Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Jews accept the reality of intermarriage, and the complications it creates for defining Jewishness. They strive to have a welcoming environment for non-Jews but remain skeptical – that intermarriage is good for the Jewish community and the Jewish people in the long term

The growing number of intermarried families affects any discussion concerning Jewishness and was an unavoidable topic in this year’s Dialogue. It could not be avoided because most Jews understand that the Jewish community, except in Israel, is gradually becoming one for which interfaith marriage is normative and needs to be addressed. “Intermarried families fall within the criteria for Jewishness… they are the Jewish future in an assimilated world,” a Boston participant explained.165

The number of Jews with non-Jewish spouses is a subject that has been exhaustively discussed in other reports and forums, so we will only address it briefly here. The 2013 Pew report found that the intermarriage rate among Jewish Americans who married after 2005 was 58 percent. Overall, 44 percent of American Jews are married to non-Jews. Twenty-six percent of British Jews are intermarried.166 Over 50 percent are intermarried “in several medium-size European Jewish communities,” according to Sergio DellaPergola.167 ” In “Australia, it is over 30 percent; and in South Africa and Venezuela, over 15%.” According to a study of Canadian Jewry, “about a quarter (25.1 percent) of Jewish children under 15 years of age (living in couple families) reside in intermarried arrangements. This represents 15,485 children.”168 When the numbers are such, it makes perfect sense to consider the Jews in mixed families an important component of the Jewish world, assuming that these families so desire. And, as is well known, there are conflicting signs with respect to whether a majority of these families do so desire.

In America, the numbers tell a story of a growing inclination among interfaith families to raise Jewish children.169 As a result, according to several analyses, the largest non-Israeli Jewish community grows in numbers: “The overall population increase is driven primarily by higher-than-expected retention of young adult children of intermarriage, most of whom were raised without Jewish religious identity and disproportionately identify as “Jews of no religion.”

The numbers also tell a story of intermarried families having a weaker connection than in-married families to the Jewish community and to Judaism.170 “Intermarried families,” Jack Wertheimer and Steven Cohen wrote, “are considerably less likely to join synagogues, contribute to Jewish charities, identify strongly with Israel, observe Jewish religious rituals, or befriend other Jews. Exceptions aside, the large majority of intermarried families are loosely, ambivalently, or not at all connected to Jewish life.” They are also less likely to raise Jewish children, even if the level of retention today it higher than it used to be in the past. In Britain, 44 percent of Jewish women who are married to non-Jewish men are raising their children as Jews. For Jewish men who are married to non-Jewish women the number is a significantly lower 10 percent.

Not all Dialogue participants were comfortable with the current state of affairs, but most did seem to accept is as a situation that is not likely to change any time soon, and cannot be easily changed. “Intermarriage may not be ideal, but it is a fact. We should be focusing on how to make these children feel a part of the community,” a young participant advised.171 Another participant said: “As much as I feel uncomfortable saying this, there is probably a significant chance that one of my children will have a non-Jewish spouse and almost a certainty that one of my grandchildren will have a non-Jewish spouse. They will be my family – and I hope this will still be a Jewish family.”172

In the Dialogue survey we asked participants if they agree or disagree with the notion that the Jewish community “should encourage Jews to marry other Jews.” And, of course, this is a question whose meaning could be interpreted in at least two ways: that the community should do so because it might succeed, at least with some Jews; or that the community should do so as a symbolic declaration that marriage between two Jews, from a communal standpoint, is preferable to marriage between Jews and a non-Jews. And while we cannot be sure which of these two options (or a combination of the both) prompted each participant’s answer, we do know that in light of the general assessment of participants – their expectation that intermarriage will continue to be a significant feature of Jewish life (except in Israel) – the number of Jews who believe the community ought to encourage in-marriage is relatively high. More than 80 percent of Dialogue participants agreed or strongly agreed that the community should “encourage” in-marriage. Namely, they want the community to invest in measures that according to their assessment are not going to completely alter the trend of inter-marriage (some might still hope that the trend can be somewhat reversed).

The Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews

The practical aspects of such encouragement are many and complicated. How does one encourage in-marriage successfully? What would a cost-benefit analysis look like? What if encouraging in-marriage alienates intermarried couples – an alienation that Dialogue participants were acutely worried about. “In my community some of the nicest couples and the most active couples are intermarried couples, and I would not want my community to do anything that could hurt their feelings,” a Pittsburgh discussant said.173 Obviously, a strong desire to be “welcoming,” a word that was repeatedly used in numerous seminars, could be complicated by a campaign to encourage in-marriage. “I cannot imply in my congregation in any way that marriage to a non-Jew is somewhat lesser than marriage to a Jew. In fact, I don’t even think that’s true. I prefer Jews to be happy in marriage and come to my community as happy couples,” a rabbi in Dallas said.174

And yet, the encouragement of in-marriage was considered advisable. However, it is not clear that such encouragement has programmatic implications. Yes, Jews want in-marriage to be encouraged, but after trying to promote it for many years no magic bullet has been found for this endeavor – only maintaining a certain communal norm, welcoming all people, and providing opportunities for Jewish learning and living. Essentially, doing everything possible to tencourage distanced Jews to intensify their involvement with Judaism. It is also no wonder that the encouragement of in-marriage is more fervently supported by Jews who belong to communities that are, generally speaking, less beset by the possibility of offending mixed families, because the incidence of intermarriage within these communities is relatively low. Thus, 78 percent of Orthodox Dialogue participants strongly agreed that in-marriage should be encouraged by the community, compared to a much weaker support among Reform participants (of whom 34 percent strongly agreed that encouragement is desirable). And yet, it is interesting to see that even among Reform and secular Jews, there was a significant tendency to agree with the notion that in-marriage ought to be encouraged by the community, as these graphs clearly show.

The Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews:

Strongly agree, by religious affiliation

The Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews: Strongly agree, by religious affiliation

 

The Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews:

Strongly and somewhat disagree, by religious affiliation

 

It is important to emphasize again that all data that appears here directly result from the particular composition of Dialogue participants, and care should be taken in applying them more broadly. In most cases the Dialogue comprised highly engaged Jews who care deeply about the issues under consideration. It is fair to suspect that had the Dialogue included more Jews of no religion, more disconnected Jews, and more unaffiliated Jews, the answers to the questions about intermarriage – possibly the most sensitive issue for Diaspora Jews – would have been different.

And yet, connected Jews make the communal rules. It is highly engaged and connected Jews who grasp the challenges, and attempt to tackle them. These Jews, participants in our groups, seemed somewhat readier than we had expected to make definitive assertions concerning the value of in-marriage to the community and its long term interests.
Celebrating intermarriage as an opportunity for growth emanates from some of the studies that present growing community success in keeping interfaith families within the Jewish sphere. The idea that intermarriage could be beneficial for the Jewish community is fairly straight forward. If non-Jews who marry Jews agree in higher numbers – as they do – to raise Jewish children, then the Jewish community no longer “loses” Jews to intermarriage, it “gains” non-Jews and their children who become a part of the community. But do most Jews believe that such a development is likely to occur?

According to our findings they are hesitant to embrace such optimism. They are still skeptical about the ability of the community to sustain itself as strongly “Jewish” (whatever that means to each of them) when so many families within the community are only half Jewish. Even as they see a reality that cannot be reversed, and even as they hear the many success stories of integration of intermarried couples into the community, and even as they hear some of their leaders celebrate intermarriage as an opportunity for growth – they remain doubtful. Many of them cannot overlook the studies that repeatedly show that intermarriage leads to a lesser engagement with Judaism. Many are not certain that it is within the community’s capabilities to bring a mixed family (on average) to the level of engagement of an in-married family. As one study conclusively stated: “Children of intermarriage were less likely than children of inmarriage to have attended a Jewish day school or supplementary school, observed Jewish holidays, and participated in informal Jewish social and educational activities during their childhood or teen years.”175

The Dialogue survey asked participants to agree or disagree with the statement: “Intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism.” That is the exact argument proponents of outreach policies tend to make: not that intermarriage is a blessing, but rather that with the right policies (being more welcoming, investing in interfaith families etc.) the potential is there for a beneficial effect on the community.

Dialogue participants were somewhat doubtful, but about half seemed willing to entertain the possibility of benefit. Of course, differences between groups are again notable: the Orthodox vehemently disagreed with the statement – more than 80 percent either strongly disagreed (66 percent) or somewhat disagreed (16 percent). But almost half of our Conservative participants somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement (37 percent somewhat, 11percent strongly), and a majority of both Reform and secular Jews agreed with it. Yet even among the Reform and secular, more participants “somewhat agreed” than “strongly agreed” (44 percent of Reform and 36 percent of secular participants “somewhat” agreed).

On the question of benefitting from intermarriage (unlike the question of encouraging in-marriage) there was also a notable and highly significant difference in answers based on geography. Israeli Jews and American Jews were almost a mirror image of one another in relation to this question. Israelis were highly skeptical that intermarriage presents an opportunity for the community (this is no wonder: they are taught that intermarriage equals “assimilation”) – while Americans were cautiously optimistic. Almost half of Israeli participants “strongly disagree(d)” with the statement: intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism. But in Australia, 46 percent agreed that intermarriage could be a blessing; in Brazil, 67 percent agreed with the statement; and in the U.S., 51 percent agreed. Quite obviously, in this case the cautious optimism of Jews who deal with the issue of intermarriage (Diaspora Jews) is much more important than the bleak view of Israeli Jews who have little familiarity with this issue, and are not on the frontline of having to deal with it.

 

To what degree do you agree/disagree:

Intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism

To what degree do you agree/disagree: Intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism

Speculating about the answers Dialogue participants gave with respect to intermarriage, along with the other answers they gave, it is interesting to point out a few things:

As discussed earlier, Jews seem to put less emphasis on the biological component of Jewishness – and this fits nicely with their understanding that intermarriage is currently an irreversible part of Jewish life, and also with the cautious optimism some of them have concerning the community’s ability to turn this challenging trend into an opportunity.

As Jews emphasize “nationality\peoplehood” as a major component of Jewishness, and as they also emphasize “taking care of Israel and other Jews” as an “essential” part of being Jewish, their comfort with intermarriage could seem to rest on shaky ground. Almost all studies of intermarried couples and their children clearly show a much lower level of connection to other Jews and to Israel.176 In this sense, a high percentage of intermarried families within the Jewish community could complicate the desire of many Jews to have “nationality” and “peoplehood” as components more significant than “religion” or even “culture.”177

We did not ask Dialogue participants a specific question concerning the “exclusivity” of Jewishness – that is, whether being Jewish requires a commitment to Jewishness alone (whether it’s religious or peoplehood exclusivity). This is a question in need of exploration as the data show that there is a growing share of Jews who do not see their Jewishness as exclusive.178 It is worth noting in this context that even though the Israeli definition of who is a Jew is not the Halachic definition, Israeli law states that a Jew cannot have “another religion” and maintain his or her Jewish status in the eyes of the state.179

As we will show later, the Dialogue found that many Jews want intermarried families to be full participants in Jewish life, but still have an inclination to preserve some symbolic features that point to the advantage, from a communal viewpoint, of in-marriage over intermarriage (for example: the reluctance of some Jews to have intermarried people occupy certain leadership positions).

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