Meet the “New Jews,” Same As the Old Jews

In The Jerusalem Post two weeks ago, Larry Derfner wrote about how both of his friend’s sons are marrying children of Asian immigrants. Part elegy, part rant, the piece explores why “old-fashioned, secular unrich” Jews like his friend’s sons are coupling with Asian women rather than Jewish ones.

His answer?

The simplest reason … is that both couples met at UCLA, a gigantic university loaded with Jewish and Asian students. The less simple reason is that my friend’s two sons received an old-fashioned, secular, unrich Jewish upbringing in America, and for people like them, there aren’t many American Jews of similar background and outlook to marry anymore. For people like them, there are more opportunities to find suitable spouses among Asians and other studious, hard-working, family-oriented American immigrants than there are among American Jews.

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The Blame Game

Back in April, I read “The Missing” in the World Jewish Digest, and found it absolutely amazing. (The title has been changed: it was “A Jewish Man is Hard to Find.”)

The article was advocating that single Jewish women should “panic” if they hadn’t found a Jewish man to marry. (Click the link, I’m not Ubiquitous t-shirtexaggerating!) One problem, the article asserted, was that Jewish women were too dominant in Jewish religious life, leaving Jewish men feeling sidelined. This was based on a recent sociological study from Brandeis on intermarriage and involvement in Jewish life.

Astonishing, eh? An anti-intermarriage article was effectively blaming Jewish women for being too involved in the Jewish community. Katha Pollitt, the feminist columnist for The Nation, and herself the daughter of an interfaith marriage, just came out with a response to the idea that maybe Jewish men were intermarrying because Jewish women outnumber them in Jewish institutional life.  Her pithy analysis:

The study is full of unusually frank references to Jewish men’s dislike of Jewish women—too aggressive, demanding, ethnic—but instead of challenging this as sexist and anti-Semitic, it accepts it as a fact of life that women must accommodate for the sake of the community: “For those who find the synagogue’s world of our mothers too overwhelming, it is possible that dating non-Jews becomes a way to escape from the ubiquitous Jewish woman.”

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Slate on the Intermarriage Debate

Lock and load

The prolific Shmuel Rosner gives Slate an overview of the latest exchanges of fire in the Jewish intermarriage wars. It’s nothing earth-shattering, covering studies that have been reported on elsewhere, but the opening anecdote nearly made my head explode. Rosner relays the story of a 30-something Jewish woman married to a Catholic man who walks into a Maryland synagogue:

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.

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Papal Visit

The Pope is coming to the U.S. for the first time next week, making stops in Washington, D.C., and New York on his five-day trip. What does this mean for interfaith families?

Like his predecessor John Paul II (and really, like any mainstream Catholic official), Benedict XVI is pro-life, anti-death penalty, anti-birth control and anti-homosexuality. He also follows the recent trend in papal politics of decrying the excesses and abuses of capitalism and protesting American use of force. Also like his predecessor, he sees moral relativism as an insidious force that sustains evil in secular society. In terms of substance, his views are little different than that of John Paul II–why then is John Paul II viewed as the lovable uniter and Benedict XVI as the reactionary divider?

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Unsilencing the Intermarried

The Conservative movement’s rabbinical organization may rethink its ban on intermarried speakers at its conventions, according to Ben Harris of JTA.

“The policy is we will only invite speakers who are either single or, if they are married, are not intermarried,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the R[abbinical] A[ssembly]‘s vice president.

Which is proving to be a problem given the prevalence of intermarriage. Organizers of the R.A.’s convention in Washington Feb. 10-14 discussed inviting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to speak, but nixed it when they realized it violated the R.A.’s long-standing, but little known, policy. The policy even extends to the non-Jewish spouses of Jews, such as Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

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When the Devout Marry

R.R. Reno, a practicing Christian and theology professor at Creighton University, wrote a wonderful essay in Commentary on his intermarriage to a religiously observant Jewish woman. Unfortunately, it’s available for subscribers only.

