Strength in (Smaller) Numbers

Even with declining synagogue membership and increasing intermarriage, the vibrancy and determination of communal life is visible in many areas that resonate with the younger generation.

Via Shutterstock
Via Shutterstock

By Ariella Saperstein

An hour into my El Al flight in 2007, the woman next to me asked if this was my first trip to Israel. Indeed it was, I said, with Birthright. Her next question caught me by surprise: “Are both your parents Jewish?”

“No,” I muttered, “just one.”

That was the end of our conversation. My neighbor on the plane surely agreed with those in the Jewish community who consider intermarriage the greatest threat to the future of American Jewry. Indeed, intermarriage has risen dramatically within the past several decades, from 17% before 1970 to 43% in 1990 and 58% in 2013 (according to the last Pew survey). Among the non-Orthodox, the numbers look even more dire: as many as 71% intermarry. Thinkers like Jack Wertheimer have advocated for the Jewish institutions and their leaders to demonstrate more assertively the responsibility, and value of in-marriage. Wertheimer, in fact, argues that, more than a personal decision, intermarriage’s “social consequences” must be stressed more deeply to the millennial generation.

Yet in today’s post-modern world, evoking messages reminiscent of our grandparents’ parochial experience is impossible. Neighborhoods, families, workplaces and educational settings are far more integrated; younger people resent the tribalist impulse to privilege relationships with other Jews simply because they share a common religion or ethnicity.

Some Jewish parents still see a Jewish marriage for their children as the ideal, but attitudes are shifting. A The 2011 Greater NY Jewish Community Study found that parents split 50-50 when asked if they would be upset if their child married a non-Jew. However, with NY Jews about 20% Orthodox, it’s safe to say the majority of non-Orthodox NY Jews would not be upset if their children intermarried. Disapproval of inter-marriage is likely even lower among millennial Jews, as well as those living outside major U.S. coastal cities with significant Jewish communities.

Much ink, therefore, has justifiably been spilled about strategies to engage intermarried families with Judaism so that they will raise Jewish children. In recent years, such efforts appear to be meeting with some success, with the portion of children of intermarried families identifying as Jewish rising from 45% for generation X to 49% of the millennial generation in 2013 (a full 59% of those under 30 with one Jewish parent identify as Jewish). These numbers should be cheered, even if the children of intermarriage in turn intermarry at higher rates (83%, according to Pew). Sociologists like Steven Cohen, however, focus on the likelihood that, in the long-term, the active, non-Orthodox American Jewish community will experience some decline in total population.

Yet, missing from the conversation is a discussion about what a smaller Jewishly active population might mean (demographers differ on the size of this decrease, with those on one end pointing to a decline up to half within a generation, and others pointing to the increased trend of children of intermarriage to identify Jewishly as a sign that the decrease will be far more minimal). Most assume – naturally – that a smaller Jewish community is necessarily a weaker one.

Even in the face of rising intermarriage rates, however, Jewish creativity and innovation are flourishing. Today, a larger diversity of American Jewish organizations is reaching out to a broader population spectrum of Judaism than ever before. Those interested in Judaism and the environment can bike ride with Hazon, while others wishing to immerse themselves in Jewish culture and politics can read daily articles in the online (and recently print) magazine Tablet or subscribe to the quarterly Jewish Review of Books. Limmud conferences across the US and now the world offer non-traditional communal and educational opportunities to young Jews, regardless of their background.

Depending on their views of Israel, Jews can visit the region with Birthright or Encounter (among others), or lobby with AIPAC or J Street. In the last 15 years, Bikkurim and PresenTense have provided accelerator and entrepreneurship opportunities to Jewish start-ups, helping to build AVODAH, Challah for Hunger, and JDub records (now, sadly defunct), among others. Diaspora Israelis have the Israeli-American Council, while Reboot and OneTable are each reinventing Shabbat in different ways for Jews across the religious and political spectrum. Inter-married families are finding a home in independent minyanim and start-up, rabbi-led congregations like the Kitchen, and organizations like American Jewish World Service and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice enable socially-minded Jews to get involved with broader issues, seen through a Jewish lens. Single Jews doing their best to avoid intermarriage now have the option of dating through JDate or JSwipe (even if temptation from the occasional philo-semite “willing to convert” can also be found on their apps).

Intermarriage itself has spawned the creation of additional initiatives, such as Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) and InterfaithFamily.com, both of which offer a plethora of resources and educational options to couples with a non-Jewish spouse. When Michael Douglas – the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, himself married to the non-Jewish actress Catherine Zeta-Jones – won the million dollar Genesis Prize last year, he used the money as a challenge grant, quickly raising an additional $3.3 million for the Avenues to Jewish Engagement for Intermarried Couples and their Families program. One of the match’s grantees, Honeymoon Israel, is yet another young organization designed to bring Jews with non-Jewish spouses to Israel.

With this mere sample of the many innovative Jewish organizations which have sprung up in the 21st century, it is hard to be pessimistic about the Jewish future. If history has taught us anything, it is that the Jewish community is much more than its population size. Even with declining synagogue membership and increasing intermarriage, the vibrancy and determination of communal life is visible in many areas that resonate with the younger generation. In the 21st century of identity politics, more and different avenues for engagement are necessary. Such new ways of Jewish expression may not be captured by a survey, but their growth and variety suggest that, regardless of numbers, the opportunities for continued Jewish life are much rosier than those anxious about intermarriage would have us believe.

Ariella Saperstein is the Israel Program Officer at The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Helmsley Charitable Trust.