It was just a few years ago that the Jewish community was collectively wringing its hands over increasing rates of intermarriage. Now, a new study is reassuring the community that maybe things aren’t so bad after all.
According to a study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, young couples consisting of one Jewish and one non-Jewish spouse are far from lost to the Jewish community. In fact, the majority of intermarried couples feel welcome in the Jewish community, a far cry from what would have been the case 10 or 20 years ago.
“There was a time when parents would sit shiva, metaphorically or otherwise, if a child married a non-Jew, and that situation has changed,” said Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center and one of the authors of the study. Today, Saxe said, “young couples know that they are welcome.”
The study, conducted in 2017, included 1,128 young couples, 607 of whom included two Jewish members and 521 of whom included one Jew and one non-Jew. The participants in the study were recruited by Birthright participants who had been involved in previous studies. The sample for the current study is not random and is not representative of American Jews or intermarried Jews as a whole.
According to Saxe, religious engagement as a child served as a reliable predictor for religious engagement as an adult. But Jews married to non-Jews showed lower rates of Jewish engagement compared to Jews married to Jews who had grown up with the same level of Jewish engagement. “Your background is clearly important in terms of predicting your level of engagement but there’s still a difference depending on whether you married a Jew or a non-Jew,” said Saxe. “It’s hard to know exactly why that is but we see it.”
Jews who were married to non-Jews were also more likely to have been the children of intermarried parents themselves. While 80 percent of Jews married to non-Jews had two Jewish parents, 57 percent of Jews married to non-Jews had a non-Jewish parent.
Calling the report “Beyond Welcoming,” the authors encouraged Jewish communities and organizations to do more than welcome intermarried couples. Saxe said that years of focus on welcoming intermarried couples, especially in the Reform and Conservative movements, had largely proven successful. He noted that the number of millennial children of intermarriage who identify as Jews has doubled compared to the previous generation. “The challenge is how do you not just welcome people but truly engage them, educate their children, engage them in serious Jewish education,” said Saxe.
The study also examined the choice of a Jewish officiant at a couple’s wedding. Of couples in which both spouses were Jewish, 85 percent were married solely by a Jewish officiant. Of couples in which one spouse was not Jewish, 22 percent were married solely by a Jewish officiant while 6 percent were married by a Jewish officiant as well as another officiant. Nearly six in 10 were married by a non-religious officiant. Only 3 percent tried to find a Jewish officiant but could not find one that would agree to perform the marriage.