Tracking Jewish Journeys

In catching up on my Forward newspaper reading, I came across a fascinating article by social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz from March 11th about how people’s Jewish involvement changes over time. By examining how survey respondents compare their current levels of Shabbat observance now to when they were children, and how important being Jewish is to them now compared to childhood, she identifies an even split among Jews between “Movers” and “Stayers,” that is, between those whose Jewish identities have “morphed” over time and those whose identities have remained stable.

She writes that “Typically, Jews have been conditioned to forecast any changes in Jewish life as being in the direction of ‘down and out.’ But in fact, one of the most noteworthy realities of being Jewish in America today is the sense that one’s life could lead in any number of directions — and not necessarily in the direction of disengagement and rejection.”

Although not mentioned in her piece, this is certainly as relevant for intermarried Jews as for any others: the Jewish journey continues. In our work we’ve seen how many Jews find a deeper connection to their heritage brought on by their intermarriage, because they are—sometimes for the first time—confronted with their Judaism. Often, it is related to decisions about raising children. It would be interesting to see the breakdown between intermarried Jews among her categories of “Movers” and “Stayers.”

The print version of the article also had a graph that Dr. Horowitz created, which we’ve scanned in and posted here. It’s especially interesting and perhaps ominous to note that while the breakdown of “Movers” and “Stayers” has remained around 50% through four generations of American Jews, among the “Stayers” the percentage who have had “steady involvement” continues to shrink while the percentage who have had “steady lack of involvement” continues to rise (the top and bottom parts of each bar in the graph).


  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you so much for finding this piece, making it and the graph accessible to this site’s readers, and for your comments on it: exactly what’s needed!

    Or at least a start towards it, since what we really need in its wake is, as you say, “the breakdown between intermarried Jews among her categories of ‘Movers’ and ‘Stayers.” Do you think you/JOI could ask her about this, to see whether she has data on it? (If not, can JOI do that analysis or get someone to do it?)

    Because I think that the information derived from such an analysis–particularly if it were correlated with movement affiliation (where we can use that affiliation as a shorthand for or factor correlated with that movement’s policies on intermarriage and the intermarried)–would be a really powerful persuasive tool for showing people that just being negative about intermarriage isn’t going to produce the bright Jewish future they want to see.

    You and I clearly believe that the dominant current cure (stigmatizing intermarriage) is worse than the disease (which is _not_ intermarriage itself but the disruption of Jewish continuity). But it would be great if we could run the numbers to try to prove it.

    This kind of data-based overturning of the conventional wisdom is exactly what makes economist Steven Levitt so famous & makes his his bestselling book with Stephen Dubner (whose memoir _Turbulent Souls_ I commend to everyone), _Freakonomics_ (see so persuasive and intriguing.

    Comment by Becca — June 9, 2005 @ 8:57 am

  2. …but if you do run the numbers and find that the increasing group with a “steady lack of involement” is coming primarily from the ranks of the intermarried and their offspring, will JOI rethink its position?

    More than likely, JOI will say this calls for a “redoubling of efforts” to reach out to the intermarried, regardless of data which we have that already suggests merely sending your Jewish child to a Jewish day school and high school is virtually a guarantee that they will marry Jewish and continue their Jewish line.

    Mind you, I’m not saying we shouldn’t reach out to the intermarried…we should. But I’ll take an investement with virtually guaranteed returns any day over the one with proven diminishing returns over generations.

    Comment by marc — June 9, 2005 @ 3:12 pm

  3. 1) Marc, hon (as we say in the South–not meant condescendingly!), I don’t work for JOI. I just like them, so far. And so have commented on their work. So: when you say “you” at the start of your post, are you talking to me? Or to JOI? ‘Cos we’re not the same, and I don’t speak for them. Just to them.

    2) Why don’t you wait and see what JOI says, if you’re talking to them? Or what I say, if you’re talking to me? Stop putting words in my mouth or theirs. Ya wanna know what I think, wait and ask me.

    3) Ya wanna take this outside? (i.e. off-blog) I mean our li’l ongoing disputation. Because I don’t think you’re really bothering to make careful arguments that are worth spending blog bandwidth taking up.

