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Are We More Than Just A Category?

In 1964, preeminent sociologist Marshall Sklare published an article in Commentary magazine titled “Intermarriage and the Jewish Future,” sounding an alarm at a time when only 7.2% of married Jews had non-Jewish spouses. Even though Sklare and most Jews of his time viewed intermarriage as a one-way ticket out of Judaism, the conventional wisdom of the time held “that the threat of the problem has been surprisingly well contained in America.” But Sklare saw this complacency as deeply misleading.

More than 40 years later, our whole orientation to the subject of intermarriage is different, and not only, as Sklare foresaw, because has there been a dramatic rise in intermarriage. American Jewry no longer sees itself as particularly immune from or resistant to intermarriage. But it is also the case that intermarriage itself is no longer equivalent to leaving the Jewish community, as it once appears to have been.

The latest occasion for this current stocktaking is the remarkable finding from the recently released 2005 Boston Community Study that fully 60% of the children in the region’s interfaith families are being raised Jewish, nearly double the national rate reported in 2001. There will be much debate about how to explain the Boston results — indeed, on this page last week three well-known researchers argued that the study’s findings are not particularly exceptional among local studies — but the upshot is that we are “not in Kansas anymore” regarding the causes and consequences of intermarriage.

Intermarriage was once thought to be the slippery slope of decline into total assimilation and Jewish disappearance. But the Boston case suggests that there are other possible outcomes. The Boston community deserves credit for its visionary approach of welcoming the intermarried while also emphasizing serious Jewish education. But let us not overlook the significant ways that today’s America differs from the societal milieu that Sklare encountered.

At one time, say in the 1940s, intermarriage was hard to do, for it meant leaving the Jews and joining the gentiles at a time when Jews were one of the disadvantaged minorities in America. It involved traversing a “bright boundary,” according to sociologist Richard Alba: Jews and gentiles just didn’t mix. To do so required an act of will, either on the part of the individual or by the individual’s forebears, to deliberately step away from Jewishness into the broader society.

At that time, to marry out was to risk, in a sense, a brush with death, as in one’s parents threatening to sit shiva. In this context the rate of intermarriage remained very low through the 1960s, after which it increased sharply, so that by 1985 and continuing into our time, about half of Jews who were marrying wed partners who were not Jewish. What factors led to this sudden increase? Foremost was a shift in the contours of the American mainstream — the bright boundaries between various white ethnic groups became blurry in Alba’s terms, and intermarriage itself became more commonplace. That is, mixing has become a default condition, based on the increasingly integrated settings where people work, play and typically find mates.

So for a tiny minority like American Jews, marrying a non-Jew has become widespread enough that one might say that a Jew who ends up marrying another Jew shows some choice, arising from greater Jewish immersion and commitment, more than one who intermarries. And we’d have to add that the intermarried couple that raises its children as Jewish also shows evidence of deliberate choice and commitment.

The second major change that makes intermarriage today very different is that the credit rating of Jews as a group in American society has radically improved in comparison to its valuation half a century ago. Many people with previously hidden or partial Jewish backgrounds are now open to, and even seek out, their Jewishness. They have become truly interested in Judaism, indicating that there is no longer a unidirectional pull away from Jewish life.

In this context, intermarriage does not in and of itself rule out a serious Jewish life; that depends on social climate as well as the individual’s and family’s commitments. It’s time to realize that intermarriage isn’t the major threat. Rather, it is indifference — viewing one’s heritage as simply a fact of one’s background, without a sense of its power or potential as a guiding force — that is the more fundamental problem. The irony of our hyper-focus on intermarriage is that it has kept us focused on the boundaries, and distracted us from the more important issues of meaning.

Are we a tribe that cares only about race and blood, or are we also about commitment, values, belief, and practice — is there something beyond mere category membership? Likewise, what matters most to the Jewish community — going through the motions, striving to retain our numbers and protecting our flank, or addressing the content and force of our community’s commitments?

Can we be about something more than just ourselves? If we are only for ourselves, what are we?

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.

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