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Report: Intermarried Households Soon Will Dominate U.S. Jewish Life

April 29, 2003
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Households with intermarried Jews will soon dominate the American Jewish landscape, according to a new report.

A study by the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York contends that intermarried households may soon become a majority of homes with one or more Jews.

What’s more, the study says, more children younger than 12 already belong to intermarried families than to entirely Jewish families.

“If the creation of intermarried households is not at the halfway mark, it’s clearly coming,” said Paul Golin, director of communications and strategic planning for the institute and author of the report.

The prediction comes as the Jewish community awaits the release of the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which will update controversial intermarriage findings from the last survey in 1990.

In 1990 the survey found that 52 percent of marriages involving Jews in the previous five years were to non-Jews, while 28 percent of Jews overall are married to non-Jews.

In the intervening years, responses have ranged from efforts to stem intermarriage by strengthening Jewish identity to encouraging interfaith couples to become more Jewishly active in hopes that they will raise Jewish children.

The latest report, “The Coming Majority: Suggested Action on Intermarried Households,” urges more outreach as a way to shift the demographic tide.

“Interfaith marriage is not the end of Jewish continuity — not raising Jewish children is,” said the institute’s executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. “The challenge is not necessarily in the rate, the challenge is in the response.”

The 1990 study sparked a flurry of subsequent studies and reports on intermarriage. Some of them challenged the 52 percent rate, while others issued similar findings.

In one noted example, sociologist Steven M. Cohen, professor at the Melton Centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, found that intermarriage was closer to 40 percent.

In 2000, when the $6 million NJPS survey was due to be issued, the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York issued a report using similar methodology that found that 33 percent of Jews were married to non-Jews.

But Golin said the intermarriage numbers largely have been “misunderstood.”

Any rate higher than 33 percent means more intermarriages than in-marriages are taking place, he said.

Furthermore, none of the decennial population surveys have shown an intermarriage rate lower than 33 percent since the mid-1960s.

Golin’s report maintains that even a conservative estimate of 40 percent means that four intermarriages creating four intermarried households are being created for every six Jewish marriages, which lead to three in-married homes.

At 50 percent the ratio widens to 2:1.

Only by seeing the intermarriage rate in these terms can the community begin to grapple with the importance of reaching out to the intermarried, Golin and Olitzky said.

Referring to the 1990 population survey that found one-third of interfaith families raising their children as Jews, Golin said the overall Jewish population would grow if that rate climbed.

“Increasing the percent of intermarried families raising Jewish children from 30 percent to 50 percent is an attainable goal, and should be a primary mission for the Jewish community,” he said.

The Hebrew University’s Cohen, while agreeing with the newest report’s math, said it only told “half the truth.”

“Even if half of the households being formed with a Jew in them are interfaith, it doesn’t negate the fact that a vast majority of Jews continue to live in in-married households,” he said.

“In-married households have many more Jews in them: The spouse is Jewish, they have more children and most of the children identify as Jews,” he said.

Admittedly, Cohen also is a critic of the outreach approach.

In-married Jews “generally do more to contribute to the communal health of American Jewry,” through membership in synagogues and organizations, philanthropy, Zionist support and religious observance, he said. Therefore, he concludes, the community should focus on bolstering Jewish identity rather than on outreach.

“If we’re talking about allocating resources and attention, I’d really hope it’s a matter of one Jew, one vote,” he added.

Ira Sheskin, a member of the NJPS technical advisory committee and a University of Miami academic who has studied local Jewish populations, agreed with the outreach institute forecast — to a degree.

“We will start seeing lots of synagogues and JCCs where the majority of people are intermarried, but I don’t think we’re going to see that real soon,” he said.

Intermarried couples remain a minority in most Jewish communities, he said. In addition, interfaith couples don’t generally join Jewish organizations, and aren’t really considered members of the community.

In a recent update to his book, “How Jewish Communities Differ,” Sheskin found that of 47 areas he surveyed, intermarried couples were the majority in only two: Seattle, where they made up 55 percent of Jewish households, and New Jersey’s Essex and Morris counties, where they were 50 percent.

Sheskin also remained skeptical of the latest report, claiming that it hewed too closely to the outreach institute’s agenda.

Golin did not deny that the report backed up the institute’s aims.

But “we believe we represent what the majority of American Jews want, which is more outreach and more inclusion, because they have intermarried relatives,” he said.

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