Demographic studies show that Jewish-Gentile couples are a large and growing segment of the American Jewish population. All the major surveys of the American Jewish intermarriage rate over the past thirty years revealed a fourfold increase. The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01 reported that 31% of all married American Jews today are wedded to Gentiles.
The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey (AJIS) reported 51% of all Jewish adults who married since 1990 were married to Gentiles. Additionally the AJIS revealed that 81% of all cohabiting Jews were living with Gentile partners.
Formerly, intermarriage was a Jewish family taboo. The 2000 Annual Jewish Opinion Survey of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) revealed a surprising shift in opinion. The majority of ordinary American Jewish families were no longer pained at the prospect of a family member marrying a Gentile. The findings from the AJC survey reported that the taboo against intermarriage has “collapsed.” However the impact on Jewish and Gentile lives remains. Intermarriage of American Jewry is now the norm.
Research has shown a connection between marital stability and religion. A shared religious faith is a significant factor toward building and maintaining marital stability. It is no surprise then that Jewish-Gentile interfaith marriages are at greater risk than are same-faith unions. Comparison between Jewish-Jewish marriages and intermarried Jews shows that the exogamous couples are twice as likely to divorce.
The topic for this study was not to discover why intermarriage was happening. One sociologist quipped that taking a position for or against intermarriage was about as useful as formulating a policy advocating or resisting the weather. One cannot help but raise the question, “What exactly is happening within Jewish-Gentile relationships that is producing enough stresses to so dramatically threaten these relationships and families?”
Jewish mission workers have been supplying significant anecdotal evidence from field experience of a growing number of Jews who are dating, living with and marrying Gentiles. As in the case of the phone call in 1998, we have been uncertain about how to respond specifically to the concerns of these couples.
They describe feeling marginalized from the church and synagogue communities. At the same time, Jewish-Gentile couples are less inclined to affiliate with churches, synagogues and Judaism. Their children are less likely to identify as Jews. And the Jewish children of intermarried couples are more likely to emulate their parents and to also marry Gentiles.
The topic of the Western Seminary study was the challenges that Jewish-Gentile couples experience. Tuvya wanted to acquire a Jewish insider’s, or the emic, understanding of the challenges experienced by heterosexual couples, with one Jewish and one Gentile partner in the United States. He anticipated that the research findings would subsequently be helpful in formulating appropriate mission strategy to reach them. The first task was to discover their challenges.
We will discover those challenges through this study. Meanwhile, there are some terms that should be defined for the reader.