With Intermarriage at All-time High, Study Urges Conversion Be Encouraged

A group of Brandeis University researchers who recently studied marriage trends in eight U.S. Jewish communities has concluded that the American Jewish leadership must take bold steps to confront intermarriage, which is at an all-time high.

They are recommending that the Jewish community actively encourage conversion among intermarried couples and couples contemplating intermarriage.

The study, conducted by Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, found that 29 percent of Jewish marriages today involve a spouse who was not born Jewish.

By comparison, the rate of intermarriage was 5 percent a generation ago.

Today’s rate, the highest in American Jewish history, shows no signs of slowing or even leveling off, according to the researchers. In fact, younger Jews are intermarrying at much higher rates, indicating that the problem is likely to worsen in future generations.

Moreover, conversion is becoming less popular among couples that intermarry. In four out of every five intermarriages in recent years, the non-Jewish spouse did not convert.

This trend has ominous consequences for Jewish identification, since the study also found that couples with a non-Jewish spouse are much less likely to observe Jewish rituals and give their children a Jewish education than couples in which the non-Jewish spouse has converted.

As a result, the researchers recommend that “without diminishing the passionate commitment of the American Jewish community to pluralism or religious freedom, the community should advocate conversion” of non-Jewish spouses.

GEOGRAPHIC DIFFERENCES

The findings and recommendations were contained in a Cohen Center report titled “Inter-marriage and American Jews Today: New Findings and Policy Implications.”

The authors, Drs. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Mordechai Rimor and Gary Tobin of Brandeis, and Dr. Peter Medding of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, presented their research last week at a daylong conference on intermarriage co-sponsored by the Cohen Center and the American Jewish Committee’s Jewish Communal Affairs Department.

Their research was based on data from Jewish population studies conducted between 1985 and 1989 in eight communities: Baltimore; Boston; Cleveland; Dallas; Essex and Morris counties, N.J.; Rhode Island; San Francisco; and Worcester, Mass.

The intermarriage rates varied greatly from city to city, reaching a high of 40 percent of all married Jews in San Francisco, compared to 11 percent of all marrying Jews in Rhode Island.

The Cohen Center report looked at three groups: “inmarrieds,” in which both spouses were born Jewish; “conversionary marriages,” in which one spouse converted to Judaism; and “mixed marriages,” where one spouse remains non-Jewish.

The study found that younger Jews who intermarry today are more likely to marry spouses who do not convert to Judaism.

In Dallas, for example, the non-Jewish partner converted in 52 percent of the intermarriages among people 55 to 64 years old. But in intermarriages involving people between the ages of 18 and 34, the non-Jewish spouse converted only 17 percent of the time.

In some places, like Boston, fully one-third of young married Jews have non-Jewish spouses. But such mixed marriages account for only 1 percent of marriages there involving Jews over age 55.

DIFFERENCES IN RITUAL PRACTICES

There are tremendous differences between the Jewish practices and priorities in conversionary and mixed-married households.

About 9 out of 10 families where both parents are Jews, by birth or conversion, give their children a Jewish education, but only about half of the children of mixed marriages receive any formal Jewish education at all, according to the Cohen Center analysis.

And there is a big difference in the level of Jewish ritual observance in the families of inmarried, conversionary and mixed married couples.

Whereas nearly four out of five people in households where both partners were either born Jewish or converted said they fast on Yom Kippur, fewer than half do in mixed-married homes.

Conversely, Christmas trees are most often found in homes where one spouse remains non-Jewish. In Baltimore, for example, 69 percent of mixed-married households have Christmas trees, compared to 22 percent of conversionary households and 1 percent of homes where both spouses were born Jewish.

In the mixed marriages, the gender of the Jewish spouse is an important factor in the couple’s Jewish identification. If the wife is Jewish, there is measurably more ritual practice and there are fewer Christmas trees.

Inmarried and conversionary couples are also about equally likely to make charitable donations to Jewish causes, whereas mixed-married couples were less than half as likely to contribute. In fact, in most communities studied, mixed-married households were more likely to give to non-Jewish than Jewish causes.

“Conversionary families behave very much like inmarried families in many areas,” the researchers found. “They are as likely as inmarried Jews to make contributions to Jewish philanthropies and are highly committed to providing their children with a Jewish education.”

MAJOR IMPACT ON AFFILIATION

But since fewer intermarried couples are opting for conversion today, and since the rate of intermarriage is increasing, the Jewish community can expect to see less charitable giving to Jewish causes in the years to come, as well as fewer Jews affiliated with synagogues and Jewish organizations.

The impact of these changes will soon be felt at every level of Jewish communal life, the Cohen Center researchers say.

Because these trends are less pronounced among conversionary marriages, the Brandeis team believes the Jewish community should actively encourage conversion, though doing so runs counter to Jewish tradition.

“To ignore this essential need for conversion would be Jewish communal folly,” the report says.

The Jewish community needs to make “conversion more accessible,” said Tobin, who is director of the Cohen Center. One key to that he said, is to “develop programs that, at core, strengthen Jewish family life.”

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