    4) Do you have some kind of grudge against JOI? Because you’re really spending what seems to be an inordinate amount of time & verbiage energetically but sloppily arguing against what they say.

    If you’re willing to engage in reasonable debate instead of bogus Karnak-like predictions of what your opponents would say in some situation that hasn’t arisen yet, I’ll be happy to look into what stats I have or know about–and invite you to do the same!–and discuss them with you, on blog or off.

    As your last point, so insultingly put, I’ll say it One More Time:

    My parents are intermarried. My father is not Jewish.
    My husband was not born Jewish; the year before our wedding [7 years into our relationship] he chose to become a Jew–but if he hadn’t, I would still have created an active and knowledgeable Jewish household with him.
    My kids will have one Jewish grandparent and 3 non-Jewish ones.
    Diminishing returns, my eye!

    And even more so: guaranteed returns, my eye!
    You clearly don’t understand the distinction between correlation and causation:
    if having attended Jewish day school is highly correlated with marrying Jewish, it doesn’t mean that A CAUSES B: they could both be caused by something else (i.e. C, having a strong Jewish affiliation and commitment to Jewish life), so sending your child to day school is not “virtually a guarantee that they will marry Jewish and continue their Jewish line.” Nor have I seen any data saying that all day school graduate have kids, which is what I’d darn well want to see before I would write that day school guarantees “continu[ing] their Jewish line.” Procreation may be a mitzvah (or even obligation, traditionally seen to be incumbent on men, remember, not on us ladies, on the grounds that halacha can’t _require_ someone to endanger her life as women do in childbirth), but that doesn’t mean that day school diploma is an automatic ticket for chuppah + Jewish babies.

    Comment by Becca — June 16, 2005 @ 10:48 pm

  4. More importantly, Marc’s comment (and, truth to tell, my response above) doesn’t adequately address the specific question I was asking and the data that would be needed to answer it.

    That question was not just about where the bulk of the intermarried fall on that chart, or whether, as Marc puts it, “the increasing group with a “steady lack of involement” is coming primarily from the ranks of the intermarried and their offspring.” It was about what trends or groupings could be discerned from analyzing that data–which would include, but not be limited to, looking at the “Stayers” with “steady lack of involvement” that Marc singles out.

    My mother and I are intermarried & offspring respectively, and are both among the “Movers–Increasers” group. I would guess, as I imagine Marc would, that we are not the majority. But data could tell me what size group we are, even if we’re not the biggest. (For example: I know the that my mother is among approximately 1 in 7 Conservative synagogue members with a spouse who is not Jewish: 14% is not a lot, but it is a lot more than 1% or 2%–one or two of every hundred shul members!) Perhaps it could also tell us what factors correlate strongly with such an outcome for the intermarried & their offspring.
    (Not causation, remember! For example: synagogue membership [which we have] or day school education [which we didn’t] might both be highly correlated, within the group of intermarried + offspring, with being a “Mover-Increaser”: but the fact that Mom & I are members of & involved with our synagogues may well be as much a _result_ of increased practice/involvement as a _cause_ of it, though the 2 are happily related in a virtuous circle [the term used for opposite of “vicious circle” in such feedback loops]!)

    More on stats & data in a moment! -B

    Comment by Becca — June 17, 2005 @ 2:37 pm

  5. What would be persuasive here on the point that I was interested in above–i.e., whether stigmatizing intermarriage or outreach to the intermarried produces more successful Jewish outcomes in general _or_ from within a particular movement (depending on what you wanted to look at in your data analysis)–would, I think (but I am not a sociologist! or a demographer!), be if the data turned out to show things like:
    • more intermarrieds disaffiliated from a particular movement or left Judaism altogether than stayed in it, when the movement is one whose policies have generally stigmatized intermarriage (when also showing a statistical difference betwen the #s in that case and the #s for more liberal movements whose policies are defined as non-stigmatizing in our analysis [how we decide to define those terms would be a matter potentially to be argued]
    • or that a large number of those who were Stayers-High Practice/Involvement and/or Movers-Increasers among the intermarried left the Conservative and Orthodox movements for Reform (which is, statistically, where the majority of raised-Conservative Jews who switch go*) and other movements whose rhetoric and policies on intermarriage have been likewise more welcoming (Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist).

