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.