Going all the way back to the first National Jewish Population Survey of 1970-71, no finding has elicited more disputation than the “intermarriage rate.” The world of Jewish demography typically measures intermarriage using a different metric than is typical among demographers that study interracial marriage. The report of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which used all current marriages, found an unrelenting increase in intermarriage.
This approach is problematic (and out of synch with the larger field of demography) for three reasons. First, using current marriages eliminates marriages that have dissolved. Second, demographers look at first marriages as the best way to measure trends. By including second and third marriages in the intermarriage rate, the NJPS report mixes in the first marriages of 30 year olds with the second marriages of forty and fifty-somethings. Third, demographers typically eliminate mixed-race persons from the measurement of interracial marriage because they are not sure which racial category applies. In this case of the Jews, this means persons with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. Persons with one Jewish parent are apples to the oranges that are persons with two Jewish parents.
So how would intermarriage look using the more typical metrics found in demography? Figure 2 uses first marriages only so that comparisons across time periods are consistent and meaningful. It also differentiates between the first marriages of persons of mixed Jewish ancestry and those of persons with two Jewish parents. Since the 1960s, persons of mixed Jewish ancestry (the top line in figure 2) consistently married non-Jews at rates exceeding 80 percent. Intermarriage among persons with two Jewish parents shows a different pattern: the intermarriage rate leveled actually decreased in the 1990s among Jews with two Jewish parents.
How could that be? Was this just a statistical fluke? Maybe not: A closer look revealed that more of them were exposed to Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, Jewish youth group, and/or a trip to Israel than their counterparts who married for the first time in the 1980s. The best confirmation of this finding would be a 2010 NJPS that could show whether or not this trend held up ten years later, but that is not to be. The Jewish Federations of North America have decided that questions such as these are either not important or not part of their “national leadership” portfolio.
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