The Intermarriage Dividend?


The latest major demographic study of American Jewry offers new insights into the post-intermarriage landscape. The good news: the potential size of the country’s “extended” Jewish community, members of intermarried families, is growing. The bad news: the number of Jews, mostly in intermarriages, who affiliate with another religion, is increasing.

Those are the contradictory findings of the American Religious Identification Survey, a study conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, which was released this week.

While about 500,000 born-Jewish adults who have intermarried are practicing another religion, mostly Christianity, the network of relatives exposed to Jews and to Jewish ideals is rising.

“All we hear is the negative side of assimilation. There are a lot more people out there with a Jewish connection,” people who are likely to be supportive of Judaism and of Israel, said Barry Kosmin, a Trinity College professor of Public Policy and Law who served as a co-director of the survey. He and fellow professor Ariela Keysar were to report the results of their study yesterday at the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Intermarriage, despite strident opposition in religious circles and predictions of a weakening of the Jewish community, “is not a disaster,” Kosmin said.

The rising rate of intermarriage, which now includes more unions with “non-white” spouses from black, Hispanic or Asian backgrounds, could mean more ties with, and support from, ethnic groups from other parts of the population, he said. He added that the “extended Jewish population” — many of whom would be eligible for Israeli citizenship under the country’s Law of Return — might be as large as 20 million people. It is “a natural constituency” for Jewish interests, he said.

The survey also confirmed earlier statistical and anecdotal evidence that the overall American Jewish community is becoming increasingly secular, that the number of Jews who identify their religion as Jewish is also turning secular or “culturally Jewish,” and that the Jewish population has stabilized at about 5.5 million during the last two decades.

“There are no surprises,” Kosmin said. “The facts have been corroborated.”
“The broad outline is what one would expect,” reflecting some researchers’ predictions that the size of the American Jewish community has not shrunk in recent years, said Benjamin Phillips, associate research scientist at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. “That’s certainly a good thing.”

The survey, based on interviews with nearly 1,000 self-identified Jews, is the third such one conducted since 1990 under Kosmin’s auspices. “All corroborate each other,” he said. “We now have a 20-year perspective. We now have a movie, not a photograph.”

Since 1990, the percentage of “cultural Jews” who identify by ethnicity alone, has grown from 20 to 37, according to the surveys.

“We’re becoming more like the rest of America,” which is forsaking religious ties in favor of ethnic or humanistic self-definitions, he said. “Jews are ahead of the secularization trend.”

“Over half of American Jews claim they have a secular outlook,” Keysar said. “Most of them see no contradiction between adhering to a religion and having a secular orientation.”

American Jews’ increasing secularization, while “not bad news” for Jewish leaders favoring a “humanistic” approach to Jewish life, is “a concern” to those from a religious background, Phillips said.
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity,” he said. A challenge, since “secular Jews tend to be less connected to the Jewish community,” less likely than other Jews to join Jewish organization or to donate to Jewish causes. An opportunity, since “it’s not clear that the Jewish community has found appropriate ways of reaching this population.”

Earlier results of the survey, reported in March, found that the number of people religiously identifying as Jewish, estimated at 3 percent of the American population early in the 20th century, has steadily declined since the institute’s 1990 study, from 1.8 percent to 1.4 percent.