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The Larger Trend

For some in the Jewish community, it is very difficult to comprehend the rapid rise in Jewish intermarriage rates, from single-digits before 1960, to 30% in the 1970s, and approaching 50% in the 1990s to today. Sure, Jews are a special people…but in this regard (as in many others), they are also totally American. And intermarriage for every type of person in America has risen over the same period, between all religions (not just Judaism) as well as between ethnicities and races. A lot of it has to do with the Civil Rights that Jews were—perhaps ironically—so influential in winning.

A recent New York Times article with an appropriately Biblical headline—”When You Contain Multitudes“—discusses how this larger trend impacts on the children of interracial marriage. While Judaism is not mentioned, one of the young people featured in the piece is Jen Chau, whose mom is Jewish and dad is of Chinese heritage. We at JOI had the pleasure of working with Jen briefly when she was at the Jewish Multiracial Network. She is a remarkable activist, a co-director of mixedmediawatch.com and the executive director and founder of Swirl, a national non-profit organization that provides support to mixed race individuals. To us, she embodies the great potential among today’s generation of proud Jewish children of intermarried parents.

Once you see that Jewish intermarriage is part of this much larger trend and not an issue unique to Jews, and when you combine that with the movement away from traditional “Jewish neighborhoods” into farther-flung suburbs or cities with smaller Jewish populations, you begin to understand how the arguments by some within the organized Jewish community for “fighting intermarriage” becomes more and more futile.

It is not just that Jews are “choosing” to intermarry, and therefore if we simply affect the Jews we can affect the intermarriage rate; it’s that Jews are deeply engaged in American society, and American society is choosing to intermarry!

After a quarter-century of high intermarriage rates, and the near-equal number of intermarried households to in-married households already on the ground, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that Jewish intermarriage is here to stay. The key to creating a Jewish future of growth rather than decimation is in finding ways to engage intermarried households and other newcomers into Jewish life. To date, the Jewish community has done a miserable job overall of reaching out, because in general the political will to do so is simply not there among much of our leadership. All of the highest-profile programs of Jewish “continuity” are undergirded by the hope that they will lead to more in-marriages. Instead, JOI has a new vision.

Let’s remove intermarriage as the defining issue of Jewish continuity and put all our focus on the raising of Jewish children. Because intermarriage doesn’t end Jewish continuity, not raising Jewish children ends Jewish continuity.

That will require us to proudly hold up as models those intermarried households who have created strongly-identified Jewish children. It will require us to tell Jen Chau’s dad THANK YOU. You are a hero to the Jewish people, because you helped create a strong Jewish identity in your child, and because you pushed through an unwelcoming Jewish community to make that happen. We need to make sure that in the future, people like Jen and her dad only encounter positivity from the Jewish community. That’s how we’re going to keep them engaged: by providing a meaningful, welcoming home.

Jewish “peoplehood” is hard to define, but it’s not just a religion, and it’s certainly not an ethnicity. What “peoplehood” means to Jews in the 21st Century is up to all of us to define.



5 Comments

  1. As a Chinese person who married a Jewish man, I agreed with many of the points raised in your article. I converted to Judaism and have raised my kids to appreciate both their cultures - Jewish and Chinese. They have attended Jewish studies and Hebrew classes since SK and my oldest son will be barmitzvahed next year. Some Jews look at our family as oddities. Some Jews dont’t regard us as Jews. Some Jews have embraced us. It matters little to us how other people look at us. My kids have a strong Jewish identity; they have embraced their Jewish and Chinese traditions. Life is good!

    Patricia Wong
    Toronto, Canada

    Comment by Patricia Wong — April 20, 2006 @ 6:34 pm

  2. Since Judaism is a religion, there is no such thing as a Jewish race. People can be converted from outside the faith. However, the above situation is sadly an exception - not a rule. Based on the 2005 studies conducted by Jewish Heritage Institute - only 18% of children born in a Jewish interfaith households identify themselves as Jews. The rest do not. One can only hope that similar situations happen out of true belief and faith in God - not out of love for a man or woman. Love fades away, and if the couple no longer stays together - is there really a point to keeping the Jewish faith (assuming it was initially done to be with the person one loves and nothing else)? Who do the children marry when they grow up - do they value their Judaism and continue to marry Jews, or just like one of their parents do they give up their faith for another just to be with someone they love at the moment? Those are all valid questions……

    in the Torah G-d commands the Jews that were just brought out of Egypt not to intermarry the children of other nations, since that will lead Jews to lose their ways. One can only hope that the descendants of intermarried Jews stay Jewish.

