Steven M. Cohen: The Single Greatest Threat To Intermarried Jews? (Just Kidding, Steve -- Please Don't Sue For Libel!)
07/28/2010 - 11:15

 I recently spent a lovely day at Eden Village Camp, a Jewish environmental sleep-away camp in which kids get to — among other activities — milk goats, feed chickens, pick vegetables and make smoothies using a bike-powered blender.

Although my visit was as a journalist, not a prospective parent, I think the camp would be a perfect fit next summer for my daughter Ellie, who, in addition to her passion for all things Jewish, loves science and nature and is an ardent vegetarian.

With camp on my brain, I was newly inspired to sit down and read Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein’s Foundation for Jewish Camp-commissioned study on the Midwest market for Jewish camps. Especially because, according to the summary posted on the Foundation’s Web site, the study focuses on interfaith families.

Now, I’ve interviewed Cohen on numerous occasions, and not only is he smart, articulate and affable, but he’s a longtime leader in the field of Jewish sociological research. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder, given his frequent condemnations of intermarriage (including in a recent Detroit Free Press article, where he reiterated his trademark line about how intermarriage constitutes “the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today”), whether he’s the most appropriate person to be studying this topic.

While I was on vacation, Cohen irked my fellow intermarried bloggers at and the Jewish Outreach Institute when he told A Rival Jewish Paper That We Shall Neither Name Nor Link To that the study’s most interesting finding was that interfaith families don’t feel unwelcome, just incompetent, in Jewish institutions. According to Cohen, as quoted in the article: “…the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”

I kept out of the fray on the debate about whether welcomes are necessary or not. But it does give you a sense of Cohen’s attitude. In reading the study itself, I was struck by how little space it seems to devote to its purported purpose — determining what strategies might encourage more interfaith families to consider Jewish camp — and how much space it instead devotes to rehashing Cohen’s favorite topic: how interfaith families are less engaged in Jewish life than are in-married ones.

According to the study, “key indicators testify to the breadth of the Jewish engagement gap between in-married and mixed-married Jews,” including the oh-so-startling finding that intermarried Jews are less likely to feel it is “very important” that their children marry Jews and are less likely to raise their children as Jews exclusively. (The study includes all intermarried Jews who are raising their children “Jewish in any way,” even if they are also raising them in another religion.)

In case you had forgotten how disengaged intermarried Jews are, the study later reminds the reader that “the in-married more than the mixed married are not only more engaged in Jewish life, not only more desirous of Jewishly engaged youngsters … they are also more likely to seek a Jewish environment — in people and programs — at the camps to which they send their children.” A few pages later, the study notes interfaith families’ “relative indifference to providing a strong Jewish educational background for their children.”

And in its concluding remarks, the study tellingly argues for engaging interfaith families and their children, but not because to do so might add meaning to their lives or might enrich the Jewish community. Rather, it’s because “history has shown that the children of the mixed married have high probabilities of marrying non-Jews, and then of raising their own children as non-Jews.” In other words, the main purpose of Jewish engagement, even the engagement of kids from interfaith families, is to prevent intermarriage! Argh.

In fairness, I was pleased to see the study (after ranting about intermarried Jews) acknowledge that not all intermarried Jewish families are alike, and that the differences between in-married and intermarried families are minimal once one compares synagogue-affiliated interfaith families with synagogue-affiliated in-married families:

“…once these measures of Jewish engagement are taken into account, the impact of marriage becomes statistically insignificant. In other words, if you want to predict whether a family will send their child to a Jewish camp, you’re better off knowing about how involved they and their children are in Jewish life. Once you know that, it won’t help much, if at all, to learn whether they happen to be an in-married or mixed-married family.”

My bitching aside, the study does offer a few good ideas as to how Jewish camps might attract more kids from interfaith families: better publicity about scholarships and financial incentives, as well as about the many benefits (not just the Jewish education/socialization) that the camps offer. It also wisely suggests reaching out, first, to families that are already somewhat involved/interested in Jewish life.

Having just visited Eden Village, however, and with minimal effort gotten several unaffiliated Jewish friends (intermarried and in-married) excited about it, I have a few other suggestions. Demonstrate, as Eden Village does, that your camp is a nurturing, loving, values-rich place where children will learn (through a Jewish lens) about social justice, appreciating nature and caring for the environment. Oh, and having tasty, healthy food wouldn’t hurt either.

