Yes, Something Can Be Done

A “Purple” Solution to Intermarriage

Sept. 15 2013
About the author

Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

The discourse on Jewish intermarriage over the last decades has been dominated by two schools of thought. One may be termed the normative school; the other, the welcoming school.

The normative school—ably represented by Jack Wertheimer—sees intermarriage through the lens of historical Jewish norms. Insofar as this school offers policy prescriptions (which it rarely does), it calls for strengthening the norms that have historically promoted in-marriage and discouraged out-marriage.  

By contrast, the welcoming school not only sees large-scale intermarriage as inevitable and unstoppable but advocates warmly receiving intermarried families into Jewish families and communities. Rather than stressing norms that privilege in-marriage, it works to dispel perceptions that Jewish groups or leaders harbor negative attitudes toward the intermarried or resist their active participation in Jewish life.

Whereas the normative school sees intermarriage as both ideologically wrong and socially corrosive of Jewish continuity, the welcoming school sees intermarriage as ideologically neutral and socially neutral or even beneficial, in that it signals Jews’ integration within the larger society.

Let me elaborate.


Truths and Consequences

As Wertheimer correctly notes, intermarriage is associated with several adverse consequences both for Jewish demography and for Jewish life. Among the consequences are these: relatively few children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews; adult Jewish children of intermarried parents are much more likely to intermarry in turn; the intermarried display low levels of participation in Jewish religious practices, and even lower levels of ethnic connectedness (as in having Jewish friends); and—in the largest gap of all—the intermarried show little attachment to Israel.  

All of these together, and especially the first—that the intermarried are three times less likely than the in-married to raise their children as exclusively Jewish—make intermarriage a major factor in the demographic decline that is now being experienced nationwide among non-Orthodox, communally affiliated Jews. The simple, unavoidable truth is that the non-Orthodox population, in which about one out of every two recently married individuals is intermarried, is shrinking. Only the much smaller Orthodox population, with its near-zero intermarriage rate, is demographically booming.

And this has striking implications for the future shape of the Jewish community. Consider this finding, documented in the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York: for every three non-Orthodox Jews in their fifties in the New York region, we find only one non-Orthodox Jewish child under the age of ten; by contrast, for every three Orthodox Jews in their fifties, there are nine Jewish children. In the entire New York area, the Orthodox comprise a mere 20 percent of Jewish households, but these households contain 61 percent of the Jewish children. Similar patterns have been observed elsewhere, most notably in Great Britain where the Orthodox population has been growing while all others have been shrinking. Intermarriage is not the whole cause of the decline of non-Orthodox Jews; but it is a major contributing factor.


To this evidence of shrinking Jewish numbers outside of Orthodoxy, proponents of the welcoming strategy offer a variety of counter-arguments. First, they say, the picture is not uniformly bleak; intermarriage doesn’t lead inevitably to departure from Jewish life, as can be seen from the presence of intermarried families in synagogues and other Jewish venues. Second, if intermarried Jews and their children are less likely to be active in Jewish life, the fault is attributable at least as much to the intermarrying spouses’ low rates of Jewish education and social connectedness prior to marriage as to intermarriage per se; even if they had married fellow Jews, the odds are that they would have been less engaged than their in-married counterparts. Finally, say some in the welcoming camp, if the intermarried are alienated from Jewish life, it is precisely because of the lack of welcome that greets them when they encounter Jewish communities or social circles.

The first of these counterarguments—that intermarriage doesn’t necessarily lead to a departure from Jewish life—is true enough but statistically insignificant; it is indisputable that the two phenomena are very highly correlated. More cogent is the second counterargument: to some extent, today’s intermarried were indeed already slated for lower levels of Jewish involvement by virtue of circumstance (living in a remote geographical location, suffering from a weak Jewish education, having intermarried parents, etc.). But the argument is without merit concerning the outcome that matters most, which is the raising of Jewish children—not partially Jewish, not half-Jewish, not Jewish-and-Christian, not Jewish-plus-something-else. No statistical manipulation can explain away the enormous gaps between the in-married and the intermarried in the rates at which children are raised as exclusively Jewish.

Which leaves the welcoming camp’s third counterargument, the one about the allegedly off-putting behavior of Jewish institutions and communities. Here, too, evidence is lacking. For one thing, some Jewish institutions—ranging from Birthright Israel to Jewish community centers to, most prominently, Reform congregations—seem to have little trouble attracting large numbers of intermarried families or children of the intermarried. Far from erecting social barriers, broad swaths of American Jewry have adopted a posture of openhearted welcome, and not just toward the intermarried but toward all sorts of non-traditional and historically non-normative behaviors.

Most strikingly, when asked in the New York study whether they felt comfortable or uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities, the responses of the intermarried were nearly identical to those of the non-married and only slightly behind the in-married.  This suggests that intermarriage per se does not generally provoke either social rejection or feelings of alienation among the intermarried themselves. It also underlines that a welcoming attitude by itself is insufficient to produce the desired effect: namely, intermarried Jews and their families who are active in Jewish life.


Implications for Policy

Still, notwithstanding the analytic strengths of the normative camp in assessing the impact of intermarriage, the story is different when it comes to policy recommendations and actions on the ground.

To the extent that the normative camp offers substantive policies, they amount to the need to inculcate a strong pro-endogamy ethos and to refrain from conferring positions of leadership or communal honors upon the intermarried. Yet this approach has failed utterly to promote in-marriage, to raise the rate at which the intermarried raise their children as Jews, or to engage intermarried families in Jewish life. Over the past half-century, the strong disapproval of intermarriage articulated by some sectors of the community has visibly failed to diminish its incidence overall or bring about other desired effects.

Even this were not so,  moreover, today’s non-Orthodox communal leaders are simply incapable of embracing the normative approach—in part for fear of alienating their children, friends, congregants, and donors, in part out of aversion to “judgmentalism.” (“Who am I to tell others, even my own children, whom they should or shouldn’t marry?”) In post-modern, post-ethnic, post-religious, post-collective America, the words and actions urged by the normative camp fail to resonate. In fact, they might even cause collateral damage by impeding the formulation or enactment of policies explicitly designed to foster in-marriage. (Programs aimed at promoting endogamy routinely refrain from declaring their true objectives, emphasizing instead how they help young people decide their “Jewish journeys” for themselves.)

If the normative camp finds few followers among non-Orthodox leaders, the welcoming camp, correctly reading and reflecting the values of those leaders, has initiated several educational endeavors that even stalwart members of the normative camp might in principle applaud.

Take, for example, the introductory Derekh Torah course at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which bills itself as “an excellent class for interfaith couples, for individuals who are curious about conversion, or for Jews who want to learn more about Judaism.” Or take the Exploring Judaism course at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, designed “for students exploring the possibility of converting to Judaism” and strongly encouraging the participation of “Jewish partners of potential converts.” Consider, too, the nearly one-hundred classes around the country sponsored by the Mother’s Circle of the Jewish Outreach Institute, with its “free educational programs and resources for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage or a committed relationship.” On the Orthodox side of the ledger, we may add the entire Chabad outreach operation, premised on a welcoming attitude toward all Jews, emphatically including those who act contrary to traditional expectations. 


And yet: when it comes to intermarriage, what have these educational programs accomplished? As Wertheimer’s compelling review amply demonstrates, intermarried couples continue to increase in number, few raise their children as exclusively Jewish, and most are fairly distant from Jewish life. No less than the normative camp, the welcoming camp, too, has failed to halt, let alone turn around, the steady decline in the part of the population that is at once non-Orthodox and at least somewhat attached to conventional Jewish life. Nor is that decline significantly offset by the growth in “borderland Jews”: those, heavily the offspring of the intermarried, with but an episodic attachment to being Jewish or with hybrid identities like “partially Jewish” or “both Jewish and Christian.” In the words of one illustrative respondent to the New York survey: “I’m Jewish with my father and Christian with my mother.”

In sum, in terms of effective policies for dealing with the larger demographic trends, both camps have fallen short. One is unpersuasive, the other unproductive. What then is to be done?


Four “Purple” Solutions

In today’s politically and culturally polarized America, analysts routinely divide the electorate into “red state” conservative Republicans and “blue state” liberal Democrats. Correlatively, policy advocates tend to line up behind proposals appealing to one or the other body of voters. Every so often, however, analysts and policy makers do seek to fashion “purple” solutions: ideas that draw on the thinking and sentiments of both camps and bear the potential of appealing to a larger constituency.

