Ḥanukkah, and its message of resistance to Hellenization and assimilation, is soon upon us, and certain other American holidays are close on its heels. It's safe to say that many American Jews - especially the intermarried - are experiencing some version of the annual December Dilemma. (The prominence of Christmas in America was the theme of one of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption's controversial videos, to which I wrote a brief response earlier in the month.)
Last month, we looked at marriage generally in the Jewish world. This month, when lines between Jews and the Christian majority shine brightest, we're highlighting our holdings that illuminate the topic of intermarriage. As we shall see, American Jewish communal writings on the topic extend way back over a century or more.
American Rates of Intermarriage
Intermarriage rates have grown exponentially from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1980s, and crept upward since then. The 1915 American Jewish Year Book showed that very little intermarriage existed even between native-born American Jews and Jewish immigrants, let alone Jews marrying outside the group. Even as late as 1970, Arnold Schwartz, synthesizing available data, found single-digit intermarriage rates, looking at total married couples involving Jews. But he noted that the rates were increasing substantially among the young.
Writing for the Journal of Jewish Communal Service in 1973, Gerald B. Bubis noted that the 48% of recent marriages involving Jews (those contracted between 1966 and 1972) were intermarriages, a "couple rate" that translates into the individual rate reported by Egon Mayer and Carl Sheingold. Writing in 1979,they reported that during the same period the individual rate was 32%. (They also found that until 1960, the individual rate of Jewish intermarriage stayed well below 10%, rising during 1961-1965 to 17%.) By the turn of the millennium, according to the 2000-2001 NJPS, 43% of the Jews who married between 1985 and 1990 married non-Jews. In 2005, Bruce Phillips examined the long-range impact of intermarriage.
A 1987 Sh'ma article by Bernard Raskas stated that in certain parts of Europe, the rate of intermarriage is close to 70%. In 2003, Lars Dencik reported on his findings of intermarriage in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. He concluded that out of those members of the Jewish communities that are married in Sweden, 31% live with a non-Jewish partner; in Finland, 51% of the married respondents live with a non-Jewish partner; and in Norway, the corresponding figure is 43%. Data are also available for Mexico and Venezuela, France, South Africa, Australia, and, from 1977, Melbourne and Milan.
Factors Contributing to Intermarriage
In 1977, Dov Lazerwitz noted an intermarriage gender gap: 10% of the adult Jewish men were intermarried, as compared with only 3% of Jewish women. Indeed, minority men often lead their female counterparts in marrying out of the group in early stages of assimilation. In 1985, Bruce Phillips examined five factors associated with intermarriage: age and generation, migration, gender, remarriage and socioeconomic status. Sylvia Barack Fishman wrote in 1991 that women and men have widely varied in their respective intermarriage rates; in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Jewish men had an intermarriage rate at least twice that of Jewish women, a ratio that could not be sustained over time, especially as intermarriage grew in frequency. In 1993, Carmel Ullman Chiswick noted that whereas only 9% of those who first married prior to 1950 had non-Jewish partners, more than half of those first married since 1980 have outmarried (i.e., where born-Jews marry born-non-Jews, not taking into account those who may have converted).
An anonymous letter-writer in 1978 complained that, living in a medium-sized Southern town, he felt he had to consider dating Gentile women. Jonathan Rabinowitz produced data to substantiate the prevalence of that phenomenon in 1989, finding that even though the communal involvement of Jews was higher in smaller Jewish communities, intermarriage rates were also higher. In terms of predicting intermarriage on the aggregate level, zip codes (Jewish residential density) generally trump affiliation (Jewish communal engagement).