    I’m not saying that the data WOULD say those things: I’m saying that those kinds of statistical information would be what’s needed to take us all out of the realm of “I think it’s like this” and “I think it’s like that” into the realm of significant demographic knowledge.

    *Data from 1990 NJPS giving percentages for those raised Conservative who have changed to another denomination (or religion):
    2.1% Orthodox
    58.9 Reform
    4.3% Reconstructionist (note: twice as many as to Ortho!)
    11.4% “Just Jewish”
    10.5% Other
    12.8% Christian

    Source: Table 2.12, “Denominational Changes of Conservative Jews,” in “Conservative Jewry: A Sociodemographic Overview,” Sidney Goldstein & Alice Goldstein, in _Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and their Members_, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 86.

    It’s worth noting what that chapter’s data has to say on both intermarriage AND conversionary marriages (where one partner was not born Jewish but converted) as they correlate with denominational switching to/from Conservative Judaism:

    “The data on intermarriage show that the in-switchers have particularly low levels of mixed marriages, with only 15% married to a non-Jewish spouse** compared to one-quarter of the stayers. Notably more of the in-switchers are in conversionary marriages than either the stayers or the out-switchers. Of those who left Conservative Judaism, half are married to a non-Jewish spouse, and many of these no longer consider themselves Jewish. Our findings thus suggest that switching is very often related to intermarriage, and quite likely is the direct result of intermarriage. If intermarriage levels continue at the high levels characteristic of the 1985-90 marriage cohort, then losses can be expected to continue at equally high levels unless some kind of direct and successful intervention is developed.”

    I would love to see data to try to confirm or deny the hypothesis I suggested above with specific reference to non-Jewish spouses who convert _after_ marriage (I know personally many in this position, but anecdotal evidence is not the same as statistical evidence!)–that is, who are among “intermarried” couples at the start of their marriage and then are part of a “conversionary” marriage later on.

    **Becca’s note: this is almost exactly the same rate as for Conservative synagogue _members_ (14%) in the previous chapter of the same volume (see p. 61, presenting data from 1995 Ratner survey).

    So, as with my being interested to know that my mother is among the 1 in 7 Conservative synagogue members who are intermarried, I would be interested to know how much or little statistical company she and I have as intermarried/child-of-intermarried individuals who are Mover-Increasers–in the white “Increased practice, increased involvement” on the graph, which has GROWN in every generation (as has its opposite, the grey “steady lack of involvement”)–in Horowitz’s terms.

    And particularly how much or little company we have in being among those in the group who still affiliate Conservative (not something JOI needs to care about specifically: I’m interested because it’s my movement!)

    All the surrounding data I know of suggests that most of the intermarrieds in this group have largely been found leaving Conservative Judaism for movements to the left of it. I don’t know what it would say about children of intermarriage like me, but obviously if the parents reaffiliate Reform I’m likely to be raised Reform, so I would expect again I’m a likely minority.

    I would also expect to find more such children in the Conservative movement who are children of an intermarried Jewish mother (like myself) than of an intermarried Jewish father for several reasons:

    1) In the past, the rates of intermarriage in the Conservative movement have been higher for men than for women, though the gap has closed over time and is now at 40% for both (according to data in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s recent _Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage_)–but current demographics on the children will reflect the earlier numbers, with more intermarried male Jews than intermarried female Jews. (We need to keep this time-gap effect in mind whenever we are analyzing current data and especially when trying to extrapolate to the future: people often say, “If present trends continue, X will happen” [the Jewish people will disappear, the world will starve,*** etc.]–but we need to know a fair bit about context to decide whether it’s likely that “present trends will continue,” or which ones, or how!)

