cohen no longer argues that Jewish engagement actually prevents intermarriage or “inoculates” participants against intermarriage.)
Since anti-Semitism and the confinement of Jews to ghettos are also “proven” methods of reducing intermarriage rates, one almost wonders why Cohen doesn’t promote these approaches.
In fact, he does like to talk about the “ZIP code” factor whereby Jews who live near other Jews are — surprise — more likely to marry Jews. Underscoring the banality of this outlook, in the middle of his opening remarks, Cohen actually said, “Meaningless Jewish associations — just Jews in contact with other Jews — is especially critical for boosting the in-marriage rate.”
I rewound and watched it over and over again, just to make sure I heard him right. (It’s exactly 26 minutes and 52 seconds into the video, if you don’t believe me.) Let's start a special federation campaign to promote "meaningless Jewish associations."
But I need not critique Cohen because everyone else on the video — speakers and audience members alike — did, with several noting that asking how to encourage in-marriage is “the wrong question.” (If you're interested, I blogged about Ed Case's remarks a few weeks ago.)
Jay Sanderson of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles said, “We have a major communal challenge. It has nothing to do with interfaith families; it has to do with everyone … Most of the Jewish community, whether intermarried or not, are opting out of Jewish engagement.”
Barry Shrage, of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies said that while his own mother actually threatened to commit suicide if he ever intermarried, the “just say no” approach has less impact than emphasizing the positive.
“My son will always remember being on my shoulders on Simchas Torah and how much joy he had, how much joy my daughter had, and they will want that for their own kids with all their heart and all their souls,” Shrage said. “So either they’re going to marry a person who will convert and live a full Jewish life or marry someone Jewish.”
Or, I would add, marry someone who is not Jewish but is supportive of them living a full Jewish life and raising Jewish children.
Shrage’s children are already married (to Jews), so it’s a moot point, but you get the idea. Definitely not a moot point: his “message of love and engagement, that Judaism is a 3,500-year-old tradition that’s filled with meaning and purpose and community and Torah.”
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