In a recent cabinet meeting, Education Minister Rafi Peretz likened intermarriage in America to “a second Holocaust.” His comment is both odious and ill-informed. Not only does it dishonor the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and denigrate those who marry non-Jews, it is a distortion of the actual facts.
What is not appreciated by those who view intermarriage as bringing about the demise of the Jewish people is that the US Jewish population has actually been steadily increasing. In 2013, the Pew Research Center estimated the US population of Jewish children and adults at nearly seven million. By 2018, that number had grown to almost 7.5 million. Even though more Jews today identify as secular, rates of participation in Jewish religious life have remained remarkably stable.
One reason is that children of intermarried parents are increasingly being raised as Jews (nearly 80%). Among adult millennials, almost 60% identify as Jewish – a sharp increase over older generations. These Jewish young adults and their families are an important part of the Jewish fabric of life in the United States. Their integration is, in part, a result of the US Jewish community responding positively and creatively to the challenges posed by intermarriage.
One of the turning points in how US Jewish communities view intermarriage was a 1978 speech by the then-head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Alexander Schindler. He argued that rather than “sitting shiva” (mourning) for those who intermarry, we should instead focus our efforts on kiruv (outreach) and providing Jewish education to the children of intermarried parents. The Jewish community was urged to welcome, not reject intermarried families.
Our latest data, from a study of 1,200 young non-Orthodox couples – half of whom had a Jewish partner and half of whom had a non-Jewish partner – makes clear that we have succeeded in making intermarried families feel welcome. Intermarried couples in our study overwhelmingly felt accepted by their families (Jewish and non-Jewish) and welcome in the Jewish community.
At the same time, these couples do not participate in Jewish life at the same rates as couples where both members are Jewish. Jewish education as a child leads to increased participation in Jewish life, even among those who intermarry. But Jews who intermarry are still not as engaged in Jewish life as those who marry Jews.
THE CHIEF competition for the attention and engagement of intermarried couples is from non-Jewish religious life. Overwhelmingly, the non-Jewish partners we studied did not practice another religion, and the majority did not identify with a particular religion. Judaism is not in competition with other religions, but with secularism.
We do know that certain strategies have been proven successful in increasing positive attitudes toward Jewish life in Jewish young adults. Immersive educational programs, such as Birthright Israel and summer camps in particular, have been shown to spark Jewish identity development in the children of intermarried parents. Evidence from studies of Birthright is particularly compelling because these positive changes have been repeatedly seen in participants, while they are not evident for a comparison group of young adults who considered the program but never went.
However, we need a more comprehensive, life-span developmental approach. From pre-schools to the PJ Library, to a host of programs for teens and college students, the Jewish community has a broad array of formal and informal education and programs. We have the tools but what we lack are effective strategies to introduce intermarried families to these settings and offer them opportunities to participate.
Many newly married couples may not have Jewish communal engagement on their radar, particularly if their families do not have formal connections to Jewish communal institutions. To attract these families, many of whom are intermarried, we need to help them appreciate the value of being part of a community. Research indicates that intermarried young couples want to feel a sense of community, in particular, Jewish belonging. Community building should be integral to all programming targeted at young couples.
What has also emerged from our studies of intermarriage is the potential importance of cross-generational engagement. Our latest study highlights how connected young adults are to their parents, and perhaps contrary to popular stereotypes, how satisfied non-Jewish partners are with their relationships with Jewish in-laws. These positive connections open the door to fostering intergenerational contact around Jewish cultural, ritual and social life.
Invectives about intermarriage are hurtful and unhelpful. They ignore the tremendous progress that has been made over the last 30 years and what we have learned about the potential to engage intermarried families. Jews are a small minority in the US but are well-integrated, individually successful, and positively viewed by the non-Jewish community. Intermarriage has been one of the consequences of acceptance. Jewish education and community building, not rhetoric, should be the response to the challenges posed by intermarriage.
The writer is the Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University.