Intermarriage Not The Death Knell Of Jewish Life


Following is an excerpt from remarks delivered at the Hannah Senesh Day School Gala in April. In May we published Steinhardt’s op-ed, “Day Schools Should Emphasize Secular Education,” also based on the Hannah Senesh speech.

As we ponder who Jews are and what the next generations are going to be like, we can’t ignore data that contradict what many of us assumed just a few years ago. According to the 2013 Pew study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 59 percent of 18-29 year olds with intermarried parents identify as Jewish and were brought up to consider themselves as Jewish.

Less than 40 percent of 30- to 64-year-old individuals from intermarried homes identify as Jewish.

In other words, in the past 20 or so years, a majority of Jews growing up in intermarried homes consider themselves to be Jewish. But when Jews intermarried 30, 40 and 50 years ago, a majority of their children were not brought up to consider themselves Jewish. This is a significant shift.

Intermarrying in 1970 mostly meant cutting oneself off from the Jewish future. It does not necessarily mean that anymore. The credit rating of being Jewish has gone up considerably over the past 50 years, and parts of our community changed their attitudes and opened their doors to intermarried families. Part but not all…

Even more telling than the Pew data, a recent Brandeis study looks at millennials — Jews aged 19 to 32 — who grew up in intermarried households and examines what happens to their Jewish identity when they go on Birthright, get involved with Hillel or take Jewish classes.

Without these interventions, the rate of Jewish involvement of young people raised in intermarried homes is as much as 30 points below the rate of involvement of millennials raised in in-married homes also without these interventions. But the difference between inmarried and intermarried millennials who do have these interventions narrows considerably. Surprisingly, the majority of the children of the intermarried who undergo these interventions end up being involved Jewishly after college.

So, intermarriage is not the unavoidable death knell that we once said it was.

With a majority of American Jews intermarrying and with a majority of those who intermarry seeking to raise their children as Jews, how relevant can day schools be if they are not fully welcoming children from intermarried families? Parochialism, the commitment to be by ourselves without mixing with others, leaves out all those Jews who are now finding ways of affirming themselves as Jews in un-parochial ways.

When I think about Jews who are thoroughly enmeshed in the open society, I realize how resonant the story of Jewish contribution to America may be for them. Our secret to Jewish success is our shared values — some obvious, some not so. We value tzedakah. We are a people of hope and action. At the core of Jewish values is the emphasis on education, education that includes constant seeking after the truth in a dialectical way, not only the chavruta of the tradition, but holding contradictory ideas at the same time and breaking through the boxes of our prior thoughts to forge new categories. This is what the Talmud does and it is, as well, what Einstein did. I believe there is a way to teach these core Jewish values while highlighting our accomplishments and creating a new inspiration. If we can show the great numbers of American Jews who are people of high quality and capability the deep connection between the extraordinary achievement of so many Jews, and the Jewish values and Jewishness that underpin that achievement, then maybe we have a chance of attracting the best and the brightest to contribute to the Jewish world.

Creating educational vehicles and curricula that tell this story — and integrate the religious with the secular — is one of my foundation’s major goals. Day schools need to play a role in accomplishing this goal. I imagine curricula and learning contexts in which students engage in study of the modern era in the way that our children presently learn about the Passover story, the Purim story and the Chanukah story. When they come to see the disproportionate presence of Jews at the forefront of so many realms of progress, I hope that that will engender in them the kind of pride necessary and that it will narrow the gap for them between our ancient tradition and their contemporary lives.

We need to engender in our young people a futuristic Jewishness, a sense of being Jewish that couples Jewish identity with every bold advancement in the overall culture. So when Einstein’s theories, a century later, get proven in a contemporary experiment, we attach that to our Jewish identity. When Paul Simon wins his 12th Grammy Award and is acclaimed as the musical poet of a generation of Americans; that is a story of the ongoing American Jewish experience. Secular Jewish achievement is very much a Jewish story, and it makes Jewish education relevant.

Similarly, I’m not sure the Israel that’s being taught in American Jewish schools fully embodies what the founding of Israel and its development entail. The founding of Israel created a new kind of Jewish culture, a secular can-do culture, with perseverance and vitality at its center. This was and is profound. But I would not use the word “miracle,” as some do, to describe this because doing so misses the point of what Jews as human beings were able to do.

In the past 20 years Israel has spawned a remarkable environment for innovation in business and technology. It is a story worth telling our children, a source of unbridled pride.

My goal is to make Jewish education relevant to the cutting edge of who the Jewish people truly are. This will enable us to attract a far broader segment of the Jewish population to our day schools. When our educational apparatus tells the Jewish story in such a way so that the talented and capable, who are the mainstream of uncommitted American Jews, see themselves in that story, the talented and capable will want to be a part of that story. My great concern is that Jewish professional leadership — rabbis and educators — for the most part do not reflect that caliber of person. My hope is that tomorrow they will, and the Jewish communal world might have a shot at being as cutting edge as American Jews are. 

Michael Steinhardt is chair of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.