Not many years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that intermarriage constitutes a significant threat to Jewish continuity. For individual families, we understood that more often than not, the children of the intermarried would be raised as non-Jews. And since intermarrying Jews have fewer children, and because most of their children won’t identify as Jews, intermarriage implied fewer Jews in the next generation.
The community responded admirably, albeit inadequately, to this challenge. For many good reasons, it expanded funding for day schools and trips to Israel. Synagogues and JCCs became more welcoming and accepting of intermarried families. It supported a variety of “Jewish outreach” efforts aimed at bringing families closer to Jews and Judaism by teaching Jewish practices and values. In contrast, “interfaith outreach” seeks to make all mixed-married couples feel more accepted, even when they choose to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays in the same household.
Social scientists, myself included, have charted — and implicitly celebrated — the growing and exhilarating diversity of Jewish identities, communities and innovation. Since the early days of American Jewish sociology and its founder, Marshall Sklare, of blessed memory, we have documented the rises, falls and rises of Jewish identity over the life course. Jewish identities today are more varied, fluid and mobile than ever.
But with this said, we need to recognize that as a group, intermarried Jews are far less active in Jewish life — however one measures it — than inmarried Jews. The large gaps cover number of Jewish friends, raising one’s kids as Jews, belonging to synagogues and JCCs, living with Jewish neighbors, attending worship services, celebrating Jewish holidays, giving one’s children a Jewish education, caring about Israel, giving to Jewish causes and their own assessment of the importance of being Jewish.
When we ask intermarried Jews, “how important is being Jewish to you?” as a group they score far lower than inmarried Jews.
Some news from the field has been encouraging. But for every report of an apparent success, we have an overall pattern of, let’s call it “less than success.” Sure the Baltimore Jewish population study reports that 62 percent of children in intermarried homes are being raised as Jews, but the rate in San Diego is 21 percent and apparently less than 40 percent nationwide. Just 15 percent to 20 percent of intermarried couples are synagogue members, as compared with 60 percent of inmarried couples.
While Jewish religious engagement is steady or rising, Jewish connections and “collective identity” trends are clearly declining. While the inmarried are leading more intensive Jewish lives, the intermarried as a group remain much less engaged.
Every time we hear of an intermarried child who maintains an active Jewish life, we must remember that the more Jewishly engaged — people reading this column, for example — raise children with the best chances of maintaining Jewish continuity, even when they out-marry. Thus, some Jewishly engaged parents assume that the wonderful experiences of their Jewishly committed intermarried children must be a sign that we’re “winning the battle.” In reality, most intermarried Jews come from weak Jewish educational backgrounds, often with only one Jewish parent.
Some outreach advocates say intermarriage is a fact, feeding the fatalistic view that there’s nothing that can be done to influence the rate. Yet there’s much that is being done to affect the rate.
Some sociologists claim we can find evidence of high rates of Jewish commitment among the intermarried as a group, if only we measured properly. But on no measures do the intermarried outscore the inmarried.
Some speculate that because Jewish identities are fluid, or because the intermarried have become so numerous, the intermarried as a group may well move toward significant Jewish engagement. Yet no study shows the gap narrowing. Jewish identities are changing — but the basic import of intermarriage is not. San Francisco, for example, reports that from 1986 to 2004 observance patterns by the inmarried climbed, while those for the intermarried fell, further widening the gap between inmarried and intermarried.
The Steinhardt Foundation/Jewish Life Network published my study, “A Tale of Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews,” to refute the wishful thinking and false optimism that has grown up around the intermarriage question. (See www.jewishlife.org/pdf/steven_cohen_paper.pdf.)
For anybody who’s been reading and writing the scientific analyses over the last few years, there’s nothing new here. It simply reminds us that intermarriage continues to grow in number; that most intermarried couples raise non-Jewish children; and that the children of the intermarried overwhelmingly marry non-Jews.
However, Jewish education — e.g., day schools, youth groups, Jewish camps, Israel trips — lowers intermarriage. So does Jewish association, such as experienced by living in areas with Jewish neighbors, attending universities with large Jewish student bodies, and participating in Jewish cultural events, spiritual communities and social justice activities.
I also highlight the growing conviction that we have to do better at promoting conversion, making conversion the ultimate objective of outreach efforts.
“A Tale of Two Jewries,” is an advocacy piece. It was not written for the intermarried, nor as a guide for how to engage with the intermarried. Neither was it written in the cautionary style favored by the academy. It is meant to communicate. It is meant for the Jewish policymaking community — the philanthropists, those who advise them, the federations and other agencies that are making critical funding decisions.
It says intermarriage poses a grave threat to the numbers of communally identifying Jews. But it also says that you can make a difference.
You can invest in Jewish education. You can support growing efforts by Jewish young people in social justice, culture and spiritual communities. You can launch experiments to convert more non-Jews to Judaism, such as by paying for community rabbis dedicated to helping prospective converts embark upon Jewish journeys. You can do all this and more.
Or you can watch the Jewish population start to contract as my generation of baby boomers begins leaving this world for the next, to be replaced — or not — by a numerically much smaller cohort of Jewish descendants. The choice is yours.
(Steven M. Cohen is a professor of Jewish social policy at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.