    2) Conservative halacha does not accept the child of a Jewish father as having the same Jewish status as the child of a Jewish mother: the former would have to be taken to the mikvah while the latter would not. This is not necessarily an insurmountable practical barrier, but it does both act as a practical barrier _and_ has the potential to give the impression to many such intermarried couples/their children that they are being rejected by the Conservative movement, particularly if a Conservative rabbi or other Conservative Jews are not sensitive with what they say and how they say it. If a rabbi says, “your child’s not Jewish” rather than “under current halacha, your child would have to go to the mikvah in order to have the same status that children of a Jewish mother have/be a ‘citizen’ in the halachic Jewish community in the same way”–which may still seem arbitrary and unfair as policy to them, but less loaded when presented in the language of citizenship issues than in those of “Jew”/”not a Jew,” particularly when that raised-Jewish child IS a Jew in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism without the citizenship-rectifying move of mikvah!

    *** This was doomsayer Paul Erlich’s reiterated argument, despite being repeatedly proved wrong & famously bested in a 10-year bet by Julian Simon, who took him up on the idea of betting on such outcomes after Erlich had said, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” (See — or, if you have access to the NYTimes’s archives, John Tierney’s excellent article “Betting the planet,” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 2, 1990, p. 81)
    Luckily [or not, for Anglophobes?], England is still with us in 2005…

    Full disclosure: I worked with Julian Simon (z”l/of blessed memory) in the summer of 1993, on historical data re: education. Our work appeared under his name and mine as “Trends in the Quantities of Education: USA and Elsewhere,” in _The State of Humanity_, ed. Julian L. Simon (New York: Blackwell, 1995) and as (somewhat updated) “Trends in the quantities of education: A pictorial essay,” in _Economics of Education Review_, 1997, vol. 16, issue 1, pages 69-80. He was a real mensch.
    And so maybe I do know a little something about statistics and data analysis, even if Jewish demography isn’t my field and I’m about to be an assistant professor of literature (they don’t make you turn in your math/stats brain when you sign on for a humanities PhD, after all!)…

    To that end, here are the Goldsteins’ chapter’s stats from the NJPS on intermarriage as analyzed by denomination of respondent:

    in 1990 NJPS, total %s who reported selves being married to a non-Jew:

    Reform: 38%
    Conservative: 21% [higher than the 14% above from 1995 Ratner survey, which is narrowed to Conservative synagogue MEMBERS, as opposed to all who self-identify with a given movement whether or not they belong to a synagogue of that or any stripe]
    Orthodox: 7%

    in 1990 NJPS for marriages between 1985 and 1990, the % are:
    Reform: almost three-fourths
    Conservative: just under half
    Orthodox: one-fourth

    Of which the authors write: “This pattern is directly related to attitudes toward intermarriages; a much larger proportion of Conservative Jews are opposed to it than is true among the Reform, with the Orthodox most strongly opposed.” (p. 73)

    Note that they correctly identify only correlation (”related”) not causation (”caused” or “is the result of”): we don’t know whether to attribute this outcome to:
    • the attitudes of the individuals in these movements (which is the one they mention overtly)
    • the policies of the movement and/or the halachic decisions of its legal bodies (questions of politics and structure and law, not of directly of personal viewpoint as above)
    • reaffiliation to the left by those who feel uncomfortable with the views (option 1) or policies (option 2) on this point of the movement in which they started

    Above I gave the evidence for option #3 re: half of the Conservative Jews who went to Reform being those who are intermarried. The Goldsteins also give some data here that suggests that issues of rhetorial stance or cultural acceptance may be at play as strongly as those of halacha:

    “Notably more of the in-switchers [to Conservative Judaism–75.6% from Orthodox, mostly decades ago as part of a generational shift] are in conversionary marriages than either the stayers or the out-switchers” (87).

    Once a non-Jew has fulfilled the halachic requirements for conversion, she or he is just as Jewish as anyone else. But the data show that, of those who switched here (3/4 of whom went from Orthodox to Conservative), more of them had spouses that had converted. Their flight from Orthodoxy was unlikely to be purely a halachic matter, because the converted spouse is a Jew. I would suggest that the cultural and social norms of their Orthodox communities at the time they left them–not the halacha itself in those communities–may have been the most powerful push factor driving them to leave. (One might suggest Conservative’s mixed seating as a potential “pull” factor for not separating a perhaps more tentative or isolated not-Jewish-born spouse from his/her partner while at synagogue.)

