Rate of Intermarriage in U.S. Was Higher in Early Years of Jewish Settlement Than Today

The results of a comparative study on intermarriage released today by the Central Conference of American Rabbis reveal that the rate of intermarriage and consequently assimilation of the Jew into the predominantly Gentile environment of American society is lower at present than during the early years of Jewish settlement from 1654 to 1840.

The study was conducted by Rabbi Malcolm Stern, of the CCAR, who noted that only on the college campus does an intermarriage ratio of 15 percent between Jews and non-Jewish students match the historic figures. “We should not be unnecessarily alarmed at claims of a sharp rise in the rate of inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews.” Rabbi Stern said. He claimed that records show that by 1840 there were 15,000 Jewish settlers in this country located mostly on the Eastern Seaboard. From 1654 to 1840 there were 942 Jewish marriages, and of these, 150 or approximately 15 percent were between Jews and Christians. Since at that time only Orthodox Judaism existed, these mixed marriages were performed either by Christian clergymen or in civil ceremonies.

A variety of statistics exist on current rates of intermarriage. A March, 1957 sample study by the Federal Bureau of the Census produced an intermarriage statistic of 7 percent, while two other disputed studies of the Jewish community in Washington, D.C. and Iowa produced intermarriage figures of 13 percent and 42 percent. Rabbi Stern stated that accurate information on the rate of intermarriage was lacking. He said that a CCAR committee was engaged in an extensive scientific study which they expect to conclude in a year or two.

“The farther away Jews are from centers of organized Jewish life, the greater the tendency toward intermarriage and ultimate assimilation,” Rabbi Stern emphasized. He said that the Iowa survey proves this point as does the statistic on the college campus. The Washington, D.C. study and the college campus survey demonstrate that “assimilation will occur in a large metropolis with a mobile population and the absence of home and family influence.”

“Our greatest challenge confronts us today on the college campus,” he stressed. “In the pre-1840 period, religion played a greater role in influencing the lives of individuals than today. In these times we are living in an age where agnosticism, materialism and apathy have replaced the church and the synagogue for many.” Rabbi Stern concluded that “the more organized the Jewish community becomes, the greater the tendency for Jews to remain Jews and for their non-Jewish spouses to identify with the Jewish community. The continued vitality of synagogue life will prove an effective brake to the assimilation trend and continues to keep Judaism and the Jew a vital force on the American scene.”

Rabbi Max Eichhorn of the National Jewish Welfare Board, an authority on conversions, has found the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism to be on the increase over the years, mostly due to marital reasons, although in recent years a growing number convert to Judaism for intellectual reasons. These conversions are voluntary, since the Jewish community does not openly engage in any program of proselytizing.

Conversions are easier today than in the pre-1840 period, since Orthodoxy demands strict examination of a prospective convert by a rabbinic court consisting of three rabbis. Since the emergence of Conservative and Reform Judaism on the American scene, religious conversion requirements have been modified, thus leading to the rise of converts.

NEXT STORY