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Dear Anonymous, It's not that I take issue with the statement that in-married are more engaged in Jewish life etc., but rather with Cohen's repetitive (and I would argue unproductive) focus on this issue. The purpose of the study under discussion was not to compare engagement levels of married vs. intermarried, but rather to assess the prospects for, and suggest potential strategies for marketing Jewish camps to families that have not previously been heavily represented in the Jewish camping world. I'm not sure what you mean when you say that I said I probably would seriously consider a camp without a Jewish environment. Of course I would seriously consider a non-Jewish camp, as would many other liberal Jewish parents. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to send my kids to a Jewish camp or that they wouldn't benefit from going to a Jewish camp. Re The Emperor's New Clothes, in my experience very few people are "afraid to come out and say that intermarriage is a tragedy." I've actually heard many people say that over the years. I disagree with that assessment, of course, and hope that, if you continue reading my blog and columns, you will at least come to respect, if not agree, with my perspective. best, Julie
I find it interesting that you took issue with the statement “the in-married more than the mixed married are not only more engaged in Jewish life, not only more desirous of Jewishly engaged youngsters … they are also more likely to seek a Jewish environment — in people and programs — at the camps to which they send their children.” Afterward you went on to say that you probably would seriously consider a camp without a Jewish environment, totally validating what Cohen said. As much as people try to justify intermarriage, it still reminds me of the The Emporer's New Clothes. Everyone is afraid to come out and say that intermarriage is indeed a tragedy, and the likelihood of a Jewish spouse, expecially the husband, having Jewish grandchildren is very small (even if you can convince yourself that a child can be Jewish without a Jewish mother or halachic conversion). No one wants to offend anyone by speaking the truth, but whether it is spoken or not does not change the facts.
I don't know Julie and until you kibbutzers told me, I did not know that she is intermarried. But I do know Jewish summer camp and I did read Steven Cohen's recent study cover to cover. Assimilation is the 600 pound gorilla in the room. But it seems that it's always been in the room. Please see To get a grip on Jewish assimilation through the ages Scroll down to the table showing absolute Jewish population through the ages and Jewish population as a % of world population. Take a good look at it. Clearly something has been happening through the ages that has prevented the Jewish population that stood at over 4 million 2000 years ago from approaching 1 billion today. Since we are a people that carefully records and remembers every great tragedy that befalls us as a people, nothing I ever read about approaches the scale of "destruction" that would have been required to keep the world Jewish population down to the levels where it never grew above the 16 million immediately before the Holocaust. Clearly it took some sort of slow, ever-present, silent enemy to continually shrink the world Jewish population. And that silent shrinking agent can only have been one thing - assimilation. The equivalent of erosion in the biosphere. Slow, steady, almost invisible, yet irrepressible - especially when the jewish community is living throughout those millennia as a minority population among strong majority cultures. So if today's Jews are the lucky survivors of that cultural erosion process, it says a lot about today's debate over assimilation - it's causes and our ultimate ability or lack of ability to prevent it. Intermarriage is surely the cutting edge of that environmental pressure toward assimilation. Jews who intermarry need to understand this and realize that their job of transmitting a strong Jewish connection to their children and grandchildren is only made harder by their choice. Not impossible - just harder. If they wish to overcome the pressure of Jewish erosion, they just have to work that much harder at it. Being Jewish isn't easy. Successful transmission of Jewish commitment m'dor l'dor is even harder. Let's face it and not kid ourselves.
Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
Julie, Steven Cohen has stated many times that his position is to warn the community of the evidence that the children of inter-married are much less connected to the Jewish community, it's traditions and Israel than the children of in-married. At the same time, he also has CONSISTENTLY called for outreach to the intermarried- and his involvement in this study is proof of his interest in outreach. When he writes he does not base his conclusions regarding American Jewry on anecdotal evidence (typical example the preson who goes to synagogue and meets an intermarried couple and thinks that all intermarried couples go to synagogue) but on serious scientific sociological study of the Jewish population in America as a whole. Your article is misleading- Steven M Cohen is a great Sociologist of American Jewry who is trying to help the American Jewish establishment wake up and realize that time is not on their side as far as assimilation is concerned. Since this is just your blog where you can rant without rhyme or reason i guess it shouldn't matter - as long as people who read your blog keep in mind that its just ramblings and not the source for serious or correct information. Sorry but i found your article wrong and misleading and unfair to someone who i believe is American Jewry's most important sociologist on the subject of American Jewry of our time. The fact that you intermarried shouldn't blind you to the fact that 85% of intermarried couples don't have ANY identifiable Jewish grandchildren (only 15% do) so one doesn't have to be a genius to realize with about half of all Jews marrying non-Jews American Jewry is in the process of losing at least a third of itself in the immediate future. That coupled with the fact that 50% of all Jews between the age of 29 and 40 are not married at all (a fact i learned only through a Steven Cohen study) shows you that we really need a person like Steven Cohen to beat the drums, sound the horn or Shofar- whatever it takes to emphasize and emphasize again and again how serious the problem is for American Jewry over the long haul- unless you don't mind seeing American Jewry go from 6 million to barely 3 million in just 75 years with more than half of that being made up of Orthodox Jews. As our resources dry up who will take care of our poor and elderly? What support will be left for Israel? How many synagogues will have to close or scale back? Steven Cohen is emphasizing the problems we are facing for a reason- they are grave problems and with his educated perspective he believes it is important for him to emphasize those dangers American Jewry is facing. Please grow up.

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