We have seen that the presence of Jewish spouses and children each is associated with higher levels of Jewish engagement, while non-Jewish spouses and children in the home each seem to diminish the likelihood of Jewish engagement. Younger adult Jews with greater Jewish socialization and education are more likely to marry Jews and have Jewish children. At the same time, the presence of Jewish family members provides cause and motivation for increased Jewish involvement. To explore the matter further, we developed an 8-category classification of the respondents based upon their marital and parenting statuses (Table 10). As might be expected, we witness steady increases in Jewish engagement as we move from circumstances where family members are non-Jewish, to where they are not present, to where they are entirely Jewish (inmarried parents, raising Jewish children).
The entirely Jewish, multi-person family is truly the “gold standard” of Jewish family configurations. Among non-Haredi inmarried Jews with Jewish children at home, we find the following high levels of Jewish engagement indicators: seder attendance (95 percent); fasting Yom Kippur (84 percent); attending High Holiday services (87 percent); belonging to a synagogue (72 percent); and giving to Jewish charities (87 percent). On all these indicators, the inmarried with Jewish children home out-score all other family configurations. The next most active groups are the inmarried with no Jewish children at home and single parents raising Jewish children.
Jewish identity by family configuration, all non-Haredi Jewish Americans ages 25-54
Raising Jewish children has a profound impact on personal Jewish identity. For decades, research showed that American Jews become more involved with Judaism after they marry and especially after they give birth to and begin to raise their children, a pattern felicitously discussed in Marshall Sklare’s pioneering work in the early 1960s.23 Informants in Fishman’s 2004 study of 254 men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish spouses in intermarried, conversionary, and inmarried households revealed that many intermarrying as well as inmarrying spouses – Jewish and Christian – are surprised by the strength of their own responses with the arrival of children. Those who thought their religious identities didn’t matter to them when they were dating, or even when they were married without children, discover that religion does matter to them as parents, as they need to decide which religious identity/identities to transmit to their children. In inmarried households, the mutual discovery that Jewishness matters to both spouses reinforces the likelihood that they will join a synagogue and enroll their children in Jewish schools. In intermarried households, in contrast, the discoveries that Judaism and Christianity matter more than previously thought sometime opens up tense conversations. Rather than pursuing sore subjects, many parents retreat from the topic of religion altogether, raising children of “no religion.”24
Marriage to Jews and the raising of Jewish-by-religion children are key to the current and future Jewish vitality of American Jewry, as well as to its transmissibility. The family first, and then community and friendships, create the conditions for formal and informal Jewish education to take place. The impact of spouses on each other, and of parents and children on each other, and of close and even loosely tied friendship circles, continues to matter.25