The Pew study’s results have given us the challenge of a lifetime. But this study has also pointed out a previously unthinkable opportunity: intermarriage. Yes, this will require nothing short of a conceptual revolution for Jewish institutions. But the fact is that intermarriage is not a problem, nor a challenge; Intermarriage is our generation’s biggest opportunity for Jewish communal growth.
The math is simple: First (as we now know thanks to Pew) intermarriage is on the rise. Among the non-Orthodox, 72 percent of Jews married in the past decade are married to a partner who is not Jewish. Even if this number remains stable into the future, this still makes intermarriage the normal rather than an exceptional form of Jewish marriage in the 21st century.
Second, the intermarried create twice as many households as the in-married. Think about it this way: for every four in-marrying Jews there can only be two Jewish couples. Were the same four Jews to intermarry, there would be four couples created. Pew tells us that 61 percent of intermarried couples raise children with a Jewish identity (including 25 percent who raise them with another religion). If we assume there is no significant difference in the size of in-married and intermarried households (let’s say both have two children on average), we can expect intermarried couples to generate almost 20 percent more Jewish children.
Third, adult children of intermarriage increasingly identify as Jewish. As recently shown by Theodore Sasson, the number of children of intermarriage who identify Jewishly as adults is on the rise. So much so, that among those in their 20s more than half (59 percent) of the adult children of intermarriage identify as Jews.
The challenge to the organized Jewish community is twofold. First, stop thinking of intermarriage as a problem. Second, create the avenues for the adult children of intermarried families to enter into meaningful engagement with the organized Jewish community. Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute has been a leader in the field of Jewish outreach and engagement for the past 25 years. Our recent study has shown that many of the adult children of intermarriage who show interest in Jewish participation do not find their way into affiliation with Jewish institutions.
We are now designing the next generation of engagement programs for many populations historically marginalized by Jewish institutions, including the adult children of intermarriage. Let us know if you would like to join hands with us in moving the organized Jewish community into a more inclusive future.
Zohar Rotem is program officer for evaluation at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.