Is Intermarriage Really the End of American Jews?
In 1990, American Jews decided they had no future.
That was the year when the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) revealed that more than half of America’s Jews, 52%, were intermarried.
Intermarried couples weren’t raising their children Jewish, according to the NJPS survey, so it was assumed their grandchildren wouldn’t be Jewish either. It was only a matter of time before American Jews disappeared.
“A second Holocaust” is how one group of Orthodox rabbis described what was happening.
Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz warned that Jews were “in danger of disappearing.” Intermarriage was a “threat to our survival as a people.”
It hasn’t turned out that way.
Recent surveys by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Pew Research Center show that 7.6 million Americans identify as Jewish, a 35% increase since 1990.
Immigration by Jews from the former Soviet Union, Israel and elsewhere accounts for some of the increase.
But the other principal cause is intermarriage.
According to Pew, about two-thirds of intermarried couples raise their children Jewish. In a typical intermarried family — one Jewish parent and two kids — this means the Jewish population doubles in a generation.
Intermarriage boosting the number of American Jews was not a scenario many doomsayers imagined possible.
To be sure, some scholars remain pessimistic about American Jewry’s future.
They argue that, although the children of intermarried couples identify as Jewish, they lack the commitment to Jewish learning and culture that previous generations held.
But Len Saxe, Brandeis’ Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies, sees it differently.
“Judaism and Jewish culture are flourishing. American Jews express their Jewishness in diverse ways. But for most, it is a valued part of their identity.”
When the NJPS study on intermarriage appeared in 1990, Barry Shrage was three years into his 30-year tenure as head of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.
He says the typical reaction to NJPS’ findings was a combination of panic, despair, and rage at the Jews who supposedly abandoned their religion. The consensus was that Jews should do everything possible to prevent interfaith marriage.
Shrage, now head of Brandeis’ Initiative for Jewish Identity, urged another strategy: Make them feel welcome.
CJP now included a message encouraging “the participation of interfaith families, couples and significant others” in all its activities in its correspondence and invitations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, other Jewish organizations and the Reform Judaism movement also grew more accepting of interfaith families.
In 2013, Pew released another survey of American Jews showing nearly two-thirds of intermarried couples were now bringing up their kids Jewish.
In a 2017 article, Brandeis University’s Saxe and several colleagues attributed the transformation, in part, to “the more welcoming and inclusive attitudes and practices toward intermarried families by Jewish organizations.”
For more than two decades, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) research associate Keren McGinity has studied what motivates Jews who intermarry to raise their children Jewish. She’s found the decisive factor is the mother’s wishes.
In earlier generations, women who married outside their faith had less influence in determining their children’s religion. But, as McGinity states in her 2009 book, “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America,” feminism empowered women to bring their kids up as Jews.
The most recent Pew Report, out in 2020, found that children of intermarried parents whose mothers are Jewish were 1.86 times more likely to be raised exclusively Jewish than those whose fathers are Jewish.
But Sylvia Fishman, Brandeis’ Joseph and Esther Foster Professor Emerita in Judaic Studies, says intermarriage has put American Judaism at risk of becoming bland, superficial, and meaningless.
She says the generation of American Jews she began studying more than two decades ago experienced a profound connection to Judaism.
“They felt their Judaism in their kishkes,” she says, using the Yiddish word for “gut.”
But, Fishman says millennials, especially those who grew up in intermarried households, have a much more superficial commitment to Judaism.
As a result, she says, the number of Jews may not be dropping, but “Jewish culture is fading from a large segment of the Jewish population.”
But HBI’s McGinity, who also serves as interfaith specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, remains optimistic.
She cautions against pessimism. Judaism has a remarkable staying power in the face of threats far greater than intermarriage.
Despite past predictions of Jewry’s demise, the reverse happened.
Right now, she says, “we’re in a renaissance.”