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Jewish Journal

The Impact of Intermarriage

by Julie Wiener

May 17, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Jewish women who are intermarried create much more Jewishly identified households than do Jewish men married to non-Jews.

But regardless of whether the mother is Jewish, most interfaith families -- even those raising their children as Jews -- incorporate substantial Christian celebrations into their lives, often including more Christian aspects as the couple and their children age.

And despite the conventional wisdom that intermarriage is inevitable in an open society, Jews whose parents encourage them to marry within the faith are more likely to do so than those whose parents do not express an opinion on intermarriage.

These are some of the assertions of a new American Jewish Committee (AJC) study on intermarried families in which the non-Jewish spouse has not converted.

Based on extensive interviews with 254 people from 127 households, the study offers a glimpse into how intermarried families -- particularly ones that are raising their children exclusively as Jews -- balance Jewishness with the competing pull of the non-Jewish spouse's background and family. The participants lived in New England, New Jersey, Denver and Atlanta.

But because it relies on information from a relatively small sample of families, and because it supplies ammunition to those strongly opposed to intermarriage -- including a national "inmarriage" coalition formed by the AJC -- the study likely will be greeted with skepticism from advocates of outreach to the intermarried.

The AJC says the study proves that "the dynamics of Jewish identity within mixed marriage are particularly ominous for Jewish continuity" and that the Jewish community needs to be more aggressive in promoting inmarriage.

Months before the study was completed, the AJC formed its coalition promoting inmarriage, and one of its members -- Jack Wertheimer, the provost of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary -- published an essay critiquing outreach to the intermarried in the March issue of Commentary magazine.

For years, Jewish leaders have divided into "inreach" and "outreach" camps on intermarriage -- those who say scarce resources should be used to strengthen the Jewish commitments of people already engaged in Jewish life as opposed to those who support efforts welcoming intermarried families and encouraging their involvement in the Jewish community.

Backers of inreach often argue that welcoming the intermarried actually encourages intermarriage by reducing the stigma of marrying outside the faith.

While the leaders have debated such issues, most American Jews have quietly grown to accept intermarriage.

Ten years ago the National Jewish Population Survey reported that approximately half of the American Jews who had married during the previous five years had married non-Jews.

This fall, an AJC survey found that half of American Jews believe opposition to intermarriage is "racist," while 78 percent think rabbis should officiate at weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

The majority of rabbis do not officiate at such weddings: Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are forbidden to do so, and -- according to a 1999 survey by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling -- 57 percent of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis refuse to do so.

The new study is written by Sylvia Barack Fishman, co-director of the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, a professor in Brandeis University's Near Eastern and Judaic studies department and a member of the AJC coalition promoting in-marriage.

It is one of the first "qualitative" studies on intermarried families, based not on survey data but on focus groups and interviews with what is believed to be a representative sample. While it covers a range of families -- including ones where both the husband and wife are Jewish -- the study focuses on interfaith families that say they are raising their children as Jews.

According to the study, those families often send more diluted messages about Jewishness as the children age. For example, many Jewish parents initially refuse to celebrate Christmas or Easter in the home but eventually compromise out of a desire to be fair to their spouses or because aging in-laws are no longer able to host Christian holiday celebrations.

Saying she does not want to be "rigid," one Jewish woman in the study tells how she hosts Easter dinner for her husband's family, even cooking ham for the occasion.

In attempting to balance the Jewish upbringing with the influences of Christian relatives, one family ended up insulting their Jewish-raised child, as the grown child reports in the study: "Now we would go there for Christmas, and my cousins would all be getting toys from Santa, and I'd be getting gifts from the dog because my Mom felt bad. From the dog ... because she [thought I shouldn't] get gifts from Santa. Like that's just outrageous."

The study also found that many non-Jewish parents eventually grew to resent their children's Jewish upbringing, though they initially had agreed to the concept. The resentment stemmed from a feeling of exclusion -- particularly when the child learned unfamiliar rituals and language -- as well as a general discomfort with organized religion.

Many non-Jews married to Jews also expressed discomfort with what they saw as the Jewish community's exclusivity and the idea of Jews being a "chosen people."

In addition to reporting on the family dynamics of the intermarried, the study also looks at the influence of parents on whether their children intermarry. It reports that 62 percent of the intermarried Jews said their parents had made no comments discouraging them from marrying outside the faith.

Roughly the same percentage of Jews married to Jews -- or to people who had converted to Judaism -- said their parents had discouraged them from intermarrying.

In addition, intermarried Jews who had grown up with several years of Jewish education, celebrating many Jewish holidays and having some Shabbat observance were more likely to raise their children exclusively as Jews.

Some of the other findings:

  • Approximately three-fourths of Jewish women married to non-Jews say they are raising their children exclusively as Jews, compared to slightly less than half of intermarried Jewish men.

  • While the majority of interfaith families, except those raising their children as Christian, celebrated Chanukah and Passover, other holidays were observed less frequently.

  • Interfaith couples discussed the religion of the household and potential children when the relationship got "serious," rather than waiting until they had married.

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