The story of his interfaith relationship begins typically. He met Juliana when they were both graduate students at Yale in the ’80s:

Make no mistake. There was nothing about Yale University in 1985 that made such a love difficult or even noteworthy. Our lives as students were full of common experiences and common aspirations, and in that bastion of American liberalism, one could easily imagine a Jew marrying a Christian—after all, religion is a “life-style choice,” is it not?

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Progressive Conservatives

Arnold Eisen’s inauguration as the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary last fall has generated a fair amount of excitement in the Jewish world. As the first non-rabbi to serve in the role in more than 65 years and one of the leading sociologists of American Jewry, he is widely seen as bringing a fresh perspective to his leadership of the Conservative movement’s flagship institution.

So far, his statements about intermarriage have been encouraging, but I’m really enthused about what he said in this recent Q&A with the St. Petersburg Times. His response to a question about intermarriage is so positive that I want to share its entire text: Continue reading

Cracks in the Orthodox Armor?

Our site is full of stories of people who encountered resistance to their interfaith relationships from Jewish family. But their problems pale in comparison to the rejection and ostracization experienced by Jews from the Orthodox community who are dating or married to non-Jews.

In her latest “In the Mix” column, Julie Wiener tells the story of “Ilana,” an intermarried Orthodox woman who “was urged to hide her children from her grandfather and tell him she was still single, for fear the news of her intermarriage would trigger a heart attack.” In the Orthodox world, intermarriage is one of the great taboos–perhaps akin to declaring yourself a racist in the secular world.

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The Power of Controls

In the sciences all experiments require controls as well as subjects. Controls allow scientists to see if the expected results from an altered environment are any different than what would occur in an unaltered environment.

Typically, research on intermarriage in the Jewish community has looked at the effect of intermarriage on Jewish behavior as a binary proposition. If you’re intermarried, you act this way. If you’re inmarried, you act another way. But in recent years, more researchers have used controls in their research, controlling for variables such as level of Jewish education as a child and size of one’s personal Jewish network. Revealingly, when you control for level of Jewish “capital” when comparing the inmarried and the intermarried, gaps in Jewish behavior and participation shrink dramatically.

The latest study to add to this body of research comes from Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok and Benjamin Phillips of the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Titled “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Jewish Identity and Intermarriage,” the study controls for factors such as the Jewish partner’s pre-existing Jewish education and home religious practice.

As Sue Fishkoff of JTA reports, the study is muddying the waters of the intermarriage debate. Meanwhile, however, Steven Cohen, author of several of his own studies on or related to intermarriage, disagrees with the study’s conclusions, arguing that intermarriage is a deterministic factor in decreased Jewish involvement independent of other factors.

Further complicating the debate is another study soon to be released by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston which shows that the children of intermarried families being raised Jewish behave remarkably similarly to the children of non-Orthodox inmarried families.

When I get my hand on the actual studies, I will have more to add to the conversation.

Intermarriage Peaks Up North

A recent story in The Forward reported that Portland, Maine, has the highest rate of intermarriage in the country.

While true, the number cited in the story–61%–is a little different than the number typically used when citing intermarriage rates. The most commonly cited intermarriage rate is the percentage of married Jews who are married to non-Jews (the individual intermarriage rate). The 61%, however, is the household (or couples) intermarriage rate, which is the percentage of households with Jews that are intermarriages. The household rate is always higher than the individual rate. In Portland, the individual rate is 44%–which is not quite as shocking as 61%.

To understand why the household rate is always higher than the individual rate, one need only realize that it takes two Jews to form an inmarried household and only one Jew to form an intermarried household. Therefore, when you are calculating the household rate, one intermarried Jew counts as much as two inmarried Jews. If you had 12 Jews in a community, and six were intermarried, the individual intermarriage rate would be 50%. However, because the six inmarried Jews all have to be married to other Jews, there are only three inmarried couples (because six people make three couples). But there are still six intermarried households. So the household intermarriage rate in this 12-person community would be 66%.

During the maelstrom over intermarriage that occurred after the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, people were astonished that the reported intermarriage rate for the years 1995-2000 was 52% (a number which was since revised downward to 43%). But that was the individual intermarriage rate. Translated to a household rate, the national intermarriage rate for 1995-2000 would be an astonishing 68%!