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.”