Birthright Israel Trips and Intermarriage

There is important learning in the new Birthright Israel study released yesterday by Len Saxe and his team at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis – and early media coverage is not catching all of it.

The study compares Birthright Israel trip participants to non-participants. It finds that trip participants have a stronger sense of Jewish identity and peoplehood and demonstrate a stronger relationship to Israel. But the Wall Street Journal’s title captures what the main buzz will be: Jewish Marriage Tied to Israel Trip. Of those that are married, 46% of non-participants are married to a Jew, compared to 72% of participants; thus participants are 57% more likely to in-marry.

There are many other related findings: of those respondents with intermarried parents, trip participants were three times more likely to in-marry; of those respondents married to spouses who were not raised Jewish, there is an apparent higher rate of conversion among spouses of trip participants. Of unmarried respondents, trip participants were 46% more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important. Of those respondents under 30, trip participants were less likely to be married than non-participants; the authors suggest that trip participants may spend a longer time searching for a Jewish partner.

Birthright Israel may very well be the most successful Jewish continuity program ever. It is very positive news that trip participation is associated with Jews marrying other Jews. But in my opinion there is a more important message from the study, and that is that trip participation is associated with greater motivation to raise Jewish children.

The study finds that 74% of trip participants view raising children as Jews as very important, compared to 57% of non-participants; thus participants are 30% more likely to have that view. What’s more, of intermarried participants, participants are almost twice as likely to have that view: 52% view raising children as Jews as very important, compared to 27% of non-participants.

The authors connect this finding with their previous research that children with intermarried parents who are raised exclusively as Jews have similar levels of Jewish engagement as children of inmarried parents. They conclude that “The present data suggest that both inmarried and intermarried [trip] alumni are highly motivated to raise their children as Jews.” (The study couldn’t measure rates of actual raising of children as Jews, as compared to attitudes about doing so, because not enough time has passed since the trips commenced.)

It’s very important to remember the study’s finding that of trip participants who were married, 28% were intermarried. The study also notes that although trip participants are more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important, they are not significantly more likely to date other Jews. Significant numbers of young Jews are going to continue to intermarry, Birthright Israel trip or not.

It’s also important to remember that half of young adults who identify or could identify as Jews have one Jewish parent. That population will be increasingly important to the liberal Jewish future. This study shows that the Birthright Israel experience gives young adults – including those with one Jewish parent — a stronger sense of Jewish identity and peoplehood. Other recent research shows that young adults with one Jewish parent are interested in Jewish spirituality. Barry Shrage, the visionary leader of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston federation, has emphasized to me that stimulating and responding to these young adults’ potential interests in Jewish community and spirituality is a winning combination.

It would be a shame if the main message of the study, that trip participation is associated with more in-marriage, is twisted into viewing Birthright Israel as a “cure” or “antidote” to intermarriage or the “solution” to the “intermarriage problem.” Senior representatives of two of Birthright Israel’s leading funders have assured me that that is exactly not the message they want to see conveyed. They want to attract the children of intermarried parents to Birthright Israel trips. They understand that marketing Birthright Israel as a preventative to intermarriage risks pushing those young people away — who wants to go on a trip that will prevent them from doing what their parents did? Finally, they understand, I believe, that the most important impact of the Birthright Israel experience is the motivation to engage in Jewish life and have Jewish children – whether the marriage is “in” or “inter.”

There is one other set of very important findings in the study – but I’ll leave that for a separate post.

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