Can we apply a “purple” approach to the challenge of intermarriage? Any successful response to that challenge must meet two tests. It must increase the number of Jewish children who are born to Jewish parents and raised as exclusively Jewish in their religious identities. At the same time, it must comport with a cultural environment that shrinks from even obliquely criticizing people for their decisions in matters seen as residing in the private realm. In short, we need policies that would work if adopted, and that can be adopted if they work.

Some examples:

First and foremost, the organized Jewish community can strive to promote earlier marriage among Jews. Broadly speaking, among adult non-Orthodox Jews aged twenty-five to thirty-nine, about a quarter have married Jews and a quarter have married non-Jews, but fully half are non-married. Not only, then, are more Jews marrying non-Jews, but fewer Jews are marrying in their twenties—with adverse consequences for fertility, as recently discussed here by Sylvia Barack Fishman.

Not surprisingly, Jews who do marry Jews tend to have dated Jews over the years; and those who date Jews tend disproportionately to have many Jewish friends, associates, and neighbors. While the organized Jewish community has (properly) responded to rising intermarriage by investing in Jewish education—through day schools, camps, Israel travel, campus activities, and more, all of which are linked with higher rates of in-marriage—it has never explicitly adopted a policy of strengthening Jewish social networks among adolescents and young adults. In this day and age, where a zip code is better than a Jewish education as a predictor of in-marriage, the building of Jewish friendships ought to be regarded as a constituent part of Jewish education, not just its fortuitous by-product.

Along the same lines, the community would do well to consider investing in cafes, social movements, social media, and cultural events (concerts, film festivals) in areas where thousands of young Jewish adults reside. In New York City, two such areas are lower Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn; others exist in all major metropolitan regions.

Second, more converts are needed, especially from the ranks of non-Jewish spouses and the not-yet-married romantic partners of Jews. Congregational rabbis—the prime gateway to conversion—have little incentive (or time) to work intensively with prospective converts, especially those with no particular tie to their congregations. An investment in conversion-dedicated rabbis could increase the numbers at a relatively low per-capita cost. Would such an initiative uncover a pent-up demand? It’s hard to say; but the success of current conversion institutes and certain other outreach efforts suggests the existence of an untapped potential for expanding the number of Jewish young adults and Jewish in-marriage.

Third: as we have seen, only about a third or fewer of the children of intermarried parents are raised as exclusively Jewish. What if the non-Jewish spouses—the parents of these children—were given license to consider themselves as belonging to the Jewish people without taking the extra step of a religious conversion? The suggestion here is to promulgate an alternate path to becoming Jewish, one that doesn’t require a religious process or trappings that might strike prospective joiners as inauthentic or insincere. Would such couples (one born Jew plus one Jew via what might be called “cultural affirmation”) raise their children as Jews? Here, too, we don’t know, but building a non-religious pathway to joining the Jewish people would help us find out.

Fourth, we need a more family-friendly society. Couples throughout the West have been experiencing lower birthrates in part because of the burdensome economic and social costs of raising children. In that connection, as a culturally and politically influential community, organized Jewry could help bring about more family-friendly public policies on the national and local scene that would alleviate the costs of bearing and raising children for all.

Since non-Orthodox Jewish birthrates closely track those of highly educated secular Americans, helping to raise the fertility rates of the larger society in which Jews live would have an indirect but immediate effect on Jewish fertility rates as well. Meanwhile, on the community level, Jewish-sponsored and partially subsidized day care for children with at least one Jewish parent could help raise non-Orthodox Jewish birthrates out of the region of Negative Population Growth, where they currently reside.


Moving Forward

The numerically declining non-Orthodox population constitutes the major adverse collective consequence of intermarriage. This challenge demands frank recognition, sustained attention, and effective action. A package of communal policies can raise the rates of Jewish in-marriage, of religious conversion to Judaism and cultural affiliation with the Jewish people, of Jewish fertility, and of Jewish child-rearing among the intermarried.

Required for such policies is imaginative thinking plus the ingenuity to draw upon elements of both the normative and the welcoming schools. The former’s chief virtue lies in its correct and well-placed alarmism, the latter’s in its recognition that any policy approach must be compatible with the culture and ethos of our time and place. Neither has yet devised a successful package of policies. Why not combine the best elements of both, and move on from there?


Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

More about: Intermarriage, Jack Wertheimer, Jewish marriage, Sylvia Barack Fishman