In Portland, Maine, even the editor of the local Jewish newspaper was born to intermarried parents, and when she got around to marrying, it was not to a Jew.
Given her own experience, Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo, editor of The Voice, the local Jewish newspaper, was not surprised by a new demographic study that found Portland and its environs to have the highest intermarriage rate in the country. According to the study, which was funded in part by an intermarried couple, 61% of couples in married Jewish households are interfaith. This is the highest rate of any North American Jewish community measured in the past 15 years.
“There are kids in the [Jewish] preschool named ‘Piscapo’ and ‘Isajar,’” Margolis-Pineo said. “Unless you’re an idiot, you realize that there’s a lot of intermarriage.”
The study, conducted by Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, was the first demographic analysis of the Jewish community in Southern Maine. It was released by the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.
For demographers, the findings are somewhat unexpected, given the long prevailing notions that intermarriage tends to be highest in western and southwestern states. But in Portland, residents say that intermarriage has slowly become a part of life in their decentralized community.
The new figures place Portland ahead of both Seattle and San Francisco, which previously had shared the highest measured intermarriage rate, at 55%, according to information from the North American Jewish Data Bank. The national intermarriage rate was 48% in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. By comparison, Boston — the closest major Jewish population center to Portland — has an intermarriage rate of 46%. New York and Los Angeles have rates of 22% and 23%, respectively.
Given the relatively low level of Jewish affiliation in Portland, and the small size of the community — it numbers only 8,350 Jews — one of the most remarkable facts is that an expensive demographic survey took place at all. The study was made possible, in part, by the chairman and former CEO of L.L. Bean, Leon Gorman, grandson of the iconic company’s founder. Gorman is not Jewish, but his wife, Lisa, is.
Sheskin suggested that one reason Portland’s intermarriage rate is so high and its affiliation rate so low is that only 18% of the Jews in Portland are locally born. Portland natives who care about Jewish identity tend to move to cities that have a large Jewish presence, while those moving in to Portland don’t hold Jewish community as a high priority.
Intermarriage was not always what set Portland apart. The city’s Jewish community was founded by immigrants who came in the wake of the Great Portland Fire of 1866. In those early years, it gained a reputation for its Orthodoxy and cohesion and was nicknamed “the Jerusalem of the North.”
Portland also used to have a popular Jewish community center, but the building was sold in the early 1970s after Jews stopped facing exclusionary policies and began to integrate into the local community more fully.
“The study showed that we’re sort of a disjointed kind of community because we don’t have that sort of central hub,” said Emily Sandberg, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. “It’s clear to me that that is something that’s very much needed here.”
Today, the two largest congregations in town are Temple Beth El, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, and Bet Ha’am, a Reform congregation. All three major denominations are dwarfed by the 48% of Jews who consider themselves “just Jewish,” which is generally a sign of low Jewish identification. This, too, is the highest-measured rate in the country — well above the national figure of 30% identified in the 2000 NJPS.
Still, locals say that Jewish life in Portland is far from dead — and some even point to what they describe as a miniature Jewish renaissance.
One young resident has organized a social group for Jews in their 20s and 30s and their partners. The group gathers for potlucks, game nights and salsa lessons. Portland is also home to the well-regarded Maine Jewish Film Festival, which often draws more than 300 people to its opening night and sells out screenings regularly. And according Margolis-Pineo, the local Jewish groups have, of necessity, started to become better at welcoming intermarried couples to their events and bringing them into the community.
“What choice do they have?” she said. “If they didn’t, then there wouldn’t be very many people left.”