An Intermarriage Antidote?

Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University recently released a study titled “Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices.” He looked at 1500 Birthright alumni who went or applied for the trip from 2001 – 2004 and found that the program leads to a “deepening attachment to Israel and commitment to Jewish family.”

That sounds like pretty good news. Young Jews who go on the trip come home with a stronger sense of their own Jewish heritage. But that general notion of Jewish identity was usurped in the media by one piece of data, summed up by a headline in the Wall Street Journal: “Jewish Marriage Tied to Israel Trip.”

According to the Journal, the study found that “72% of those who went on the trip married within the faith, compared with 46% of people who applied for the trip but weren’t selected in a lottery.” JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin looked at this piece of data and found that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Statistics can be a tricky thing. Writing in the Forward, he explains:

There are always two numbers to look at regarding intermarriage: the percent of Jews who are intermarrying (the “individual rate”), and what the results of those marriages mean in terms of actual households created (the “couples rate”).

Imagine there are only four Jews in America, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Let’s say that Bob and Carol intermarry and Ted and Alice in-marry. Since two of the four Jews intermarried, the “individual” intermarriage rate is 50%. But how many couples were created? Bob and Carol both married non-Jews, creating two households. But Ted and Alice married each other, because an in-marriage requires two Jews, which creates just one household. The result is three households total, with two intermarried and one in-married, or an intermarried couples proportion of two-thirds.

When intermarriage is explained as “almost half the Jews are intermarrying” — in other words, just offering the individual rate for what’s been happening in the United States for the past quarter-century — the word “half,” as huge as that may seem, actually serves to mask the results. The reality on the ground is that nearly double the number of intermarried households has been created compared to in-married households.

Golin points out that there is a “nuance behind the headlines” in this new report, such as how there is an “increased desire to raise Jewish children among all participants, including children of intermarriage.” Therefore, looking at Birthright as a panacea that “prevents intermarriage would be disastrous, potentially alienating the very people who benefit most from the program.”

Birthright is the largest and possibly most successful outreach program for Jewish youth today, particularly children of intermarriage. “Unfortunately,” Golin writes, “the focus on Birthright participants’ low intermarriage rate reignites our collective tendency toward insularity, the temptation to try to create a closed community. The real cure for 21st-century Judaism is to move beyond ethnic definitions and open our tradition, culture and learning to all who would find meaning and value in joining us.”

1 Comment

  1. I strongly agree with Paul Golin’s article in The Forward. Here is a “comment” that I wrote on it, expressing my own concerns about a claim in the report that Birthright Israel reduces the amount of intermarriage among half-Jewish people.
    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest organization for adult children of intermarriage, I question the statistics in this study.

    In March 2009, Birthright courageously released a report showing that its trips are essentially a failure — only a very tiny percentage of Birthright trip participants start visiting Jewish communal institutions regularly after they return from the trips.

    I thought it was very brave of Birthright to release the report.

    Many Jews were shocked, as millions of dollars are spent on Birthright, and it is presented as a cure-all for disaffiliated younger Jews and intermarriage.

    Here is the link to that report:

    Birthright got a lot of flack for this.

    Now Birthright has released a new report based on surveys of people who went on these trips between 2001 and 2004, which claims that the Birthright trips are a success.

    The new report claims that people return from the trips as pumped-up Israel advocates, zealous Jews, and avoid intermarriage:

    The report claims that children of intermarriage are less likely to intermarry if they go on these trips.

    I would expect a large sample of adult children of intermarriage to back up such a major claim.

    But I can’t find anywhere in the report a figure for the number of children of intermarriage who actually went on these trips.

    The only lengthy mention of adult children of intermarriage made me immediately suspicious of the report’s claims:

    “Participants with intermarried parents were over three times more likely to be married to a Jew than nonparticipants with intermarried parents. Although statistically significant, the estimates for nonparticipants are based on extremely small cell sizes: Among married nonparticipants, there were only 19 cases with intermarried parents, of which 14 were intermarried and 5 were inmarried.”(page 27).

    Let’s see — a total of 21,649 people went on these trips between 2001 and 2004. The study interviewed of these 1,223 participants, who were compared to a smaller population of “nonparticipants.”

    If the Birthright study features only 19 married nonparticipants who were adult children of intermarriage, there cannot have been very many adult children of intermarriage on these trips at all, certainly not enough to make such a major claim about their marriage trends.

    I atttempted to locate the number of children of intermarriage who went on these trips, and was referred by the study to an online appendix located at:

    But when you arrive at that link, there is only the report text, not the appendices.

    I must respectfully be skeptical of the findings of this report, until I can see actual figures on the adult children of intermarriage who went on these trips.

    Sincerely, Robin Margolis

    Comment by Robin Margolis — November 7, 2009 @ 3:13 am

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