Intermarriage: Is conversion the only answer?
Simon Rocker reports on the stark conclusions of a provocative new study
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.”