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Survey Finds Growing Tolerance of Intermarriage Among U.S. Jews

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A 35-year-old woman announces to her parents and members of her local Jewish community that she has fallen in love and plans to marry her boyfriend — a non-Jew.

How would her parents and their peers, all highly affiliated Jewish community leaders, be most likely to react?

According to a landmark study on intermarriage released Monday, 74 percent of American Jewish leaders would not oppose such a marriage, and only a minority — 21 percent — would demand that her non-Jewish spouse undergo conversion in order for the union to receive their blessing.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed said that they would oppose the marriage altogether.

“The remarkable thing this study reveals is that very few people are ready to tell a young couple not to marry,” said Dr. Egon Mayer, who conducted the survey for the Jewish Outreach Institute, a think tank he co-founded to confront the challenges of intermarriage.

“Overwhelmingly, if the choice is forgoing marriage in order to avoid intermarriage, people will choose for young people to marry,” he said.

Mayer, a sociologist at the Center for Jewish Studies of the City University of New York, sent questionnaires to 9,000 American Jews to get their attitudes toward intermarriage. He said his survey is the first wide-ranging study of a subject that strikes such a nerve in the American Jewish community.

Responses to the survey came from 2,000 American Jewish leaders, including rabbis and synagogue presidents in the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements, as well as Jewish communal professionals.

Over half of them said that at least one of their children was married to a person who was not born Jewish.

HAVING GRANDCHILDREN TAKES PRECEDENCE

The results of the survey say a great deal, not only about what is happening in Jewish families, but about the conflicts that intermarriage engenders within synagogues and the religious movements of Judaism.

Mayer said that the fact that 24 percent of those mailed questionnaires had responded, reflected how controversial and emotionally “hot” the subject intermarriage is right now. That is an “astonishingly high” response rate for a mail-in study, he said.

A similar questionnaire was published in Women’s World, the magazine of B’nai Brith Women, in a separate project studying the attitudes of BBW members toward intermarriage.

The BBW survey results were similar to those of the larger study. For example, eight out of 10 BBW respondents said they would prefer to see a 35-year-old daughter marry a non-Jew than stay single, and six out of 10 said the same about a son.

But when asked the same question about a son or daughter in their 20s, the BBW respondents were more ambivalent. Seventy-nine percent said they would discourage a son’s intermarriage; 81 percent would oppose a daughter’s intermarriage.

Mayer said that the difference in attitude as it relates to age shows that while “the Jewish community remains overwhelmingly opposed to intermarriage as a desirable form of marriage,” parents are “not willing to sacrifice the possibility of having grandchildren for that outcome.”

While virtually all of the BBW respondents are or were married to Jews by birth, only 67 percent of those under the age of 40 had married men born Jewish.

SPLIT OVER RABBIS OFFICIATING

Sharp conflicts within Jewish religious movements regarding rabbinic officiation at intermarriages and recognition of patrilineal descent were found in the overall study.

The most glaring gap appears to exist within the Conservative movement, where rabbis and their congregants are sharply divided over whether rabbis should officiate at weddings involving a non-Jewish spouse.

Over 70 percent of Conservative Jews said that their rabbis should officiate if the couple commits themselves to raising their children as Jews. Yet only 5 percent of the rabbis surveyed said they would be willing to do so.

A similar division appears to exist within the Reform movement. Four out of 10 Reform rabbis who responded to the survey said they would be willing to officiate at an interfaith marriage, with the number dropping to 15 percent if the couple are not willing to commit themselves to raising the children as Jews.

But 90 percent of Reform Jews said that they want their rabbis to officiate at such ceremonies, and over 40 percent said a Reform rabbi should do so even if there is no commitment to raise the offspring as Jews.

One position on which there appears to be widespread consensus is the need for Jewish institutions to accept and welcome interfaith families.

Over 80 percent of the respondents in the survey said that non-Jewish spouses should be welcomed as members of synagogues and Jewish institutions, and a similar number of respondents advocated more funding for programs that reach out to such families.

Mayer said there appears to have been an evolution of attitude in Orthodox circles, which are becoming more active in trying to bring intermarried couples into their communities by encouraging the conversion of the non-Jewish partner.

MAJORITY ACCEPTS PATRILINEAL DESCENT

Some of the most surprising findings of the survey came in regard to the issue of patrilineal descent. Only the Reform movement recognizes as Jews children whose fathers are Jewish but mothers are not.

Yet 66 percent of respondents in the survey, including a large number of Conservative Jews, said they would consider their grandchildren Jewish, even if they have a non-Jewish mother.

In the BBW survey, the number who said they would consider their grandchildren Jewish despite their parentage was even larger: over 80 percent.

Mayer rejected the notion that his findings reflect a sense of hopelessness among Jews about the inevitability of assimilation and intermarriage.

“I don’t see despair or fatigue,” he said. “I think people are saying that we fought this battle one way and we haven’t achieved our goal, so let’s take a different approach, by reaching out to these families and bringing them into the community.”

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