Interfaith Families Increasingly Jewish


At the same time the rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews continues to rise, so does the percentage of such couples who are raising their children as Jews, according to Jewish population surveys conducted in recent years.

The latest community to confirm this trend is South Palm Beach County, Fla., which last week released a Jewish population survey that found that nearly two-thirds of intermarried couples are raising their children as Jews. It found also that the number of Jews in the county has increased by about 3 percent since the last survey in 2005, which included a 57 percent jump in the number of Jewish children living in Jewish households —from 11,000 to 17,300.

Stuart Silver, a vice president at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, said the fact that 66 percent of intermarried parents are raising their children Jewish is “really exciting news and gives us reason to believe we can engage those families.”

A National Jewish Population Survey conducted in 1990 found that only 25 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children to be Jewish. Ten years later, that figure rose to one-third. But there was a major increase in 2013 when a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of intermarried households nationally were raising their children with some Jewish identity, according to Matt Boxer, assistant research professor at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

He attributed the rise to the fact that there has been a “lot of Jewish programming” for the children of intermarried couples.

Boxer, who conducted the South Palm Beach County survey, said that although the county is still largely a retirement community — 44 percent of residents are 65 and older — the increase in Jewish children has been significant and “it is likely to continue.”

The intermarriage rate in the county increased from 9 percent in 2005 to 16 percent — far below the national rate of 70 percent among the non-Orthodox. But the survey said it is expected to continue to increase as older residents who are less likely to be intermarried leave the community and younger residents who are more open to it marry in larger numbers.

Surveys in other cities had similar results: A 2015 survey done in greater Boston found that 57 percent of children of intermarried parents were raising their children exclusively Jewish; a 2017 Washington, D.C., survey found that 61 percent of children of intermarried parents were being raised exclusively Jewish and another 14 percent were being raised Jewish and another religion. Only 1 percent were being raised in a different religion entirely. Since 2003, the percentage of children being raised exclusively Jewish by intermarried parents has increased from 45 percent to 61 percent in the nation’s capital.

However, a San Francisco-area survey in 2017 found that just 26 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children as exclusively Jewish. And in Pittsburgh last year, only 33 percent of children of intermarried parents were being raised exclusively as Jews, and another 11 percent were being raised Jewish and another religion.

Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, said he was struck that “more interfaith households are raising their kids with a Jewish identity than are not — which is the exact opposite of what we were told was going to happen with the increasing rate of intermarriage.”

In fact, Rabbi Braham David, director of the Jewish Discovery Institute, an interfaith outreach and conversion program of the Conservative movement in Boston, observed that “in the past people argued that interfaith marriage was a disaster for the Jewish people because only 25 percent were raising their kids as Jews. The problem with that thinking is that when interfaith couples were treated as a problem and faced rejection from rabbis, synagogues and the Jewish community; it was a miracle that 25 percent were choosing Judaism.”

But in recent years, the organized Jewish community has taken a “different tack and we are having much better results,” a welcome development given that intermarried Jews “are not an exotic minority,” he said.

“We are reaching the point where [intermarriage] is the norm, and we have to figure out how to work with the Jewish community as it is,” Rabbi David said.

Tobin Belzer, a contributing fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, said that the “focus of the next generation of scholars will be to look qualitatively at what it [being Jewish] means.”

“Follow-up qualitative research is the only way we are going to understand what Jewish identity really looks like today,” she said. “The question of continuity is of limited value because it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of Jewish life and what being Jewish adds to the world or to individuals.”

She spoke of the change that has swept over the non-Orthodox Jewish community in the U.S. since the 1950s, when Jews who intermarried “were cut off from their families.”

Now,  there are “more interesting” avenues for exploring Jewish identity “than ever before,” Belzer added, “and many of them are more inclusive than in previous generations.”

The fact that an increasing number of intermarried couples are raising their children as Jews “is indicative of a paradigm shift,” said Keren McGinity, director of Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass.

Thanks to successful outreach efforts, she said, now “being Jewish is seen as a positive part of someone’s identity.”

“Being Jewish has changed,” she said. “It is not something to be hidden or something that will prevent you from getting a job or getting into college. There aren’t quotas anymore. … And the more Jewish engagement of interfaith couples and families, the more likely that a Jew who falls in love and marries someone of another faith and/or cultural background will happily and comfortably raise Jewish children.”

However, Golin pointed out that despite the Jewish community’s outreach to the children of intermarried couples, non-Orthodox affiliation rates are dropping.

“What I think is happening is that Jewish identity is continuing without the need for Jewish community,” he explained. “Folks are still finding meaning in being Jewish … . And in an environment like today when there is so much more anti-Semitism, it would be very easy to leave Judaism behind. But they are not.”

Caryn Aviv, a rabbinical student with ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal in Denver, agreed.

“Judaism offers lots of resources for living a life of meaning and purpose,” she said. “The Jewish community has invested a lot of resources in helping people choose Judaism.”

She mentioned Birthright Israel and Honeymoon Israel as two programs that help participants choose which aspects of Judaism they want to bring home and “pass along to their kids as a legacy.”

“They are powerful, immersive experiences to help people figure out answers to those questions, and can help young people connect Jewishly,” she said.

Millennial-aged children of intermarried couples are “twice as likely to say they are Jewish compared with those from the baby boomer generation,” said Theodore Sasson, director of programs at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation. They are even twice as likely “to say they are Jewish by religion,” he added.

He said the “driver of the change is that millennial children are more likely to receive a Jewish education and other forms of Jewish socialization than other generations … are more likely to attend a Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school and have a bar or bat mitzvah than adults born in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Surveys showing increasing assimilation in baby boomers from interfaith families led to “alarm,” which “translated into positive initiatives,” he said. “We can now say that was money well spent.”

But, he said, this is not the time for the Jewish community to rest on its laurels. “My own view is that the Jewish community invested a lot in outreach and engagement and that it would be wise to double down on that investment,” he said.

“There is a trend but does it mean that assimilation is no longer a problem? … What I am seeing are positive trends among the offspring of intermarried couples, but whether it is enough to enable the preservation of non-Orthodox institutions I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone knows because we are in historically new terrain.”