Mosaic Magazine

Response to: "Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?"September 2013

The Larger Battle

The real fight facing American Jews is not against intermarriage but for marriage itself.


In his characteristically thoughtful essay, Jack Wertheimer takes up the banner of those many American Jews who regard their Jewishness as very important to themselves, to their children, and to the future of American Jewry at large. As against the seemingly entrenched tendency to view intermarriage as inevitable, if not normative, Wertheimer boldly declares that the battle  is not over. Rejecting the “defeatists” among Jewish clergy and in the organized Jewish community who have adopted a policy of no-questions-asked “inclusiveness,” he urges the opposite: reinforcing the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish behaviors and actively encouraging the conversion of Gentile partners and spouses.

Intermarriage does indeed loom large for American Jews who are justifiably concerned about the transmission of Jewish religious culture to the next generation. And yet, when we place intermarriage in the context of (in Wertheimer’s words) the “broader trends in American society,” we see a more pervasive problem. Intermarriage is just one current amidst a sea change in patterns of family formation in the United States.


From the 1960s until today, the prominence of heterosexual two-parent endogamous families has receded as diverse household models have increased. Skeptical American singles continue to view marriage and parenthood as abridgements of personal options. Partnered or single men and women, among them some number of gay and lesbian couples who eagerly pursue religious marriage ceremonies and the legal entitlements of conventional families, create households with single mothers and fathers, two mothers, or two fathers. In addition, about one-third of Americans marry across religious, ethnic, and racial lines, producing a new generation impatient with census questionnaires with a single box for ethnicity. Meanwhile, conventional family life has been periodically subjected to scathing critique in the academic press and the popular media. Against the backdrop of these sweeping changes, intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is often regarded as just one more family construction among many.

To an extent not always appreciated, intermarriage is also deeply entangled with the phenomenon of delayed marriage. The four years of college—once a de-facto marriage market—now reputedly host a “hook-up culture” instead. Even those who don’t participate in casual sexual encounters often choose to spend their time in friendship groups rather than in romantic dyads leading to permanent commitments. Except for the religiously observant, undergraduates commonly report themselves to be “not ready” for such commitments. All this contributes to the widespread postponement of what the New York Times Magazine has dubbed the five sociological milestones of adulthood: “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child” (August 22, 2010). 

What does this mean for Jews? College attendance is often anecdotally blamed for intermarriage, but the opposite is true: universities bring Jews together with other Jews in peer relationships denser than most will ever experience again. Moreover, Jews who identify life partners during their college or graduate-school years are far likelier to marry fellow Jews than those who wait until they are out in the work world—which is increasingly the normal pattern today. A Princeton alumna recently made sparks fly when she advised today’s female undergraduates to look for husbands during their years on campus. Her advice is especially salient for young Jews.

By contrast, once they begin to pursue first jobs or graduate or professional training, young Americans today are far less likely to become engaged than to drift into cohabitation. In turn, such living arrangements often bypass “mindful” emotional commitments. This lack of deliberateness may be one reason why couples who live together and marry later, sometimes much later, have twice the divorce rate of those for whom engagement precedes cohabitation or marriage.

This is also true of marriages across ethnic and religious boundaries. Here, too, the Jewish case is similar. Many American Jews in their twenties and thirties are not actually in the process of deciding, in Wertheimer’s words, “whom they will date and marry, and, when they marry a non-Jew, . . . how their home will be oriented, how their children will be educated, and which aspects of Judaism and of their Jewish identities they will compromise for the sake of domestic peace.” On average, intermarrying Jews marry three years later than in-marrying Jews, often cohabiting in the interim, and marriages between Jews and non-Jews, like marriages after uncommitted cohabitation, are twice as likely to culminate in divorce. 

I might mention here another factor, more specific to the Jewish situation, that plays a distinctive role in the avoidance by Jewish singles of romantic relationships with other Jews. That factor is negative stereotypes, especially of Jewish women. Although Jewish men and Jewish women are almost equally likely to marry non-Jews today, their narratives are different. The men often cite certain supposedly off-putting characteristics of Jewish women. For their part, the women are much more likely to articulate an initial preference for Jewish men before they later accept a non-Jewish partner. Moreover, once in a mixed-faith relationship, Jewish women (as Wertheimer notes) are likelier than Jewish men to insist on raising Jewish children, and to act on that intention. Conversely (and exceptions duly noted), Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women are statistically less likely to implement Jewish connections or to provide their children with a Jewish education.

This brings us to the matter of children in general. After they marry (if they do marry), contemporary American Jews—and this includes the in-married as well as the intermarried—often postpone starting a family until their careers are better situated or they can move into more capacious living quarters. Since even the latest figures show that female fertility levels gradually begin to decline around age thirty-two and then drop rapidly after thirty-seven, with one out of five women who try to conceive in their late thirties suffering from infertility, couples who delay are more likely to find themselves struggling with this unwanted predicament.

