Intermarriage data called ominous for continuity

NEW YORK — More than two-thirds of mixed-marriage families celebrate Christmas inside the home and 16 percent celebrate it in church, according to an American Jewish Committee study released last week.

"Jewish and Something Else: A Study of Mixed-Marriage Families" looked at 127 American interfaith families and found that Jews who are encouraged by their parents to marry within the faith are much more likely to do so than those whose parents have no opinion on the matter. Additionally, couples that didn't discuss religion before the wedding are more likely to raise Christian families.

The AJCommittee says the study proves that "the dynamics of Jewish identity within mixed marriage are particularly ominous for Jewish continuity," and that the Jewish community needs to be more aggressive in promoting in-marriage.

But because it relies on information from a relatively small sample of families from New England, Atlanta and Denver, and because it supplies ammunition to those strongly opposed to intermarriage — including a national "in-marriage" coalition formed by the AJCommittee — the study likely will be greeted with skepticism from advocates of intermarried outreach.

Rosanne Levitt, director of the local Interfaith Outreach program, pointed out that often outreach professionals like herself are made out to sound like they are in favor of intermarriage. Nonetheless, as someone strongly in favor of outreach to the intermarried, she did say that this study was based on a very small number of families.

But from her experience, she said, "Even if intermarried couples are raising their child in the Jewish tradition, they may celebrate Christmas to honor the parent who hasn't converted, but not in any religious way."

It is one of the first "qualitative" studies on intermarried families, based not on survey data but on focus groups and interviews with what is believed to be a representative sample. While it covers a range of families — including ones in which both the husband and wife are Jewish — the study focuses on interfaith families that say they are raising their children as Jews.

According to the study, those families often send more diluted messages about Jewishness as the children age. For example, many Jewish parents initially refuse to celebrate Christmas or Easter in the home, but they eventually compromise out of a desire to be fair to their spouses or because aging in-laws are no longer able to host Christian holiday celebrations.

Levitt commented that the many teens she's met who are raised Jewish say that the family's celebrating Christmas has not had any impact on their Jewishness.

Saying she does not want to be "rigid," one Jewish woman in the study tells how she hosts Easter dinner for her husband's family, even cooking ham for the occasion.

The study also found that Jewish women are much more likely to remain Jewish and give their children a Jewish education after intermarrying than Jewish men, and Jews and non-Jews of both sexes termed Jewish activities "religious" or "different," and called Christian activities "just cultural" and even "fun."

Christmas celebrations for children of mixed marriage were described in less-than-glowing terms by another participant, who was raised by a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. "My cousins would all be getting toys from Santa, and I'd be getting gifts from the dog because my mom felt bad," he said.

Materialism within the Jewish community and its lifecycle events were criticized by both Jews and non-Jews, with one Jewish man saying he opposes bar mitzvahs for his children, because his "wasn't a particularly enriching experience, and I'm not sure that any 13-year-old boy's has been, other than they get lots of really cool Cross pens."

The man also stated his children did have bar mitzvahs, but only due to the insistence of his Christian wife.

Months before the study was completed, the AJCommittee formed its coalition promoting in-marriage, and one of its members — Jack Wertheimer, the provost of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary — published an essay critiquing outreach to the intermarried in the March issue of Commentary magazine.

For years, Jewish leaders have divided into "inreach" and "outreach" camps on intermarriage — those who say scarce resources should be used to strengthen the Jewish commitments of people already engaged in Jewish life as opposed to those who support efforts welcoming intermarried families and encouraging their involvement in the Jewish community.

Backers of inreach often argue that welcoming the intermarried actually encourages intermarriage by reducing the stigma of marrying outside the faith.

While the leaders have debated such issues, most American Jews have quietly grown to accept intermarriage.

Ten years ago the National Jewish Population Survey reported that approximately half of American Jews were marrying non-Jews.

This fall, an AJCommittee survey found that half of American Jews believe opposition to intermarriage is "racist," while 78 percent think rabbis should officiate at weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

The majority of rabbis do not officiate at such weddings: Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are forbidden to do so, and — according to a 1999 survey by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling — 57 percent of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis refuse to do so.

The new study is written by Sylvia Barack Fishman, co-director of the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, a professor in Brandeis University's Near Eastern and Judaic studies department and a member of the AJCommittee coalition promoting in-marriage.

The study also found that many non-Jewish parents eventually grew to resent their children's Jewish upbringing, though they initially had agreed to the concept. The resentment stemmed from a feeling of exclusion — particularly when the child learned unfamiliar rituals and language — as well as a general discomfort with organized religion.

Many non-Jews married to Jews also expressed discomfort with what they saw as the Jewish community's exclusivity and the idea of Jews being a "chosen people."

In addition to reporting on the family dynamics of the intermarried, the study also looks at the influence of parents on whether their children intermarry. It reports that 62 percent of the intermarried Jews said their parents had made no comments discouraging them from marrying outside the faith.

Roughly the same percentage of Jews married to Jews — or to gentiles who had converted — said their parents had discouraged them from intermarrying.

In addition, intermarried Jews who had grown up with several years of Jewish education, celebrating many Jewish holidays and having some Shabbat observance were more likely to raise their children exclusively as Jews.