The Passover Test

What the Passover Seder reveals about interfaith couples.

Passover seder table

A professional-looking woman in her 30s walked into a Maryland synagogue a couple of weeks ago, searching for someone to give her some advice. She is Jewish, married to a Catholic fellow, and they are “very relaxed about religion,” as she chose to put it. But the kids are starting to ask about God. Since his family took them to church several times, she has decided to start bringing them to a Passover Seder, a feast marking the night when the Israelites were saved from slavery in Egypt and became a people. Maybe, she asked the executive director of this temple, you have a Seder to which I can come with the kids, so that they’ll have a first positive exposure to Judaism?

But the executive director gave her advice she didn’t expect: If this is your children’s first encounter with Judaism, don’t start by bringing them to a Seder. It is long, can be boring at times, and requires a lot of reading. Better start their schooling in Judaism with a lighter practice.

The American Jewish community has been obsessed by the roots and implications of interfaith marriage—that is, a Jewish person with a non-Jewish spouse—for more than a decade and a half. About half of Jewish Americans choose to marry non-Jews, a reality that was seen, until recently, as devastating for the shrinking minority religion. Now, it is increasingly cause for debate between the “intermarriage optimists,” who think that the trend could help the Jewish community grow in numbers, and the “intermarriage pessimists,” who think that it will just lead to lowering the entry bar to Judaism, watering down the faith.

Some new studies have fueled this intermarriage debate in recent months by addressing the two major concerns of the pessimists: They show a community that’s growing in number, thanks to intermarriage, without watering down the faith—or so it seems.

Intermarried Families and Their Children,” a study out of Boston, shows that many of the area’s intermarried couples are dedicated to “raising Jewish children”: Nationally, approximately 30 percent of interfaith couples raise their children Jewish, while the Boston community keeps them Jewish at a rate of 60 percent. A follow-up study from the same source concluded that interfaith couples who claim Judaism as their religion of choice practice it in ways very similar to those of other “inmarried” Jewish families (specifically, Reform Jews).

Five traditional Jewish practices are usually used as criteria in studies tasked with assessing the viability of a Jewish community: lighting Hanukkah candles, attending a Passover Seder, fasting on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), lighting Shabbat candles, and keeping a kosher home. The first two—Hanukkah-candle lighting and Seder attendance—tend to be those with the highest levels of participation among the vast majority of Jews.

But even among those in the “intermarried/Jewish” category—namely, interfaith couples who decide to identify as Jewish—only 65 percent attended a Passover Seder on a regular basis, while more than 90 percent of inmarried couples do so. *

Arnold Dashefsky, the University of Connecticut professor who authored “Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys in the United States,” found that couples who have already made the decision to join the Jewish community attend the Passover Seder in even greater numbers than the “average” Jew. Cause for “optimism.” But yet another study—one that might be more optimistic because Dashefsky started with a group of already committed intermarried couples—found that “40 percent to 45 percent of young Jews with one Jewish parent attended a Passover Seder compared with nearly 80 percent of those with two Jewish parents.” Good reason for the “pessimist” to raise his hand to ask some tough questions.

Being a pessimist on intermarriage is not easy these days. The Jewish community is tired of gloomy reports conveying what Steven Cohen titled “An Inconvenient Truth” in one of the most controversial studies of the last couple of years. The identity chasm between inmarried and intermarried is so wide, he wrote, as to suggest the imagery of “two Jewries.” One group attends Passover Seders in high percentage—namely, the inmarried—while the other, the intermarried, either refrains from doing so or attends these Seders in much lower numbers. “A Tale of Two ‘Jewish’ Cities: The 2002 Phoenix and 2003 San Diego Jewish Community Studies,” another study, describes lower Jewish affiliation in these cities: “Relatively low rates of Jewish congregation membership, moderate levels of Passover Seder and Chanukah celebrations, low Shabbat candle lighting, high intermarriage rates. …”

The correlation between the Hanukkah-candle lighting and the Passover Seder—the two most practiced rituals among American Jews—is interesting. Hanukkah is more popular for most Jewish groups. The reason is clear: The holiday competes with Christmas. However, the more affiliated the group, the narrower the gap between these two practices. The “highly affiliated” is the only group in which Seder attendance surpasses Hanukkah candle lighting (96 percent to 94 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Survey). For the intermarried—couples with one Christian spouse—the gap between the two practices is the widest (85 percent celebrate Hanukkah; 41 percent celebrate Passover).

But there’s an even wider margin between these two groups—the one symbolizing the most contentious corner of the optimist/pessimist debate. “One issue consistently brought up by both Christian and Jewish partners was the decision to have a Christmas tree,” the Dashefsky study stated. Almost 100 percent of inmarried couples do not have trees; nearly 80 percent of intermarried families sometimes—or always—have them.

To Cohen, this is yet another component of “the overwhelming evidence of very weak levels of Jewish engagement,” as he told a gathering of Reform Jewish rabbis earlier this month. According to this school of thought, celebrating both the Seder and Christmas cannot be proof of Jewish attachment. But the “optimists” look at the trees and see a different forest: Family connection and cultural habits of the non-Jewish spouse are those responsible for the tendency of even “Jewish interfaith couples” to erect the Christmas tree in the winter, they say. Two ways of looking at the same data. One—the cup half full. One—as Woody Allen said in the movie Scoop—also the cup half full. With poison.

A couple of days ago, in the Wall Street Journal, there was a story about the Mothers Circle, a program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish kids. Its headline was funny but right to the point: “But Will the Chicken Soup Taste as Good?” Hundreds of thousands of such mothers (and fathers) will be sitting at the Seder table next week and asking themselves such questions. Their chicken soup might taste as good, but it will inevitably also taste somewhat different.

And there will be something different about their Seder itself, too. Passover, more than any other Jewish holy day, is the one in which Jews celebrate not their religion but this strange concept of becoming a people. This idea, of Jewish people-hood—the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn’t see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate—will be the one most challenged by the influx of people from other religions into the Jewish community.

Correction, April 17, 2008: Due to an editing error, this piece referred to “non-Passover seders” instead of Passover seders. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)