A classic Jewish-communal false narrative reemerged recently in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, of all places, by Peter Beinart, of all people. (See “The Jewish Case for Vouchers”).
The narrative goes something like this: if only Jews were more Jewishly educated, they’d intermarry less. Let’s increase support to Jewish education like day schools so Jews better understand why they shouldn’t intermarry.
Why is this narrative false? And why does it continue to be propagated?
There’s no debate that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews began its ascent in America during the mid-1960s, from single-digit rates to nearly 50% of all marrying Jews today. Since the late 1980s, there have been more intermarried households created than in-married (Jewish/Jewish) households.
Clearly, something dramatic happened in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s to foster this change. From the narrative about Jewish education that Beinart and others suggest, you’d think there existed a flourishing network of Jewish day schools, sleep-away camps, and supplemental education in the early 1900s that suddenly got wiped away in the middle of the century—and then we all intermarried.
Of course that’s not what happened, and in fact, there’s no evidence to suggest that Jews were better Jewishly educated back when intermarriage rates were negligible. Jewish education in all denominations is stronger today than ever before. Jewish educators are more professionalized, colleges across the nation now include Jewish Studies courses and majors, and supplemental education is supported by peer trips to Israel and service-learning initiatives. Exponentially more day schools were created after intermarriage rates rose than ever existed before it.
It wasn’t higher levels of Jewish education that kept intermarriage rates so low in the first half of the 20th Century, and it’s not lack of Jewish education that drives high intermarriage rates today. There are many other, more important factors. Primary among them: the rest of America simply stopped hating us.
While American Jews never faced genocidal anti-Semitism, before the 1960s a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew was equally, if not more, tragic to the Gentile parents than to the Jewish parents. American anti-Semitism declined dramatically after the Civil Rights Movement, pride in Israel’s 1967 war victory, and Jewish success in a wide variety of professional endeavors. Today, Americans are philo-Semites. When it comes to marriage, many consider Jews to be a “catch.”
Of course, if this was still the 1940s and they wanted to “catch” us, they’d have to come to our neighborhoods to find us, because most Jews were effectively ghettoized and quotas kept us out of many jobs and colleges. Today Jews are spread as far into the suburbs and exurbs as anybody else, and work and study in all the same places as any other Americans. And people marry who they meet, study, and work with. A majority of Jews no longer see choice of marriage partner as the make-or-break statement about their own Jewish identity that many communal leaders still believe it is.
For leaders in the Jewish community who spend almost all their time serving and working among their fellow Jews, it might be easy to forget that Jews are only 2% of the US population. But Jews are only 2% of the US population! That our intermarriage rate is only 50% is actually a remarkable success. Compared to other ethnicities in this country—and many Ashkenazi Jews do see their Jewishness as an ethnic identity—our intermarriage rates are no worse than third and fourth generation Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans. Intermarriage rates among Japanese-American women have reached as high as 90%.
So why is the anti-intermarriage narrative solely focused on Jewish education? The obvious reason is because nobody is going to suggest we turn back the clock on societal acceptance or the freedom to live where we want, even as we wax nostalgic and recall a time of low intermarriage rates as the “good old days.”
The less obvious explanation may be the more powerful: it’s about money. In Peter Beinart’s case it’s about getting the US taxpayer to cover his children’s day school tuition through school vouchers. For the organized Jewish community, it’s about garnering support for one of its core businesses, Jewish education. Nothing seems to sell to Jews better than fear—in this case, fear of intermarriage and of the intermarried—and fear is best spread by misinformation.
Beinart’s op-ed quotes a pseudoscientific study claiming that day schools increase a Jewish child’s likelihood of marrying another Jew “by 14 percentage points.” To claim, as that study does, that you can “control” for all other factors like whether the individual’s social structure is within an Orthodox or secular community, or whether she believes in God or not, or whether he later lives in Seattle or the Upper West Side, in order to proclaim day-school attendance as the cause for Jewish in-marriage breaks the very basics that any Sociology 101 student would learn about cause-and-effect.
Beinart’s misunderstanding of demography is also apparent when he compares the American Jewish community’s 50% intermarriage rate to those in other countries that send more of their children to Jewish day schools, suggesting that Canada’s 35% intermarriage rate or France’s 40% rate somehow represents “success.” A 35% individuals intermarriage rate actually means that there are as many intermarried households created as in-married households (if three Jews intermarrying at 35%, two of those Jews marry each other to create one households, while one of those Jews marries a non-Jew to also create one household). In France, it means that for as long as they’ve “successfully” maintained “only” a 40% intermarriage rate, there have likely been more children born to intermarried than in-married parents. The difference in Jewish population growth in those countries will not be determined by Jewish day schools, but rather by the lack of denominations that accept patrilineal Jews, which will push away many more families than we lose in the US.
Whether or not Beinart should be responsible for understanding the nuance between the “individuals” versus “couples” rates of intermarriage is debatable, but one group that must understand Jewish statistics better is our Jewish communal leadership, which continues to hire the same two or three agenda-driven advocate/sociologists over and over again for decades. If you really want to know how effective your programs are, or what is really happening among the Jewish population, why hire Jews who care deeply about seeing specific outcomes? Why not hire any of the countless non-Jewish firms who couldn’t care less about what they find, and only care that the way they find it is scientifically sound?
Because, of course, then you have to be prepared to have your narrative challenged. A new intermarriage narrative has emerged in much of the community, even as the old one refuses to die. The new narrative demonstrates how essential the inclusion of intermarried families is in Jewish life, even in day school communities. In the new narrative, Jewish education is not a vaccine against dreaded outcomes, it’s the sharing of wisdom and heritage that impacts positively on individuals, whether they have two, one, or no Jewish parents. Fear of intermarriage as a motivating factor for doing anything needs to be expunged from our communal institutions, to be replaced by the joy of sharing what we love about being Jewish with all who might benefit.
Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and co-author of How to Raise Jewish Children Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself.