At a Crossroads : Culture: A new study triggers debate on whether intermarried Jews and their children should be wooed back to the community.
What happens to the children of intermarriage when they leave the faith?
That question is dividing Jewish leaders as they consider their response to a new study.
“Why should the Jewish community put its effort and money into strengthening the tenuous Judaism of people who call themselves Christians?” asks Rela Geffen Monson, a Pennsylvania sociologist.
“If you want to kiss those kids goodby, that’s your choice,” answers Egon Mayer, a Brooklyn College sociologist. “If they happen to be my grandchildren, I’m not kissing them goodby.”
The debate follows the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, believed to be the largest study of Jewish American population trends.
Among its most important findings are that 52% of Jews who married since 1985 have Gentile spouses, double the 26% figure of the last such study, 20 years ago.
The report also says 72% of children in intermarried families are being raised with no religion or a religion other than Judaism. It also says that 90% of children of intermarriage are marrying non-Jewish people.
The telephone survey of 2,441 homes, covering more than 6,500 people, was released in June, but scholars delved deeper into the data at a recent conference at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Despite the findings, few, if any, scholars and leaders predicted the demise of Judaism.
“I didn’t meet anybody (who thought) like that,” said Barry A. Kosmin, a sociologist who directed the study for the nonprofit Council of Jewish Federations in New York. The study estimated that there are 5.5 million Jews in the United States.
“The positive side is that there are 8.2 million people who are Jewish or living in the same households with Jews who are influenced by Jews, and that’s quite clear. . . . Economically, educationally and politically, those non-Jews living or married with Jews look like Jews increasingly.” Yet almost everyone at the conference found the data sobering.
The report “poses an unprecedented challenge to the modern American Jewish community,” said Mayer, one of the foremost experts on Jewish intermarriage.
He said the question is whether American Jewry would “retain its organizational strength (and) its cultural vitality into the 21st Century.”
Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs for the American Jewish Committee in New York, said he is startled by the number of children of intermarried families reared outside Judaism.
“The implications remain to be seen,” he said. “But certainly for those being raised in some other faith, say Catholicism or Protestantism, for all intents and purposes, that’s a loss.”
About 31% of the children of Jewish-Gentile couples were being raised with no religion. About 60% of intermarried Jews said that, at some level, being Jewish is important to them. That gives Jewry two options, the leaders said.
“One is to strengthen the core Jewish population and to invest all available resources in that,” says Carol Karsch, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.
The other, she said, is to strengthen ties to Judaism for intermarried adults--and their children--if they retain an interest in Jewish life.
Bruce Whizin, a philanthropist from Sherman Oaks, favors the second course.
“I have four children that all married outside (the faith),” he told conferees. “Last year one of my sons called and said we haven’t had a Passover Seder in a couple of years. Can we do that? . . . Frankly, there were (religious) parts of that Seder I wasn’t too happy about. What I was happy about was that it was at their instigation. Now the grandfather part of me has a little hopefulness.”
Sociologist Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College developed data from the study that helps explain intermarriage. “In the 1940s and 1950s,” Phillips said, “Jews who were most successful had a harder time finding other Jews who were of the same social status. When they wanted to marry someone within their class, they ended up with non-Jews.
“Now we’re finding the opposite. Jews have been upwardly mobile. Jews who haven’t kept up have been left behind.”
The fourth generation is a key to the survival of American Jews, Phillips said. Waves of immigrant Sephardic Jews in Colonial times and German Jews around the 1840s both generally disappeared by the fourth generation.
“Now, 100 years after the (third group of) Russian Jews immigrated to this country in 1881, the Jewish community is weakening, but it’s not disappearing,” he said.
It is hard to know how to use these findings, conferees said.
“In the past century the central challenges to Jewish survival have been framed by pogroms, the Holocaust, the rebirth of the state of Israel and the salvaging of remnant Jewish populations in beleaguered lands,” Mayer said.
In the United States, however, the threat comes from a society so open that Jews can become anything they want, including adherents of other religions.
“If there’s a threat to the Jewish community, it is less from external forces than from the homogenizing forces of an incredibly exciting and attractive society,” Mayer said. “It’s a lot more fun than most of what the Jewish culture has to offer.”
Mayer favors reaching out to intermarried Jews and their children. Anti-intermarriage campaigns have failed, and marriage to Gentiles is “an inevitability for the vast majority of American Jews,” he says.
Reform synagogues have organized most of the outreach programs and offer education for children, workshops for adults and counseling for potential converts.
To reach out more effectively, Jewish community centers and other agencies must become involved, Mayer said.
Bayme argues that among traditional Jews, prevention is still an efficient tool. Although there is an 85% to 90% intermarriage rate for children of intermarried parents, he says, among children of two Jewish parents, the figure is 30%.
No matter what approach the Jewish community takes, the report will force leaders to look at intermarried couples and their children differently, Phillips said.
“On the one hand they are marrying Gentiles. On the other, they don’t perceive that this has excluded them from the Jewish community or that they are leaving the Jewish community,” Phillips said. “It’s people who are real involved in the Jewish community who tend to see it that way.”
* Jews married to non-Jews
* Children under 18 in Jewish-Gentile households
Raised Jewish: 27.8
Raised in no religion: 30.8
Raised in other religion: 41.4
* Jewish practices in Jewish-Gentile households
Attend Passover Seder: 62
Light Hanukkah candles: 59
Contribute to Jewish charity in: 1989: 28
Light candles on Sabbath: 19
Membership in synagogue: 13
* Rate of mixed marriages by region
* Rate of mixed marriages by education level
High school: 64.0
Some college: 58.8
College graduate: 47.7
Advanced degree: 37.0
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.