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The Intermarriage Exchange, Part 1: Are Jews Different?

by Shmuel Rosner

July 10, 2013 | 7:49 am

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (St. Martin's, 2005) and The Faculty Lounges ... And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For (Ivan Dee, 2011). Riley is also the co-editor of Acculturated (Templeton Press, 2010), a book of essays on pop culture and virtue. Ms. Riley's writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She appears regularly on FoxNews and FoxBusiness.

In part one of this exchange about her new book "'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America" (Oxford University Press, 2013), we begin discussing the reasons and characteristics of the growing intermarriage trend among American Jews.  

 

Dear Naomi,

I'm reading your book with both fascination and trepidation. Fascination - as it probably describes one of the most consequential transitions in American religious life, a transition that will surely have a huge effect on the community in which I'm most interested (namely, the American Jewish community). 

I'm reading it with trepidation since your book leaves little hope for change. That is, if one believes that it's important for the Jewish community to encourage in-marriage, one would find very little in your book to help promote this cause. On page 47 you have three tables in which we find no correlation between religious upbringing and the tendency to marry within a faith. "Childhood, religious experience, it turns out, are not very good predictors of who will marry out", you write in the previous page.

So I have three questions with which to start this dialogue:

1. Are you sure? I mean, there's plenty of data suggesting that Jews who attend Jewish summer camps- and those who attend Jewish day schools- don't intermarry as much as other Jews. 

2. Is it possible that Jews are just different? Your book presents strong evidence to the contrary - all Americans intermarry, Jews intermarry. Could there still be a difference?

3. If your data is solid, and your description is to be accepted as fact, what can a small and volatile community do to avoid eventual assimilation?

Thank you for your thoughts,

Shmuel

 

Dear Shmuel,

 

As you probably know from reading the book, my data is solid. I used a reputable polling firm (YouGov) and got a nationally representative sample of almost 2,500 people including an oversample of 400 members of interfaith couples. I even enlisted the help of one of the country's most prominent political scientists (David Campbell at the University of Notre Dame) to help with the analysis. That being said, I make clear in the book that the sample of Jews I got was not a statistically significant one. There were only 44 Jews in my sample. So my research does not undermine others' findings that day school and Jewish summer camp seem to have an effect on intermarriage rates.

That being said, I don't think Jews are as different from other religious groups in America as they often like to think. Assimilation is a trend that affects every group in this country. And I don't know that there's any strategy for ending that process. Nor am I sure it would be desirable to do so. The same things that make America the most tolerant country on earth are the things that produce assimilation. However, I do think assimilation is more of a cultural factor than a religious factor. Faith groups can thrive in America and even attract new members long after the cultural trappings have faded away. As my own former rabbi explains, “This is not 1950 where everyone spoke Yiddish and lived in the same Jewish neighborhood. This is America. It’s the most open society in the history of the world.” If you want to stop assimilating, nostalgia and gefilte fish are not going to cut it. You need a vibrant set of religious beliefs and traditions that will attract people.

My survey found that on average, the only thing that affected the likelihood someone would marry out was the age at which he or she marries. The older you are when you marry, the more likely you are to marry someone of a different faith. And Jews are marrying older and older. 

Some experts have noted this as a problem because they conclude (rightly) that the older you are when you marry, the fewer children you're likely to have. But this is also an issue because the period of what we now call "emerging adulthood" is commonly a time away from family, away from religious institutions, away from religious practice. So young adults are meeting their mates at their most secular time in life, sometimes a decade or even two since their last Jewish experience (especially if that is summer camp or day school). So it is not surprising that when they meet non-Jews, they don't represent themselves as particularly religious and they don't even think of their Jewish identity as a particularly important, let alone regular, part of their lives. 

I am not a rabbi or a therapist, but if I were to advise the Jewish community on ways to stave off this trend, I would say they should encourage young people to marry earlier. And they should focus on providing Jewish experiences to young adults in their 20s. The former is not a popular option because it's countercultural. Jews are for the most part in a class in America that thinks of marriage as something that should happen after one has had a time to go to college, graduate school, find a career, explore the world, date different people, etc. Most Jewish parents I know would not be thrilled if their junior in college came home and announced he or she was engaged. The latter suggestion is hard to execute too, though I think one reason that Birthright is successful in producing lower intermarriage rates is that the program is geared toward 20-somethings, people who are not as far from thinking about marriage. 

Best,

Naomi.

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