    Comment by Matvey Chaban — September 3, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

  3. Matvey,

    Thank you for your comments. I certainly agree with your final line about hoping the descendants of intermarriage will be Jewish. I guess I’m more optimistic than you about this actually happening, though, based on the rest of your post.

    Do you have a link to that Jewish Heritage Institute study? If it’s this, I’d ask you to also examine some other sources. The statistic showing that just “18% of the children of intermarriage are being raised as ‘Jewish only’” relies on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which does not include the huge wave of children born to intermarried families since the Jewish community started to make any real effort to embrace and educate them (though that effort still needs work).

    If you look at the follow-up to that study, the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, you’ll find the corresponding number has risen to 33%. Better, but still not great.

    However, what is not explained by this number (or your original 18%) is what it means to raise children as “both” or “nothing”—and where those kids end up. In an embracing Jewish community, I believe we get a lot of them back. And an interesting statistic in the 2001 NJPS may demonstrate this. If you look at slide 27 of this PDF, which is part of the NJPS sub-report about Jews on college campuses, it found that 45% of self-identified Jews came from intermarried households. That’s a huge percentage. I certainly don’t think you can continue to suggest that 45% is the “exception to the rule” when the “rule” is only 48%! (see the slide)

    But you can find statistics to back up almost any argument, just like you can find some kind of Talmud ruling to suggest leeway on any particular issue. The bottom-line question is this: What do we do about the fact (and it’s a fact) that there are more people in North America under age 20 born to intermarried parents than in-married parents? At JOI, we say that we must find ways to welcome, engage, and include them in the Jewish community — and that those ways will also be of interest to many other people as well, including disinterested Jews born to two Jewish parents (of which there are plenty!).

    Thanks again,
    Paul

    Comment by Paul Golin — September 4, 2007 @ 11:45 am

  4. hi-i am jewish/caucasian and have been married for 36 years to an hispanic(puerto rican/honduran)lady-we have a grown son and daughter,both married-my wife was raised catholic and converted-to protestant-her family hardly noticed and could’ve cared less-my son and daughter were raised protestant-my daughter is active in that faith,but my son is like me-he doesn’t follow a particular religion-i haven’t been to a jewish service since i was in vietnam in 1969,but i identify as a jew since that’s what my family identified as-i have a granddaughter who is black/native american on her mother’s side and will be raised baptist-i agree that most children of mixed jewish/non-jewish marriages don’t follow the religion-and that may be due to the whole concept of matrilineal descent determining the “jewishness” of an individual-i don’t know the reason and as far as i’m concerned it’s ridiculous-people who’ve hated jews throughout history never seemed to have made that distinction-i must admit that i have little contact with the jewish community where i live and my wife has virtually none with the hispanic community-we tended to make friends through our jobs or outside interests-as i think about it,most of the relatives i know of are or were intermarried-in my parents’ generation it was an issue-for mine(i’m 61)it wasn’t-this may be because i can’t think of any orthodox or even particularly observant people in my extended family-my daughter looks like she could be of almost any background,while my son looks basically hispanic-all his friends are hispanic or black-my daughter’s friends are more diverse-her husband is scotch/irish/french-i even have two younger cousins who had a jewish father and a mohawk mother-one of them married a puerto rican man and they have three children of a very unusual background-the other one lives on a reservation and married another mohawk-i am just telling this story here because as it turned out i didn’t have to look very far to find examples of the general tendency of people of all types to intermarry more frequently than in the past

    Comment by joe bernstein — September 11, 2007 @ 9:59 pm

  5. Hi. I’m a writer and I’m doing a story on Jewish intermarriage, especially with the Asian and Chinese cultures. If you are a Chinese woman with a Jewish husband, boyfriend, partner or a Jewish man with a Chinese wife, girlfriend, partner, I would love to talk to you about your experiences. Please contact me at j2lai@ryerson.ca. Thank you.

    Comment by Jodi — March 19, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

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