While the general rate of intermarriage is lower in Australia than in other Diaspora communities, the recent GEN08 highlighted increasing intermarriage rates in the Australian Jewish community. In Victoria, the largest and strongest Jewish community in Australia, the overall intermarriage rate in 1961 was 12 percent. This increased to 30 percent in 2006, two and a half times higher. In New South Wales, the rate is 35 percent with a similar rate in Western Australia. In the smaller Jewish communities in South Australia and Queensland, the rates are 54 and 57 percent respectively. However, the rates are not the same across all the age groups, with the 18-34 age cohort having a much higher rate of intermarriage. For example, in New South Wales the rate is 45 percent for this age group, compared with 25 percent for those over 40.33
There are a number of reasons for the increased rate of intermarriage. Australia’s stress on multiculturalism has reduced barriers between ethno-religious groups, especially for secular Jews. Thus multi-culturalism both allows and encourages the development of particular Jewish institutions and at the same time encourages more integration and even assimilation into Australian general society. As a result, the younger generation is much more integrated into the general community, even if they are Jewish day school graduates. Secondly, most young Jews are marrying later, and so their partners are more likely to emerge from their professional groups, university connections, and post-school involvements.
In terms of Jewish continuity, the GEN08 study highlighted the importance of the interrelationship of five key factors: the home, school, religious identification and synagogue affiliation, youth movement involvement, and trips to Israel. The study findings indicated that: “The more consistent and integrated these factors, the stronger one’s Jewish identity.”34 Above all, the report dealing with Jewish continuity stressed the significance of the home environment. In relation to the question relating to Jewishness being “a central element” in the interviewee’s life, 73 percent of the ultra-Orthodox responded in the affirmative, as did 53 percent of the Modern Orthodox, with only 19 percent of those self-identified as either Progressive or Conservative, and 11 percent for secular Jews. In addition, those who attended mainstream Orthodox schools were less concerned about intermarriage than those who attended an ultra-Orthodox Jewish day school.
These attitudes correlated with the actual intermarriage rates. The survey found that those who identity as Progressive or Conservative were four times more likely to have a non-Jewish partner than the Orthodox, and secular Jews were eight times more likely to have a non-Jewish partner. The fact that Orthodox Jews constitute only a small percentage of the community means that Australian Jewry is facing a major continuity problem in the next generation, which will affect day school attendance, the number of children being raised as Jews, and community attitudes toward conversion. In addition, at present the Progressive movement in Australia does not officially recognize patrilineal descent, unlike the Reform movement in the United States. Rising intermarriage rates throw into question whether this position will change in the next generation.
Markus argues that one solution to the challenges of intermarriage and continuity could be trying to increase the percentage of Orthodox Jews. However, present statistics do not support the likelihood of this happening. The GEN08 survey showed that 60 percent of traditional Jews maintained this level of Jewish commitment into the next generation, 20 percent became more Orthodox, but 20 percent became less observant.35 The non-Orthodox Jews in the community lacked knowledge of Jewish traditions, values, and practices and so clearly do not see the importance of remaining Jewish. This combined, with a distancing from Israel among a number of members of the younger generation, posits significant challenges to the community’s leadership.