Surveys of the American Jewish population have never failed to elicit panic over intermarriage.
In response to the first National Jewish Population Study in 1970, an Intermarriage Crisis Conference convened in New York. Two decades later, after the second NJPS put the intermarriage rate at 52%, some called it a “Second Holocaust.”
But a new statistic in the latest survey of American Jews may undermine the notion of intermarriage as an existential threat. According to the Pew Research Center’s “Jewish Americans in 2020” study, released Tuesday, the intermarriage rate has remained steady at about 60% — but the progeny of such relationships are increasingly identifying as Jewish.
Among Americans older than 49 with one Jewish parent, the survey found that roughly one in five (21%) identifies as Jewish. But that number jumps to nearly half (47%) in the 18-49 age range.
Highlighted in the overview of the 248-page document, the finding arms those fighting for greater acceptance of interfaith families with evidence for their contention that marrying a non-Jew does not threaten Jewish continuity nearly as much as stigmatizing those families does — and that three decades of effort to counteract that stigma have made a difference.
And they are hoping that in the Conservative movement, whose rules ban its rabbis from performing interfaith marriages but whose members are deeply split on the subject, the data will advance the cause for change.
“We’re seeing the dismantling of the continuity crisis narrative that started 50 years ago and has held the American Jewish community in a vice grip,” said Keren McGinity, a Brandeis University professor who has written two books on the history of American Jews and intermarriage. “There’s a growing awareness that it only takes one Jewish parent to raise Jewish children.”
And as many advocates for mixed-faith families point out, it’s often the non-Jewish parent who is the catalyst for Jewish connection, driving kids to Hebrew school and researching Jewish camps.The study does include fodder for skeptics. First, even the higher rate of transmission of Jewish identity for offspring 18-49 of intermarried couples (that 47%) is dwarfed by that of endogamous, or in-Jewish, marriages (94% in the same age group). Second, the survey suggests that intermarriage is much more common among children of intermarriage. Third, most grown children of intermarriage considered themselves Jewish in an ethnic or cultural sense, but not a religious one.
Meanwhile, Orthodox Judaism, which forbids intermarriage and whose adherents tend to be those most vocally against it, is not just maintaining its numbers — with a rate of intermarriage smaller than the survey’s margin of error — but growing.
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, the Orthodox director of NJOP (formerly the National Jewish Outreach Program), which runs programs for unaffiliated Jews, was hardly swayed by the survey. Even if Judaism is sticking for more children of intermarried couples, he said, the lack of religious identity prevalent among that cohort means it is only a matter of time — maybe another generation or two — before its descendants leave the tribe.
Buchwald said that without ritual observance, an essential part of Jewishness is lost.
“It’s like a person smoking cigarettes, 3 or 4 packs a day, and saying they won’t get cancer,” Buchwald said. “Without that literacy, without that pride, you can’t maintain that Jewish identity.”
Those advocating for greater acceptance of intermarried couples say comparing them to endogamous couples misses the point: regardless of one’s opinion of them, they are here to stay.
“Interfaith families aren’t a drop in the ocean,” said Jodi Bromberg, the head of 18Doors, a nonprofit that offers programming for interfaith couples. “They are the ocean. If you leave them out in the cold, you’re leaving more than half the Jewish population out in the cold.”
Bromberg, who considers intermarriage a positive outcome of life in an open society, said the study’s finding did not surprise her. But she said there is a long way to go across denominations before they can be truly inclusive of intermarried couples, and that the legacy of stigmatizing them continues to be borne out in the religious experience of their children.
Even within Reform Judaism, whose rabbis have performed interfaith marriages since the 1980s, Bromberg said interfaith couples can be made to feel out of place through policies that exclude them from ritual participation or board membership. And she noted that Hebrew Union College, which ordains Reform rabbis, does not accept candidates for seminary with a non-Jewish spouse.
“It’s exactly that type of attitude that will push people away from Jewish connection,” said Bromberg.
The question of intermarriage is perhaps most vexing for the Conservative movement, which has gradually become more permissive on matters of halacha, or Jewish law, over the past 100 years.
The Pew study reports that 53% of Conservative Jews — a movement of about 1.3 million people — say rabbis should perform interfaith wedding ceremonies. That’s now forbidden, and the policy may not easily be overturned.
The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, explicitly prohibits performing intermarriages as one of its four standards of professional conduct — though a 2018 update to those standards refrained from taking a stance on attending those weddings as a guest.
A few rabbis, including Adina Lewittes, have left the Rabbinical Assembly over the issue. And some synagogues with roots in the Conservative movement that are now non-denominational, like Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, allow intermarriage ceremonies.
There is little wiggle room on the matter in ancient Jewish law. The Talmud, citing Deuteronomy, states outright that a marriage to a non-Jew is inherently invalid.
The Conservative movement has historically been open to reinterpretation of Jewish law, usually to contend with the realities of modern life. But Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a Conservative synagogue, said reversing the ban on intermarriage would not constitute a reinterpretation of ritual law, but a dismissal of its authority entirely.
He drew a contrast with gay marriage, which the Conservative movement began allowing in 2012. In that context, even if the Jewish laws around marriage are being reinterpreted, he’s still presiding over a marriage in which both men are subject to Jewish law. That would not be the case at an interfaith wedding.
“It’s not even changing the halacha,” Wolpe said. “It’s saying that it has no place in the ceremony, because no understanding of ‘k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael’” — an expression by which the officiant declares the couple wedded under the law of Moses and Israel — “has any standing here.”
McGinity, the Brandeis professor, also advises the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the major congregational organization of Conservative Judaism in North America, on interfaith issues. She said the movement is closer to making sweeping changes than people might realize, and pointed to its 2017 decision to allow non-Jews to become members of Conservative synagogues as a promising sign.
Even if the movement were to decide to permit intermarriage, Wolpe said he still would not officiate at these weddings. “It’s always been my understanding that intermarriage is not in the interest of maintaining the Jewish people,” he said. “If it’s true, then it would be contrary to the mission I’ve given my life to.”
As for Pew’s findings on the children of intermarried couples, and the nearly half of those between 19 and 49 who consider themselves Jewish, Wolpe said he would have to examine the data more closely — though it would not resolve his halachic concerns.
Holding the line on intermarriage — not only on performing the weddings, but also not allowing non-Jewish family members to be called to the Torah at b’nai mitzvah — has cost him friends and congregants, he said. “It’s against self-interest in a lot of ways,” he said, “so I know I really believe it.”