Jeremy Shere: It’s no secret that Jews in America have been intermarrying at increasing rates over the last several decades. In 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by the Jewish Council of Federations, found that more than 50% — 52%, to be exact — of American Jews were married to non-Jews. Today, according to the Pew Research Center’s “Jewish Americans in 2020” study, which was published in May of 2021, the figure is around 60%. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is more than 70%.
For many American Jews, rising rates of intermarriage have been cause for alarm. Back in the ‘90s, some called it a “second Holocaust.” Today, that sentiment remains for many observant and traditionally minded Jews. What Hitler started during World War II, according to that narrative, American Jews are finishing by marrying out of the faith and, consequently, pushing American Jewry further down the path toward assimilation and, eventually, extinction.
But that way of seeing things hasn’t gone unchallenged. For example, Reform rabbis have been performing interfaith marriage ceremonies since the 1980s. And more recently, organizations such as 18 Doors offer a counternarrative — namely, that interfaith couples should be welcomed into the larger Jewish community and encouraged to engage fully in Jewish life and raise their children to have strong Jewish identities.
Keren McGinity: There's no time like the present to rethink and even pivot and completely rewrite the narrative, because the negative narrative was based on a series of assumptions.
Jeremy Shere: This is Dr. Keren R. McGinity, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and interfaith specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The main assumption, she says, is that once a Jew marries a non-Jew, they cease to identify Jewishly or be involved in the community, and will not raise Jewish children. But the recent Pew study, as well as McGinity’s own research, has found that that assumption may not be true. For example, according to the study, kids born to interfaith couples are increasingly identifying as Jewish. Among Americans older than 49 with one Jewish parent, just more than 20% identify as Jewish. But among Americans ages 18 to 49, nearly 50% identify as Jews. And this may be because, McGinity says, for some Jews, marrying outside the faith brings their Jewishness into sharper relief.
Keren McGinity: What I in fact found was that as Jews married non-coreligionists, they in fact became more interested in figuring out what their Jewish identity was about, and continued to be involved in the community and to educate their children, Jewishly — culturally, and if not religiously, at least culturally— and that that increased over time. So looking at this longitudinally, what the Pew 2020 study is illustrating is the change over time that that negative narrative didn't take into account whatsoever.
Jeremy Shere: Now, it’s still the case that kids who have two Jewish parents are more statistically likely to identify as Jews compared to kids with only one Jewish parent. And furthermore, the Pew study found that kids with one Jewish parent are more likely to identify as ethnically or culturally Jewish, but less so from a religious standpoint. And so, you can argue— and some Orthodox and Conservative Jewish authorities do — that the sort of Jewishness resulting from intermarriage is not robust enough to perpetuate American Jews as a distinct group far into the future.
But McGinity challenges that narrative, too, pointing to the fact that the number of Americans who identify as Jewish has grown by nearly 10% over the past 7 years, to approximately 7.5 million, according to a Jewish American population estimate published by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute in 2019. And the growth is not due only to Orthodox communities with relatively high birth rates. Since the last time the Institute published American Jewish population findings, the number of Americans who identify as “Jews of no religion” rose by around 500,000, from around a million in 2015 to approximately 1.5 million in 2019.
Keren McGinity: Jewish marriages or Jews marrying each other is more ideal or that it has a higher likelihood of increasing the Jewish population, I think is also disproven by Pew 2020. when you look at the very high intermarriage rates and, at the same time, the Jewish population growth. And it's not just due to the Orthodox Jewish population. So the reality being that Jews who marry people of other faiths or cultural backgrounds can experience a rejuvenation and renaissance of their Jewish identities. And that is something that wasn't even considered, it wasn't part of the academic or the communal discussion how that could even happen. It wasn't one of the questions, and part of that is because the vast majority of quantitative studies looked at Jews according to very narrow, limited definitions of who's Jewish and how they're Jewish according to certain behaviors and certain social networks and certain philanthropic giving and so forth.
Jeremy Shere: Plus, McGinity notes, many Jews by birth, even those who marry fellow Jews, don’t necessarily place Jewishness at the center of their identity. And one Jew marrying another doesn’t guarantee that their children will develop strong Jewish identities of the sort seen as crucial for perpetuating Jewishness and Judaism into the future. In fact, people who convert to Judaism for purposes of marriage are often more devoted to their adopted faith than the Jews they marry — a phenomenon captured in a scene from the popular TV series Sex and the City, where one of the main characters, who recently converted to Judaism, prepares an elaborate Shabbat dinner for her fiancé, a secular Jew who’s more interested in the Mets game on TV than in saying Shabbat blessings.
(Sex and the City clip)
Keren McGinity: Whenever I show this clip to a room full of people, what's very interesting to me is that many men in the room laugh and many women in the room grimace. And when she stands up and says, “I gave up Christ for you and you can't give up the Mets?” it's such a powerful piece of dialogue and it captures incredible gender disparity.
Jeremy Shere: Although Jewish men and Jewish women intermarry at approximately the same rates, McGinity says, non-Jewish women who marry Jewish men are generally seen as mostly responsible for raising their children as Jews.
Keren McGinity: In the case of an intermarried Jewish man, he still has the primary breadwinner role, and his wife of another faith background, she goes from being accused of luring him away — and being sometimes called a despicable and distorted word, based on a Yiddish word — to then being told that she now has the responsibility for raising Jewish children. Although why anyone would expect her to, after she's been shunned or stigmatized or otherwise undervalued, underappreciated, and then expect her to know how to do something that she wouldn't know and that he would potentially know. But why isn't the responsibility for raising Jewish children on Jewish men’s shoulders?
