For many, the word “intermarriage” connotes all that is wrong with the American Jewish community, but it shouldn’t. A reanalysis of the data collected in 2013 by the Pew Research Center shows that interfaith families — while they remain a minority on the “inside” of the organized Jewish community — can, and increasingly do, find a place inside Jewish institutions.
Our analysis focused on the minority of all U.S. Jews (39 percent) that are currently “connected” to Jewish intuitions in some way, meaning either a member of a synagogue or other Jewish organization such as a JCC, or a parent of a child enrolled in formal or informal Jewish education.
A small yet growing section of those connected Jews are intermarried. And once they connect to Jewish institutions, intermarried Jews look a lot like connected in-married Jews. More surprisingly, on an array of Jewish identity and engagement measures, the connected intermarried Jews actually do “more Jewish” than in-married Jews who are not connected.
These findings suggest that it’s not intermarriage itself that necessarily keeps intermarried families away from organized Jewish life. After all, there are many in-married Jews (30 percent) who do not connect to Jewish institutions, and these Jews show lower levels of Jewish identity and engagement.
First, we found that those connected to Jewish institutions are increasingly intermarried. This is especially true among the non-Orthodox (see Chart 1). Almost none of the connected persons of the generation (born before 1927) and only 12 percent of those in the generations born 1927-1945 are intermarried. By comparison, 25 percent of Baby Boomer connected persons (born 1946-1964) and 36 percent of “Generation X” connected persons (born 1965-1980) are intermarried. Intermarried connected persons of the millennial generation currently stands at 22 percent but we believe that will rise as more millennials actually marry, offsetting the already-married Orthodox millennials, who marry younger. Already, 51 percent of married non-Orthodox connected persons of the millennial generation are intermarried.
The increasing share of connected intermarried Jews from younger generations likely stems from the dramatic rise in intermarriage among Jews in general combined with more inclusive policies toward the intermarried on the part of segments of the organized Jewish community.
In other words, inclusion works — and not just in numbers but in substance, as intermarried couples connected to Jewish institutions look very similar to anyone else connected to Jewish institutions, regardless of whom they chose to marry. For example, virtually all (94 percent) connected Jews who are intermarried raise Jewish children (including 27 percent who raise children in Judaism and another religion; see Chart 2).
Moreover, connected persons who are intermarried participate more than Jews who are not connected (both in- and intermarried) in various measures of engagement (Chart 3).
For example, connected Jews who are intermarried are more than three times as likely to attend synagogue regularly when compared to in-married Jews who are not connected (26 percent as compared to 7 percent). They are also more likely than not-connected in-married Jews to make financial contributions to Jewish causes, to hold or attend a Passover seder, to fast on Yom Kippur, and so on.
The biggest challenge facing the organized Jewish community is therefore not intermarriage, but rather the overall low levels of institutional participation, among the intermarried and in general. Six in ten American Jews simply do not find enough value or relevance in today’s Jewish institutions to connect.
Creative energies ought to be directed less toward defining who’s a Jew and more toward articulating why be Jewish in the first place, and why in the context of an organized Jewish community. We need to clearly and effectively communicate the benefit that our institutions offer to those who don’t yet see the value or meaning in connecting, and share those messages with more people for whom Jewish institutions are not a part of their lives today.
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Zohar Rotem is manager of research and evaluation at Big Tent Judaism, formerly known as Jewish Outreach Institute.