In­ter­mar­riage: Is con­ver­sion the only an­swer?

Si­mon Rocker re­ports on the stark con­clu­sions of a provoca­tive new study

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

Few, if any, Jewish par­ents would sit shivah to­day if their child mar­ried some­one non-Jewish. In an open so­ci­ety, in­ter­faith dat­ing is widely re­garded as a fact of life. In most di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties, around half of Jews are reck­oned to be mar­ry­ing out of the faith. (In the USA, it is 47 per cent. In the UK, 44 per cent of An­glo-Jewish men un­der 40 had mar­ried, or were in a steady re­la­tion­ship with, a non-Jewish wo­man, ac­cord­ing to an In­sti­tute for Jewish Pol­icy Re­search sur­vey in the mid-90s.)

In­creas­ingly, em­pha­sis is put on learn­ing to ac­cept the non-Jewish part­ner as a mem­ber of the fam­ily rather than os­tracis­ing the Jewish one. But while it may seem more en­light­ened to be in­clu­sive than cen­so­ri­ous, col­lec­tively in­ter­mar­riage re­mains a prob­lem for Jewish com­mu­ni­ties.

A bald warn­ing comes in a new re­port on Amer­i­can Jewry by one of the lead­ing com­men­ta­tors on con­tem­po­rary Jewish so­ci­ety, Pro­fes­sor Steven M Co­hen. “In­ter­mar­riage does in­deed con­sti­tute the great­est sin­gle threat to Jewish con­ti­nu­ity to­day,” he writes, “both on an in­di­vid­ual… and a group level.”

A mi­nor­ity only of chil­dren from a mixed-faith mar­riage are likely to iden­tify as Jews in the long-run, the latest trends sug­gest. Where t he non-Jewish part­ner con­verts, the chances of chil­dren grow­ing up as Jews sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease.

Fewer than 20 per cent of chil­dren of mixed mar­riages were be­ing raised ex­clu­sively as Jews, ac­cord­ing to an­other Amer­i­can aca­demic, Bruce Phillips. Chil­dren were three times as likely to iden­tify as Chris­tians by re­li­gion than as Jews.

As Co­hen states: “For pur­poses of Jewish con­ti­nu­ity, rais­ing one’s chil­dren ‘ex­clu­sively in Ju­daism’ is crit­i­cal. Any other de­ci­sion, such as rais­ing chil­dren in Ju­daism and some­thing else (let alone as ‘noth­ing’ or in Chris­tian­ity or in an­other re­li­gion), pro­duces high rates of dis­af­fil­i­a­tion and in­ter­mar­riage.”

Co­hen’s study was pro­duced for the Jewish Life Net­work/Stein­hardt Foun­da­tion, the arm of phi­lan­thropist Michael Stein­hardt, a key spon­sor of the free Birthright trips to Is­rael for young peo­ple. His ti­tle is in­struc­tive: A Tale of Two Jewries; The “In­con­ve­nient Truth” for Amer­i­can Jews.

Quot­ing Dick­ens — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — Co­hen ar­gues that Amer­i­can Jewry is di­vid­ing into “two dis­tinct pop­u­la­tions — the in-mar­ried and the in­ter-mar­ried”.

On the one hand, af­fil­i­ated Jews are be­com­ing more Jewishly com­mit­ted. Syn­a­gogue mem­ber­ship in the United States has ac­tu­ally risen over the last decade (al­though it starts from a lower thresh­old than in the UK). Chil­dren are more Jewishly ed­u­cated than their par­ents. Jewish ed­u­ca­tion — day schools, sum­mer camps, youth trips to Is­rael — “works”, says Co­hen.

But this has to be set against a grow­ing de­cline else­where. Do­na­tions to Jewish Fed­er­a­tions — the cen­tral fund-rais­ing agen­cies in Amer­i­can cities — are down, as are mem­ber­ship to um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tions such as B’nai Brith and Hadas­sah: only mem­ber­ship to lo­cal Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­tres re­mains stable.

More wor­ry­ing is a weak­en­ing sense of Jewish sol­i­dar­ity. Fewer than half of Amer­i­can Jews un­der 35 — 47 per cent — pro­fess “a strong sense of be­long­ing to the Jewish peo­ple”, com­pared with 72 per cent of over-65s.

On any scale of Jewish in­volve­ment, there is a marked con­trast be­tween the mar­ried-in and the mar­ried-out (see chart, be­low). “Com­pared with the in-mar­ried, only half as many of the in­ter­mar­ried ob­serve Passover, Chanu­cah or Yom Kip­pur or be­long to a syn­a­gogue,” Co­hen points out. “ Just seven per cent have mostly Jewish close friends, as com­pared with 53 per cent of the in-mar­ried.”

Com­pared with the in-mar­ried, only about as half as many chil­dren of the in­ter­mar­ried “at­tended Jewish sum­mer camp or par­tic­i­pated in a Jewish youth camp or vis­ited Is­rael as a young­ster — and a minis­cule three per cent at­tended a Jewish day school.”

If the child of an in­ter­mar­riage goes on to marry a non-Jewish part­ner, then only seven per cent of their own chil­dren will be raised as Jews. Whereas i f they marry a Jewish part­ner, then al­most three-quar­ters of the chil­dren will be raised as Jews.

Whil e J e wi s h ed­u­ca­tion can help pre­vent in­ter­mar­riage, an­other fac­tor is sim­ply ge­o­graph­i­cal, Co­hen notes. If you have Jewish friends at univer­sity and live near lots of other Jews, you are more likely to marry one. Where the non-Jewish part­ner con­verts, then the chil­dren are likely to be­come as ac­tively Jewish as if they had two nat­u­ral-born Jewish par­ents. At present, 15 per cent of non-Jewish part­ners con­vert within five years of mar­riage, or oth­er­wise “switch their iden­ti­ties” with­out a for­mal con­ver­sion.

Co­hen’s con­clu­sion is clear: “Only con­ver­sion sub­stan­tially im­proves the chances that to­day’s in­ter­mar­ried cou­ples will have Jewish grand­chil­dren in two gen­er­a­tions.”

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