As the Jewish intermarriage rate continues to rise, community leaders must reckon with the consequences of a changing demographic that poses unique challenges.
Reflecting national trends, a growing number of Jewish Pittsburghers are choosing to couple with those of another faith. The 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University, found that more than 40 percent of Jewish adults here between the ages of 18 and 49 have a spouse or partner who is not Jewish.
Research indicates that many interfaith couples are not engaged in Jewish communal life at all, and that children raised in these households have minimal Jewish education or experiences.
To find out more about this population, and to devise ways to better serve it, Brandeis researchers conducted a new study commissioned by the Federation — “Points of Entry: Interfaith Families in Pittsburgh” — the results of which were released earlier this month.
Funding for the interfaith study, as well as four additional studies to be conducted in the months to come, was included in the Federation’s original Community Study budget, according to Raimy Rubin, the Federation’s manager of impact measurement.
“Pittsburgh has a lot of room for growth when it comes to interfaith parents raising their children as Jews,” Rubin said. “What we saw in the Community Study was that Pittsburgh is a little bit behind. We have a relatively low percentage of interfaith families that are choosing to raise their children as Jews. And we really wanted to understand why.”
Fifty-one percent of all children in interfaith households are either being raised in no religion or undecided, according to the Community Study.
“That to us is fertile ground,” Rubin said. “What can we do to encourage those parents to raise their children as Jews?”
In addition to having the Brandeis researchers interview 29 local interfaith couples, “we put together an advisory panel that consisted of synagogues, the JCC, Kesher Pittsburgh, Honeymoon Israel — stakeholders that have a specific interest in this demographic and engaging them,” Rubin explained. “The reason why it was so important that they were a part of this project is because I want them to end up using the data. I want to arm them with information to better serve our community members.”
In addition, researchers also interviewed “key informants” to get a clearer look at the interfaith demographic, including representatives from Community Day School, South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, the Federation Young Adult Division and Shalom Pittsburgh.
“We wanted them to contribute to this body of knowledge because they have so much to say about this demographic from the fact that they are practitioners on the ground,” Rubin said. “But also, we wanted them to learn what they wanted to learn so they could better program and provide better services.”
The interfaith couples interviewed were all under the age of 45, and had no children over the age of 5.
Based on the interviews, the researchers ascertained concrete and relatively simple steps that Jewish institutions could take that might lead to increased Jewish engagement of interfaith couples.
“Right now, there is very little infrastructure in the Pittsburgh Jewish community for working with interfaith families,” explained Fern Chertok, research scientist at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, and one of the lead researchers on the study.
“There is no one at Federation whose portfolio explicitly includes interfaith families. There is no forum for an organization to touch upon this issue, to share best practices or to problem solve together. And there is no one place for an interfaith couple to land on the internet to find out what’s available to them.”
One key recommendation is that “Federation should lead the way by making services to interfaith families part of portfolios of staff explicitly, by perhaps posting or encouraging collaboration between organizations and providing training where they see the need,” such as training in how to create welcoming websites, said Chertok.
The researchers also recommend that “more services and programming should be available in the suburbs where the population of Jewish young families is growing, and among them are Jewish interfaith families,” primarily in the North and South Hills, Chertok noted.
Increasing Jewish childcare options is yet another way to engage interfaith families, the researchers found.
“It is clear that Jewish childcare and preschool is a powerful and effective portal to Jewish life in Pittsburgh,” said Chertok. “It is a low-barrier threshold, and many families told us that’s how they found their way into the Jewish community and started to think about how they wanted their home to be Jewish.”
While the needs and concerns of interfaith families overlap with those of other young families in many ways, Chertok explained, “there are some ways their needs are unique.”
“They face the challenge of how you interact or negotiate practice with your non-Jewish family,” she said. “How do you talk to them and explain to them what you are doing with your child and how do you explain to your child that your two parents may have different religious backgrounds and different religious identities in a way that makes sense? These are needs that other young families often don’t have.”
While the couples interviewed “said they are thrilled they are often treated like other couples, there are some places they would like programming specifically targeted to their needs and they would like the opportunity to talk with other interfaith couples,” Chertok added.
Understanding the interfaith population is “complicated and nuanced,” said Evan Indianer, who chaired the study’s committee at its outset, adding that “if we don’t pay attention to this group, we could be losing them.”
Indianer cautioned against being “stagnant in our approach,” and to instead be proactive in finding ways to invite interfaith families into the community.
“If this is a demographic that an organization wants to be involved and engaged with, to service, to support, to be a part of their community, then there probably needs to be concerted efforts,” he said.
The new study was presented to the Federation’s board last week.
“The board is very enthused,” said Federation board chair Meryl Ainsman, noting that the 2017 Community Study “was always intended to be a living, breathing document and not to sit on the shelf — to learn from it and take action from it.”
The board discussed two questions pertaining to the interfaith study: whether engagement of interfaith families is a “community issue, and if it is, do we take the lead?” said Ainsman.
The board agreed that it was indeed a community issue, and “if we don’t take the lead on it, we should be a convener,” she said. “We will decide what direction we will try to go.”
Interfaith families are “an important part of the community,” Ainsman added. “We want a big tent and we want everybody in it.”
The Federation is planning to commission four additional studies inspired by the findings of the 2017 Community Study, according to Rubin. The additional studies will include gaps in services for people with disabilities who are transitioning to adulthood; part-time Jewish education enrollment and retention; mental health; and family practice of ritual Judaism.
“It is important to recognize the investment Federation is doing to collect this information to help organizations make better, data-informed decisions,” said Indianer. “The information we now have is more tangible. Before these studies, we had guesses.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at