How does this affect the intermarriage issue? For the parents of today’s young American Jews, the question becomes not “will I have Jewish grandchildren?” but “will I have any grandchildren?” Such parents, whether or not they go to the length of paying to freeze their daughters’ eggs as a kind of insurance policy, as some reportedly do, understandably come to view intermarriage as a lesser evil, and will more readily pressure their rabbis and the Jewish community at large to accept their (finally) marrying children with open arms. The word “intermarriage,” after all, contains the word “marriage,” and that is enough for them.


Differences of sensibility between Jewish men and Jewish women aside, there is no doubt that, as Wertheimer stresses, “intermarried families have considerably lower chances of raising committed Jews.” And he rightly demands that we focus on policy implications—on “what is to be done.” Yet in this area as well, focusing primarily on the intermarriage taboo obfuscates the more pervasive battle for marriage itself, which if anything requires even earlier interventions in the lives of young Jews.

Partisans of traditional Jewish marriages between two Jews—and I count myself enthusiastically in their company—do have powerful tools at their disposal. Jewish connections and Jewish marriage do not happen by accident. By the same token, intermarriage is not the random and indiscriminate phenomenon sometimes portrayed by the Jewish outreach industry, an industry properly and effectively targeted by Wertheimer.

Marriage between two Jews is demonstrably influenced by early and continuing educational interventions that are rich in opportunities for peer interaction. High-quality Jewish education (not only in day-school settings) that lasts through the teen years, summer camps, college classes in Jewish studies, and Israel trips dramatically increase the likelihood that Jews will marry Jews and create unambiguously Jewish homes. These interventions are effective partly by socializing young Jews to feel connected to Judaism and to the Jewish people. True enough, educational socialization doesn’t come with a guarantee, and obviously it doesn’t work for everybody; nothing does. But study after study makes clear that if the goal is in-marriage, the path lies through creating educational opportunities for teens and young adults in every sizeable Jewish locale.

Individuals, families, and communities must also “lean in” to early, ongoing, and open conversations about the need for mindfulness in selecting romantic partners—and about the positive rewards of taking on personal commitments and responsibilities. Individuals, families, and communities need to show, by example and by word, why Jewishness matters—to create in sons and daughters an appreciation of the appeal, and the sheer sexiness, of Jewish men and women.

Because these issues tend to present themselves in personal terms, they are difficult to deal with. Some individuals do not wish to marry, and should not marry. Some should not have children. But for the many Jews who adhere to the enduring personal connections and responsibilities of partnership, marriage, and parenthood,  and for all those who aspire to that state for themselves, a focus on positive goals—rather than on what we want to avoid—is central to the dynamic survival of the American Jewish community. The larger battle is for marriage itself.



Sylvia Barack Fishman, the Joseph and Esther Foster professor of Jewish and contemporary life at Brandeis University and co-director of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, is the author of, among other books, The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness and Double or Nothing?: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage.


  • Ken Besig

    The heart, soul, and being of Judaism has moved to Israel and has emptied the Diaspora and the Galut of most Jewish meaning. Since the spiritual center of the Jewish world is now in Israel, there is nothing left outside of Israel to bind and hold the Jews living there to their Judaism. However, secular Western Jewish reformers have done their best to empty Western Judaism of practically all of it’s Jewish values and spirituality. This is what makes it so easy for Jewish researchers to try to find sociological, cultural, or even educational reasons for the failure of Judaism in the Galut because it appeals to their intellect and their secular scientific desires, when in fact the failure of Judaism in the Diaspora is a spiritual failure. Judaism in the Galut is almost totally devoid of any sense or respect or especially belief for the God of the Jews, Jewish morality, and strictly Jewish values. I am convinced that most young Diaspora Jews, if asked, would not be able to cogently explain the difference between the Jewish People and the Gentile world, and that those young Jews would actually feel insulted that such a question would even be asked of them because the question itself implies quite strongly the idea of Jewish exceptionalism, a no-no in the West. I am sorry for young secular Western Jews empty of Jewish spiritual values but I am happy that the Shechinah is more powerfully present in Jerusalem. If more Western Jews just believed in God rather than the scientific method they might intermarry less and stay married as long as they both shall live.

  • Charles Simon

    As always, Sylvia has focused on the proper issue. We need to understand what the North American Jewish community is experiencing from the macro level, not the micro one. It is only by looking at the big picture can we learn how to position ourselves to be more effective.

  • DF

    A solid essay, by a solid writer. But I dont see why it should be portrayed as a piece in opposition to Dr. Wertheimer’s piece – rather, the two complement each other, and focus on different trends. Micro and Macro, if you prefer, but still very different.

    Fishman is correct that the institution of marriage itself is on shaky ground. [The chief culprit is obvious—enforced feminism, but that's a different essay.] But all it shows is that the pool of Jews getting married, like all Americans, is shrinking. That’s not what Wertheimer is dealing with. Wertheimer starts with the proposition that Jews want to get married. This may be a smaller pool, for all the reasons Fishman discusses, and others she doesn’t, but regardless of the numbers, where do these Jews look for partners when they are of marriageable age? That’s where Wertheimer comes into play.

