20th Century Jewish-Gentile Marriage Trends
Eighty percent of American Jews would say that their religion is Judaism. However, only eleven percent of those Jews born in America, who do identify their religion as Judaism, attend synagogue weekly. Demographer, Samuel Heilman, analyzed the findings of the National Jewish Population Survey saying, “Jewish identity seems to have moved increasingly toward ethnicity or heritage and culture, while being a ‘good Jew’ has been defined in vaguely moral terms.”
The American Jewish community has become largely secularized. In Rabbi Haberman’s analysis, Jewish people have responded to American culture with a “waning will to be Jewish.” Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary along with sociologist Sylvia Barack-Fishman suggest that American Jews are undergoing “coalescence”- A pervasive process through which American Jews merge American and Jewish ideas, incorporating American liberal values such as free choice, universalism, and pluralism into their understanding of Jewish identity.
American Jews live in a society that no longer defines people by their ascribed identities, either ethnic or religious. Social barriers have collapsed and intermarriage is part of American culture. However, American Jewry views intermarriage as a crisis that is transforming the Jewish community. Wertheimer called this trend “a long process whereby Jews have willingly surrendered ever more aspects of their distinctive worldview in order to ease their own Americanization.”
The 1990 NJPS also discovered a birth rate of 1.8 children per America Jewish couple. The obvious significance of that number is that it is not enough to replace current Jewish population. If nothing changes, according to Rabbi Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Project, the American Jewish population is expected to drop 20 percent every 25 years.
Meanwhile, the children of interfaith couples present a sizable population that is open to Gospel ministry. The 1990 NJPS found that there were 750,000 children under the age of 18 who were being raised in interfaith homes. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College found that 34 percent of children of intermarried families were being raised as Christians compared with 18 percent being raised as Jews. Another 25 percent were being raised with both faiths and 23 percent of those children are raised with no faith at all. That means that, by 1985, already half of the children in Jewish-Gentile households were being exposed to Christian faith.
Over the past thirty years the trend to exogamy, marriage to gentiles, has increased dramatically. By the turn of the millennium, nearly one third of all American Jews were married to non-Jews. That is a product of an intermarriage rate that quadrupled between 1970 and 1990. And the 2000/1 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) showed that the trend did not abate in the next decade.
Before1960 the rate of Jewish intermarriage was below 7%. While the pattern had been observed, Jewish communal leaders were ignoring it as the percentage was rising from 7 to 25 percent by 1970. The 1990 NJPS revealed that between 1985 and 1990 the intermarriage rate was above 52 percent on average nationally, and higher in the Western United States. That rate of Jewish intermarriage has stabilized at over 50% ever since, as reported by the 2000/1 NJPS and the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001 survey.
The United States is not alone in the particular trend. Dinah Spitzer, writing for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently reported, “The intermarriage rate in Europe is on average 50 percent to 70 percent, and much higher in Eastern Europe.” It was surprising to see a 2003 article in HaAretz, an Israeli newspaper, the reported the intermarriage rate in Israel as 10%. Certainly, that is not in the same league with the trend in the United States and Europe, but it shows that perhaps 450,000 Jewish Israelis, or more, are married to non-Jews and are potentially more open to spiritual ministry. So, what are the implications of these trends regarding the challenges experienced by Jewish-Gentile couples? That question needs to be considered before jumping to what can be done to extend ministry to them.