Mixed Marriage

Dear Mr. Liu:

       Members of the Jewish community, in greater and greater numbers, have begun to accept intermarriage, some with such enthusiasm that they may be described as favoring it. Some argue that it will have little negative demographic impact, or even a positive impact. Others may be motivated by pessimism, suggesting that if intermarriage cannot be stopped, we must accommodate it. Still others are driven by family matters–a child who has intermarried. All present as their central, powerful idea that the Jewish community must reach out to mixed couples or give up the chance to achieve conversions and to have the children raised as Jews. Scolding, rejection, and exclusion, they argue, will be counterproductive.
       But the accommodationists are wrong. Intermarriage is both inevitable in our open society, and immensely threatening to Jewish continuity here. The Jewish community must avoid excuses and circumlocutions, and recognize that only a powerful Jewish identity built on the faith and practice of Judaism can enable young American Jews to resist the temptation of intermarriage. Only that faith can explain to them why they should resist the melting pot and build a family that takes its place in the covenant of Abraham.
       It is true that most Jews have accepted intermarriage as inevitable. Indeed, the National Jewish Population Study of 1990 has found that a majority of new Jewish marriages are now intermarriages. Moreover, a 1989 poll by the American Jewish Committee revealed that only 36 percent of Jews would now oppose or strongly oppose a child’s marriage with a non-Jew.
       Instead of wrenching changes in behavior that might actually reduce the rate of intermarriage, the community seems satisfied by a new vision: maintaining Jewish identity in a mixed marriage and keeping the children Jewish. If the children and grandchildren of intermarried Jews remain or become Jews, after all, there will be no demographic problem. But do those children stay Jewish?
       Given that the rising intermarriage rate has passed 50 percent, perhaps it is not surprising that more young children are now being raised in intermarried households than in all-Jewish households. Of children in the age group 0-to-9 living with two parents, 410,000 are in households where both parents are Jewish, and 479,000 in households where one parent is Jewish and the other is not. Twenty-eight percent of the children of mixed marriages are being raised as Jews, 41 percent as non-Jews, and 31 percent with no religion at all. As these numbers suggest, most mixed couples do not give their children much of a Jewish education. Among wholly Jewish households, 70 percent of the children get some Jewish education. In mixed families, the number drops to 20 percent.
       Most Jews know instinctively that a mixed household will have a hard time conveying a strong Jewish identity. In fact, only 20 percent of mixed households celebrate Jewish holidays, while 54 percent celebrate Christian holidays–nearly two-thirds have a Christmas tree. The children in a mixed household will have a set of Christian relatives, a prolonged exposure to non-Jewish culture, and a mixed cultural and ethnic identity. Only 26 percent of parents in mixed marriages say it is important to them that their children identify as Jews. These parents are very unlikely to oppose mixed marriage for their children, having themselves entered into one.
       From all this it is safe to predict that the intermarriage rate of children of mixed marriages is high. The scarce data that exist suggest that it is 90 percent. Despite the hopes of many in the Jewish community, then, the effect of mixed marriages on children is evident. Only 28 percent are raised as Jews, and an even smaller percentage marry Jews. This suggests that mixed marriage will produce more mixed marriage, and fewer Jews, in the following generation. A three-generational study of Jews in Philadelphia found that no grandchildren of mixed marriages continued to identify as Jews.
       Finally, conversion provides no solution to all these problems. Children of conversionary families do get more Jewish education, have a greater Jewish identity, and marry Jews more often, than children of mixed marriages. But converts nevertheless still bring with them traditions alien to Judaism. Converts seem to have difficulty conveying to their children their own sense of unique affiliation to Judaism: 22 percent, for example, still erect a Christmas tree.
       Over the generations the numbers are not good. One study found that although children of conversionary marriages did not enter mixed marriages any more often than did born Jews, in none of the cases where the children of converts married non-Jews did the non-Jews convert. The grandchildren of converts, then, unlike their own children, would grow up in mixed households. While 86 percent of husbands and wives in conversionary couples joined synagogues, only 38 percent of their children did.
       Today it is common to hear that all Jews are “Jews By Choice,” and those who use that phrase are talking about the fact that we all live in a free and open society. Children of mixed marriages especially tend to accept something like a Christian definition of religion, in which personal faith is the key and community solidarity is of much less importance–80 percent say that religion is “a purely private matter” and 81 percent say “belonging to a Jewish community” is not important.
       The problem is that this is not the traditional Jewish view, which posits a community of Jews living in a covenant with God that imposes special obligations upon them. The Jewish view has always been that every Jew has an obligation to instruct his or her children in Judaism, not in the virtues of free thinking. Judaism imposes obligations binding on one and on one’s offspring, and it is this that many converts seem to refuse or at least to be unsuccessful in transmitting from one generation to the next.
       It is easy to conclude that conversionary households are vastly preferable to mixed households when it comes to Jewish identity, and that the community should encourage conversion and welcome every convert with warmth and enthusiasm. But the data make it clear that conversion is no antidote to the alarming demographic data revealed by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

Elliott Abrams