    Comment by Becca — June 17, 2005 @ 4:03 pm

  6. In other words, the question I’d like to get some statistical and/or analytic sociological data on is,

    for those intermarried Jews who, following the 1990 NJPS data, constitute fully HALF of those who left Conservative Judaism for some other denomination or faith:

    did they jump?
    or were they pushed?

    And to also try to answer it for the Jewish community at large.

    I think groups like JOI are trying to put out a net, or trying to talk them down from the ledge before they go over & out. (Marc seems to disagree and think that it’s a group that continues to put them in danger by not saying strongly enough that suicide is bad.)
    Despite being intermarried, or a child of intermarriage, my mother & I didn’t fall off, or jump, or let anyone push us. And I’m sad and sorry when I see other Jews or their families going this way–because I think there are other options–options that I’ve lived, and that I continue to live every day as an observant Conservative Jew whose mother is Jewish and father is not.

    I’m not telling any one not to reaffiliate to a different Jewish denomination, or even to a different faith–if that’s what they truly want, love, believe, embrace. But not if they walk away angry from something that still had much to offer them, just because they never heard the voices that could have made the difference.

    Comment by Becca — June 17, 2005 @ 4:18 pm

  7. And 2 quick points, esp #1 lest I be misunderstood!:

    1) The “did they jump or were they pushed?” question came first–and then the rest of the carrying through of the language, including what the analogous position to Marc’s would seem to be in this context, which is all meant to be be taken not as literal fact but as a very limited analogy about being in (which in fact we tend to value, when we’re in the “in” group, and which we may mourn as some sort of loss when people are “lost” to us by going “out”) vs. out, whether that’s denominationally among Jewish groups or between Judaism and another religion. NOT saying that leaving a particular denomination or Judaism itself is tantamount to death or suicide: I’m carrying through the analogy for what I acknowledge is, yes, something of a provocative or audacious effect, but I hope you’ll understand it in the spirit in which it is meant. Or that even if you think it’s a bridge too far, you’ll understand that you’re disagreeing with my rhetoric rather than fall into taking what I’ve said there _literally_.

    2) Note in the NJPS data cited above that one-quarter–one in four!–of marriages between 1985 and 1990 involving someone who self-identified as an Orthodox Jew were to a non-Jew. About a 25% intermarriage rate.

    That’s a lot, relatively speaking. That’s higher than the overall rate of 21% for self-identified Conservative Jews. Much higher than the 15% rate for those who switched from outside Conservative Judaism (75% of whom were coming from Orthodoxy, remember) to inside it. Or than the 14% rate for Conservative synagogue members.

    Again: the NJPS data on denomination here comes from self-identification by participants–not synagogue membership, standard of observance, halachic qualifications, or anything else . Just as the % for Conservative synagogue members (14%) is lower than that for all self-identified Conservative Jews in the survey overall (21%), I would expect this approx. 25% for all self-identified Orthodox Jews to be lower among surveyed Orthodox synagogue members. (And perhaps someone reading this is aware of what those #s are and will tell us here on the blog? More data is a good thing!)

    So intermarriage isn’t just a phenomenon of the left. The rates in those recent Orthodox marriages are similar to ones in the progressive movements several decades ago. So we’re all in this together, just at different points in the sociological trajectory of the phenomenon–not the curse, not the blessing, but the neutral fact or phenomenon, though construed by detractors as the former and partisans as the latter–of intermarriage.

    Shabbat shalom!

    Comment by Becca — June 17, 2005 @ 5:11 pm

  8. Wow, Becca, you’ve said a lot here. Sorry I’ve been away for some time, but I’ve finally had a chance to look over all your well thought-out remarks.

    As to your first post in response to me, I was merely taking your suggesting and, it is true (please don’t shoot me for it) making what I believe to be a reasonable prediction of both what the data might show and what the JOI response to it would be. It wasn’t meant as an attack on you, though you seem to have taken it that way. Additionally, if you can point out a sloppy argument I’ve made anywhere on this blog and have not agreed to re-phrase, I’d be appreciative for it…no need to get nasty about it, though. We’re both out for the truth here, we just maybe have a different idea about what it will wind up being after the research is done.