Jeremy Shere: For McGinity, the upshot of her research and of the Pew study data is that, at least in the American context, you don’t need two Jews to raise Jewish children.
Keren McGinity: That's not necessary. You only need one. And I would argue one of any gender, provided that Jewish partner takes the responsibility, to whatever extent they are co-parenting, but primarily the Jew in the equation can make the commitment to raise Jewish children with their co-parent.
Jeremy Shere: Furthermore, McGinity argues, the narrative around intermarriage and Jewish continuity has focused almost exclusively on the traditional two-parent family.
Keren McGinity: There are all kinds of other ways of looking at the perpetuation of Jewish peoplehood, of Jewish religion and culture, that extend beyond the traditional framework for understanding both the family, what constitutes a family, who's in the family, what the family looks like — and by “look like,” I explicitly mean people of all colors, and understanding that the Jewish people as a people or peoples is far more diverse and has been living and is living Jewishly far more diversely than has heretofore been accounted for.
Jeremy Shere: McGinity’s point is not that the practice of Judaism is insignificant for intermarried couples who wish to raise their kids as Jews. In her role as an interfaith specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, she in fact argues that Conservative Judaism needs to be more welcoming to intermarried couples.
Keren McGinity: We as a movement need to do a much better and more explicit job of telling interfaith couples and families of Jews and their loved ones that we see you, we hear you, we value you, we want you — of acknowledging and thanking and honoring the people of other faiths and cultural barriers who want to be part of the Jewish community, who are bringing their children to Jewish communal events and/or to religious school, to really open the tent wider, rather than holding them away or otherwise stigmatizing them as second-class citizens.
Jeremy Shere: For McGinity, that sentiment will help strengthen not only Conservative Judaism, but Judaism and the Jewish people generally. Intermarriage trends are unlikely to reverse course, after all. And so McGinity hopes that the Pew study serves as a wakeup call to at the very least question, if not actually reject, a hierarchical model of Jewish belonging, with the most traditional Jews at the top and the least traditional at the bottom.
Keren McGinity: Because that only serves to alienate Jews and their loved ones. Whereas if we flip it on its side and look at it horizontally, from the most cultural and least religious to the most religious and cultural, it's all good. It's all good. And if there's movement between movements, that's good too. As long as some people are finding their place and feeling like they belong, not just that they're “welcome.”
Jeremy Shere: The topic of intermarriage isn’t just academic for McGinity — it’s also personal. She was raised by two Jewish parents, became a bat mitzvah, spent time in Israel, attended Jewish summer camps, and assumed that she would marry someone Jewish. But she ended up marrying an Irish Catholic guy. And as she would find among the Jewish men and women she interviewed for her dissertation on intermarriage, McGinity found that marrying a non-Jew sparked a kind of renaissance of her Jewish identity.
Keren McGinity: That made me think, “OK, well what does being Jewish really mean? How am I Jewish?” My whole life I was Jewish, but I'd never really thought, “Who is a Jew? Who am I and how am I Jewish?” And then having made a premarital negotiation that I would take his surname, as he was the last in that line, and we would raise any children as Jewish, which was extremely important to me, especially in light of the decimation of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and being named for someone who perished. And then I had to figure out, “How do I, we, transmit Judaism to our child?” What does that look like when there aren't two Jewish parents and knowing that I was putting so much effort into it and we were talking about it and I was researching Jewish preschools, there was a lot of emotional and physical, mental labor involved, and a lot of very conscious decision-making.
Jeremy Shere: For example, choosing her daughter’s name spoke to the ways in which intermarrying had made McGinity more conscious of her identity as a Jew.
Keren McGinity: I mean, you're going to bring a Jew into the world with the last name McGinity? She/he/they has got to have a name that would balance that out, and we chose Shira, and that works. And I think that it made me wonder, “Am I an anomaly, or have other women who married men of other faith backgrounds experienced anything similar? How is it different at the beginning of the 20th century than at the end of the 20th century?” And ultimately that led to my dissertation topic. And after speaking about that research and being told and asked over and over, the same thing, either, “That's my story. That was my experience too” and/or “What about men? What about my nephew? What about my brother? What about my son?” and realizing I needed to understand Jewish men's experiences too.
Jeremy Shere: McGinity hopes that her research and the Pew study and this podcast episode will help American Jews think deeply about their Jewish identities and about the ways we interact with and treat each other and people of other faiths.Keren McGinity: And to understand that we are living our Jewish values to the extent that we treat everyone b’tselem Elohim, if one believes in God's image. If one doesn't believe in God, then in the human image of all reaching our human potential, which is to treat each other with the honor and mutual respect that each and every individual deserves. And learning about each other rather than making assumptions about each other or pigeonholing people or labeling people, but rather being curious and asking, “What's important to you? What do you find meaningful?” And for people of other faiths or for people who choose to be Jewish who were not raised or “born Jewish,” whose extended families don't become Jewish with them. We are all one big interfaith family. We are one big human interfaith family. And the more that we can open our minds, broaden our minds, open our hearts to that idea, and the more we can act accordingly when we come into contact with each other, the more I think that we will grow as a species and certainly as Jewish peoples. Plural.
Keren R. McGinity, PhD
Keren R. McGinity teaches in the Brandeis University American Studies Program, is a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, and is the Interfaith Specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. She was the inaugural director of the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement graduate program at Hebrew College. Dr. McGinity is the author of Still Jewish: A History of Women & Intermarriage in America, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood, as well as many scholarly and popular articles.
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips