JTA’s Uriel Heilman reported this week on the continuing evolution of Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage. After the clarion call of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed a 52 percent intermarriage rate among American Jews, Jewish groups poured millions into efforts to stem what was seen as a threat to the future of the community.
Intermarriage has long been an issue of concern to American Jews. In 1926, the marriage of “Miss Mina Kirstein” of Boston to a non-Jew was considered worthy of a news item in the Jewish Daily Bulletin, the precursor to the JTA Daily Briefing. But the degree of fear engendered by intermarriage, not to mention its frequency, has ebbed and flowed over the years.
In 1967, a study by the Reform movement’s rabbinical group found that intermarriage rates were actually lower than they had been in the early days of North America’s settlement by Europeans. Between 1654 and 1840, the study found, there were 942 Jewish marriages, only about 15 percent of which were between Jews and Christians. The low rate may have owed something to the fact that large majorities of Catholics and Protestants at the time opposed marriage to Jews.
Back in the 1960s, long before the NJPS, solid evidence of intermarriage rates was lacking. But the report from the Central Conference of American Rabbis found that, depending on whose data you looked at, the intermarriage rate was lower than it had been during the first two centuries after the Pilgrims arrived.
Two years after the Reform study, a woman identified only as Mrs. Moses Richler told a conference of Jewish women that if current trends persist, there would be no Jews in Canada in “four or five generations.” Mrs. Richler said that in 1968, 18 percent of Jewish men and 12 percent of Jewish women married out.
Since then, the rates have increased dramatically (and, last we checked, there were still Jews in Canada). Jewish consternation over the issue has also risen. Following the 1990 survey, several academics concluded that Jewish engagement was far lower among intermarried couples and argued that the Jewish community should focus its resources on combating intermarriage and providing avenues of engagement for the in-married. Others argued that if effective outreach was made to intermarried families, they too could be drawn into the Jewish fold.
A similar debate has unfolded over the decades within the religious denominations. The Reform movement has wrestled with the issue most prominently, particularly over the question of whether rabbis should officiate at interfaith weddings, gradually coming to the view that rabbis should perform such weddings in the hope that a welcoming approach could increase the odds of future Jewish engagement. The Conservative movement considered itself less vulnerable to the threat of intermarriage, but got a wakeup call when the NJPS found that the intermarriage rate in the movement was not 5 percent, but 28 percent. Among the Orthodox, which maintain the most uncompromising stance toward intermarriage, the threat was recognized far earlier. in 1979, Rabbi Bernard Rosenzweig, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said intermarriage had reached “catastrophic levels” and formed a commission to fight it.
In recent years, the intermarriages of several high profile Jews have both driven home the reality of American Jewish nuptials and raised further questions. An essay by Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman in the New York Times in 2007 challenged the decision by his Orthodox alma mater in Boston to eliminate his Korean-American wife from a photograph. The 2010 marriage between Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky prompted a debate over whether to celebrate the extent of Jewish inclusion in the corridors of American power or lament yet another soul lost to the community.
Meanwhile, the trend lines continue as they have for decades. This year, Naomi Schaefer Riley reported that intermarriage rates are rising among all American religions, but are highest among Jews.