    Secondly, I don’t have a grudge against the JOI. I don’t think you have to have a grudge against an organization to come to the reasoned decision that their philosophy is fundamentally bad for the Jewish people. I’ve told Paul repeatedly that I firmly believe the JOI could do a lot of good for our community, by reaching out to intermarried families which are demographically situated like yours (though yours happened to be one that didn’t need “reaching- out-to”) where the wife is Jewish and the husband is not. Their children will be Jewish according to all streams of Judaism and so a concentrated effort to make sure these children are raised Jewish can be supported across the board. When it comes to convincing parents to raise non-Jewish as Jews, I think its sketchy at best b/c it’s basically proselytizing and creates problem for marriage down the line into families that define a Jew differently (yes, I admit it, I hold that children who are not halachically Jewish are not Jewish, but only b/c it happens to be true, not b/c I harbor any resentment or ill will toward such children or their parents…I believe your own Conservative movement holds the same way). I know more than a few couples where this issue has come up. Certainly we can agree that just b/c you choose not to intermarry, it doesn’t make you a bad person, so let’s not create more problems for ourselves down the road.

    Regarding your family, I don’t see how I was insulting. You are IN FACT, part of a Jewish demographic (intermarried family) that is increasingly dropping out of Judaism intergenerationally. If not for families like yours scattered throughout North America, I dare say the statistics would bare out much worse even than they are now. I’m happy to debate intellectually, but please extend me the same courtesy. Facts, of themselves, are not insulting, regardless of whether they apply to you personally.

    Regarding the research itself, however, i think we are in complete agreement. More information and more integrated studies using larger populations, and better methods to gather information are always welcome. I think we can learn much that way.

    I also agree that just b/c some things correlate it doesn’t mean there is a causal relationship. I spoke out strongly against the Birthright Israel program when it was lauched (to Mr. Bronfman himself in Rochester, NY several years ago) b/c it took data showing that Jewish kids who had been to Israel had stronger Jewish identities and a stronger connection to Israel. They took raw data which correlates those things and made no inquiry into why that was. My guess was that for some kids, it is causal, but that for many, if not most, they have parents to whom Israel and Jewish identity is very important (though, I can’t prove this b/c nobody did the inquiry). Also, i think to be realistic, you have to take the Orthodox out of the stats…they are strongly linked to Israel as are their kids, whether they have been there or not. Though a small % of the kids, they may represent a large chunk of those connected to Israel, thus skewing the stats.

    I don’t think that means, though, that we cannot ever posit what might be the “cause” (I posited that it was Jewish Day Schools and parents making Judaism a priority and have never seen in print a refutation…to the contrary, everyone seems to agree, but calls it “unrealistic”…of course if we don’t allocate the funds or encourage people to alter their behavior, that is true!). Finding the causes is both of our goals. If it’s Jewish education, then let’s beef that up; if it’s synagogue attendance, let’s do that; if it’s more gefilte fish, let’s go for it; and if, as is most likely, it is a combination of providing a sound Jewish education and positive Jewish experiences, then let’s start working on that. I just wish the leadership within the Jewish community or those who hand out tons of grant money to the JOI and like-minded orgs were as interested in actually finding the truth than in positing their own ideas without ANY evidence (JOI says “raising kids Jewish” even if they are not halachic Jews will do the trick). Then maybe we could start addressing the problems of our community.

    Regarding the intermarriage rate of the Orthodox, my gut (not evidence) tells me you’re right that the number is lower than the study indicated. Most devout Jews would probably not respond to such a survey, and certainly wouldn’t volunteer to (for various reasons). I wish I could remember where I saw the stat that among very religious (haredi) Jews, the rate was below 1% while among the Modern Orthodox it was b/t 5-10%. Depending on the % of more religious (growing each year) that intermarriage rate should actually go down each year, but, like I said, I cannot recall where I saw the study.

    All in all, though, I agree with your concentration on
    neutral facts (to the extent they can be). I think this is the best way to find out the truth and use statistical science for the betterment of the Jewish community and not just to gain political advantage over one another.

    Shabbat Shalom,


    Comment by Marc J. — July 15, 2005 @ 4:37 pm

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