Communal Responses to Intermarriage
A 1929 article written by Ludwig B. Bernstein discussed the relationship between social service agencies and intermarriage. After polling fifty federation executives, Bernstein found a consensus that intermarriage runs counter to the spirit of Jewish communal service and that intermarriage may be discouraged as case-working policy, depending upon circumstances. A 1965 Conference on Intermarriage examined the matter from the perspectives of case work, higher education, sociology, and a religio-ethnic viewpoint. In 1967, Benjamin R. Sprafkin wrote about the role of the Jewish family agency with intermarriage. He believed that direct opposition to the intermarriage on the part of a social worker is ineffective in obtaining the result of the Jewish partner breaking off the engagement. He hoped to diminish intermarriage by stimulating Jewish clients to reevaluate their basic values and goals.
In a 1971 article by Cynthia Ozick, she stated that "nearly every marriage to a non-Jew by a Jew is a private repudiation of what the Jewish person believes to be 'Jewish values,' and such repudiation is always to some degree anti-Semitic in its roots". In 1976, Allen Maller discussed what he called "The Sexism of Intermarriage." In 1982, Bernard Farber and Leonard Gordon wrote an "Accounting for Intermarriage," complete with profit and loss balance sheet. In 1986, David Jeremy Zucker wrote about his support group for mixed-married couples. The most common issues mentioned by the couples included how to raise the children, how to celebrate the holidays, and the question of the afterlife.
The AJC's Steven Bayme reviewed Changing Perceptions of Intermarriage in 1990, arguing that a new focus on conversion was the proper response. Three years later, he joined Avis Miller and Janet Marden in exploring "Approaches to Intermarriage: Areas of Consensus." Lavey Derby called for a cooperative partnership between synagogues and federations to meet the needs of unaffiliated or intermarried couples. In 1994, Mark Sirkin wrote a two-part series on clinical issues in intermarriage.
The same year, I speculated "Why Intermarriage May Not Threaten Jewish Continuity." Three years later, I examined "Intermarriage and the Jewish Future," and argued for outreach to the moderately affiliated. In 1996, Jack Wertheimer, Charles S. Liebman and I argued that the Jewish community ought to focus its resources on the core of affiliated Jews, rather than on the peripherally affiliated, such as the intermarried ("How to Save American Jews"). (Jack recently struck a similar note in the Jewish Week, arguing that the UJA Federation of New York's new initiative to reach out to interfaith families is based on faulty assumptions). By 2006, in contrast to my 1994 speculative position, I wrote in "A Tale of Two Jewries" that "intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today, both on an individual level and on a group level." In 2008, I sought "a Third Way to Respond to the Challenge of Intermarriage", seeing myself as an "empirical hawk" and a "policy dove." In other words, because the challenge of intermarriage on demographic and cultural grounds is so severe, the Jewish community needs to address the phenomenon through building Jewish social networks, intensive Jewish education, invitations to convert, and outreach.
That same year, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston released a report on intermarried families, drawing upon the data from the 2005 Boston Community Survey. This report made the startling claim that, "intermarried families choosing to raise their children as Jews are deeply engaged in Jewish practice. In what are widely seen as traditional Jewish ritual practices, intermarried families with Jewish children are generally as observant as inmarried Jewish families..."
In 2007, Jonathan Sarna explored the issue of intermarriage in American historical context. The following year, Leonard Saxe, Benjamin Phillips and Fern Chertok pointed out that "It's Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah", and that other factors also play important roles in the Jewish socialization of children. Kerry Olitzky argued in Sh'ma for "Lowering the Barriers and Raising the Meaning." In 2009, Edmund Case urged Jewish institutions to make explicit welcoming statements for interfaith families. This year, the most recent impact study of Taglit-Birthright Israel found lower rates of intermarriage among Birthright participants than among non-participants.
As is true every month, our newsletter presents only a fraction of the resources available on this topic. Click here for a full list-out of our 259 articles on intermarriage. Also, browse BJPA for resources on Jewish continuity, demography, and more. New this month: browse by date, publisher, or publication name.
Whatever dilemmas you face this December, I wish you and your extended social networks a happy New Year, and a Ḥanukkah sameaḥ, ḥag urim sameaḥ, or a freylikhe khanike - as is your preference.
With best wishes,
Prof. Steven M. Cohen
Director, Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner