Is Intermarriage On The Decline?

Is Intermarriage On The Decline?

Google Alerts, you have failed me!

Last week, sociologist Bruce Phillips argued in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal’s “Demographic Duo” blog that intermarriage actually declined between 1990 and 2000, the period in which the Jewish establishment was in the midst of a continuity panic attack.

I only stumbled upon his interesting post today, after Google belatedly alerted me to a follow-up post from demographic researcher Pini Herman, the duo’s other half.

According to Phillips, the National Jewish Population Surveys of 2000 and 1990 measured intermarriage in a “problematic” manner inconsistent with the way “the larger field of demography” measures interracial (and presumably inter-ethnic?) marriage. This, he says, made for misleadingly high intermarriage stats.

I don’t entirely understand the basis for his argument, but the gist seems to be twofold: 1- To accurately measure trends, Jewish researchers shouldn’t have included second and third marriages, because it “mixes in the first marriages of 30 year-olds with the second marriages of forty and fifty-somethings.” 2- Marriages of half-Jewish individuals should not be included, because in measuring interracial marriages, demographers typically “eliminate mixed-race” persons, due to uncertainty about “which racial category applies.”

Adjusting accordingly, Phillips re-crunched the numbers and found that intermarriage rates dropped from 40 percent (in 1990) to 30 percent (in 2000) among Jews with two Jewish parents.

Removing persons “of mixed Jewish ancestry” makes a huge difference, since, according to Phillips, this group has since the 1960s “consistently married non-Jews at rates exceeding 80 percent.”

And of course, as Phillips notes, what’s happened between 2000 and now is anyone’s guess, since the Jewish federations opted not to continue sponsoring the once-a-decade national population survey and no one else has stepped into the breach.

To what extent any of this information is useful, I am not sure. Will it lead, as Pini Herman suggests in his follow-up blog, to a flurry of Jewish organizations attempting to take credit for the reversal? Does it distract from the focus on engaging interfaith families, as the Jewish Outreach Institute's Paul Golin argues in a letter to the editor?

Will it encourage the statistics-is-destiny crowd to step up their railing about intermarriage being the single greatest threat? After all, Phillips’ new analysis highlights just how less likely children of intermarriage are to marry Jews than are products of in-marriage. Of course that is hardly surprising, given that many children of intermarriage are not raised Jewish, while those who are raised Jewish rarely see intermarriage as taboo or as an obstacle to pursuing a Jewish life.

Or maybe we are (I hope) moving to a post-intermarriage-studying world, one in which who Jews marry is deemed a less important measure of engagement/identity and overall communal health than other metrics like how people self-identify, their level of Jewish literacy, whether they participate in Jewish activities and so on.

One sign that we might already be moving in that direction: I just wrote about a new study of Jewish teens — commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York and conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center — which, miraculously, does not ask one question about intermarriage/interdating attitudes! Instead, it asks what percentage of one’s close friends are Jewish, asks participants to describe their level of involvement in Jewish activities and gets them to discuss how important (or not important) various aspects of their lives, including Judaism, are to them.

Interestingly, the major finding of that study is that a group of teens whom conventional wisdom might expect to become Super Jews — kids who’ve had a bar/bat mitzvah, whose families belong to a synagogue and are overwhelmingly (96 percent) from homes in which both parents are Jewish — still seem to rank Judaism relatively low on their list of priorities.

Asked to name the extracurricular activity in which they are “most involved,” only 7 percent identified a Jewish activity, trailing the list behind sports (42 percent), artistic endeavors (20), school-based clubs like debate (18) and service/advocacy (13).

In addition, when asked to identify all the things that are “very important” to them, only 51 percent chose “have a strong Jewish identity,” 41 percent chose “be involved in a Jewish community” and 30 percent chose “lead a ritually observant life.” In contrast, over 90 percent chose “have good friends,” “do well academically” and “get into a good college.”

Their responses weren’t so different from those of their (predominantly in-married) parents, who also were surveyed: Jewish things consistently appeared at the bottom of their “very important” lists as well.

Now that I’ve stuffed you with statistics, I hope you will go out and have a happy Thanksgiving with your friends and family, whether they are Jewish, not Jewish or a mix thereof!

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