    Let me give one example of where their work coincides. The decline in shul or church attendance is no doubt a contributing factor to the delay in marriage. With no one instilling the religious imperative, why not, indeed, simply engage in one-night stands? No sense paying for the milk when you can get it for free. But that also is a cause for the growth of intermarriage specifically. The synagogue is more than just a prayer house; it’s a kind of club, where Jews get to meet other Jews, and—importantly—get to meet people who might introduce them to young men and women they’d otherwise not get to meet. The connections that once were made in this way are starting to vanish. Thus, this is one example of a contributing cause to the dearth of marriage, is equally a cause to the growth of intermarriage.

    There are many similar examples that can be shown. The point is, Wertheimer and Fisheman’s work are not at odds, but rather—like a good marriage—they complement each other.

  • rosenberg

    I would like to add my thoughts to the debate Jack Wertheimer, professor of American-Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has sparked regarding intermarriage and inmarriage and his assertion that welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community has been a failure (Editor’s note: Gary Rosenblatt guest column Sept. 19, full article Mosaic online magazine — In a perfect world, I would agree that more Jewish education and creative positive Jewish experiences would stem the trend of intermarriage. Logically this sounds right, but I can tell you with 40 years’ experience in Conservative synagogues, that the reality is that even the children with positive experiences who excelled in Hebrew school, intermarry. Some come from traditional homes. Many intermarry simply because they attend college away from home, fall in love and believe love will conquer all. A rabbi can speak himself blue in the face about the non-Jewish partner converting, but usually it makes no difference. The non-Jewish partner does not wish to convert and the Jewish partner feels compromise and accommodation will work things out. The pain and anguish occurs when the intermarried couple has children and there is a baptism. This tears the hearts out of the grandparents who have no choice; they do not want to lose their children or grandchildren.

    The children of a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish. We have now lost them forever. I have heard it suggested that Conservative Judaism accept patrilineal descent with provisions encouraging Jewish education. I believe this will happen in the future, but I have problems accepting this solution.

    I do not have the answer, and I believe no one does, but I do know that if one does not believe they are halakhically Jewish, they will not seek Judaism but will follow the non-Jewish mother’s religion.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  • TPG

    That early lean-in thing resonates. Parents need not be chicken about the conversation, and the establishment of a family ethics re intermarriage. My own family is a case in point. Liberal Jews, not Orthodox. But my brothers and I got the message early and often: marry a Jewish girl. Early means as early as first grade, by the by. It worked. All of us — and there are many of us — married Jewish girls. And we’re glad for it, too.

    I never understood the idea that if you care a lot about something, you should shut up about it.

  • (Prof. Emeritus) Alan Jay Weisbard

    I do not see the Wertheimer and Fishman pieces as necessarily in opposition, but I do detect a tremendous difference in tone and appreciation of the subtleties of individual circumstances. While I find several, but not all, of Wertheimer’s positive recommendations well considered and constructive, they follow an analysis that seems unduly rigid and doctrinaire, and much too sure of posited causal relationships that are inadequately substantiated. Fishman’s essay, on the other hand, shows a much surer grasp of the complex realities of the lives and environment of young Jews, and of young Americans more generally.
    As a 40 year veteran of the havurah movement, which now encompasses independent minyanim as well, I find no lack of solid Jewish education, liturgical skills, spirituality, social justice activism, and deep Jewish commitment among the young people that I encounter or know through my now adult children. While it may come a bit later in their life cycles than it did in mine, they are marrying one another and beginning to reproduce, much to the delight of their parents.
    While Judaism has played a central role in my own life, I would also note that there is a long and rich tradition of secular Judaism, which is entirely consistent with rich and fulfilling Jewish lives, activities, and commitments. If our concern is with the future of Jewish life in America, it is past time to realize that synagogue and denomination-based approaches are not the right answer for everyone, and we need to build options that will engage and sustain young Jews for whom religion, at least as customarily practiced in traditional synagogue environments, is not the right answer.

  • laurele

    Your last paragraph contains two blatantly contradictory statements. On the one hand, you say “Some individuals do not wish to marry, and should not marry. Some should not have children.” But then you conclude with the statement, “The larger battle is for marriage itself,” showing a clear bias toward marriage and against the option of remaining single and/or childfree by choice.

    I don’t want to marry or have kids, and I know many other people who feel the same way. We are not people to be felt sorry for or seen as unfortunate. It’s not that we didn’t meet the “right” person; it’s that we love our lives the way they are and aren’t looking to marry. The “some individuals” to whom you refer are not just a few outliers. There are a lot of us, and if you believe the battle is “for marriage itself,” how can you possibly accept our choices with respect? In the past, many people married because of “social pressure,” because it was “the thing to do.” Today, thankfully, people are aware that there are many paths in life, and none is better than the other. The battle is NOT for marriage, but for acceptance of all lifestyles.

    Additionally, for those who choose marriage, it’s not always about children. Some couples don’t want kids, so the issue of whether there will be grandchildren is moot. No one owes their parents or the Jewish community grandchildren. People are not census numbers, and many deeply resent being treated as such. If the whole issue with intermarriage revolves around children, what about intermarrying couples who are beyond childbearing age? There are more of these than many realize. It’s not always about “the kids.”

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