Intermarriage: How Big a “Problem”?

Traditionally, the organized Jewish community has viewed the growth of intermarriage only as a problem, based on studies showing that intermarried families are considerably less Jewishly involved then their in-married counterparts. But JOI has long pointed out that many intermarried families are Jewishly involved and do raise Jewish children, so we have also seen the opportunities inherent in this decades-long trend.

Sociology is finally beginning to back up our optimism, thanks to two new studies as reported by Sue Fishkoff in a recent JTA article called, “Survey data spark debate over intermarriage picture.”

The first study, entitled “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Jewish Identity and Intermarriage” by Leonard Saxe, Ferm Chertok, and Benjamin Phillips of the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute, found that when the Jewish background of the Jewish partner is taken into consideration, “the difference in the Jewish beliefs and practices of inmarried and intermarried families becomes much less glaring.” The conclusions of the study, Fishkoff said, have profound policy implications. According to Saxe:

“The objective doesn’t have to be conversion but the creation of positive, rich Jewish experiences,” explains Saxe. “Jewish education, Jewish home experiences, Jewish camp, Israeli experiences – that’s what leads to engagement in Jewish life whether one is intermarried or not.”

“Intermarriage is not deterministic,” concludes Saxe. The second study, conducted by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and scheduled to be released next month, comes to the same conclusion. Gil Preuss, vice president for strategy and planning at the CJP, said they found that “intermarried families who have decided to raise their kids Jewishly look pretty much like other, non-Orthodox Jewish families.” He goes on to explain:

“This provides a basis for the notion that we need to create a community that welcomes them in, that says, look, there’s something good here – Jewish values, Jewish learning.”

According to our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky—also quoted in the article—that’s the point:

It comes down to what individuals believe will help them lead better, richer lives. “When you’re a parent,” Olitzky said, “you make decisions on the basis of what’s good for you and your family, not what’s good for the Jewish community.”

After that, it’s up to the Jewish community to create a more inclusive atmosphere for intermarried families and encourage their increased participation in Jewish life.

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