by Paul Golin
For decades now, panicked voices in the Jewish community have responded to the high rates of intermarriage by asking the provocative question, “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” While in recent years we at JOI are gratified to see the community move away from fear-based program decisions to a focus on positive Jewish engagement – and feel that we’ve helped change the discourse – we are disappointed that there are still communal professionals who maintain as part of their reports or presenting repertoire the highly-deceiving statistics “demonstrating” that almost no grandchildren of an intermarried Jewish grandparent will be raised Jewish.
We think anyone still asking that question should instead imagine themselves asking, in the 1970s, “Will Bob Marley’s grandchildren be Jewish?” Of course, nobody had the foresight to ask that question while reggae great and global icon Bob Marley was still alive. He was Rastafarian, not Jewish, and did not marry a Jewish woman. Yet according to a recent article and video on YNetNews.com, his grandkids are being raised Jewish! His son Ziggy, also a reggae singer, married an Israeli women and together they are raising their children Jewish. Ziggy Marley speaks admiringly of the way Jewish holiday celebrations help maintain Jewish tradition and identity.
Here’s the problem with the interfaith grandparenting statistics: even if they are taken from the latest National Jewish Population Study in 2000 (the most recent national survey conducted), it means that in order to measure the results on grandkids, the grandparents’ intermarriages had to have taken place at least twenty years earlier for there to even be any grandchildren, and in most cases it would have been many more decades earlier. In 1980, there was an almost-universal rejection of intermarriage in the Jewish community, and the Reform movement had yet to accept patrilineal descent. Now imagine 1970, or even 1960, when the majority of those marriages took place. The likelihood of such intermarried “future-grandparents” raising Jewish children was much lower in those days than the rates of intermarried parents raising Jewish children today.
That this context is never included as a disclaimer to that fear-tactic demography, or that no explanation is provided that the numbers will inevitably rise with the increase in Jewish communal programming that includes intermarried families, is at best irresponsible sociology. Ziggy Marley’s wife is just one of countless hundreds of thousands of intermarried Jews raising Jewish children, which is exponentially larger than that cohort size was in 1980 or earlier. And in a community that welcomes all who seek meaning and connection, there is no reason to believe her grandkids won’t also be Jewish. Anecdotally we have already begun to encounter large numbers of Jewish grandchildren of intermarriage being raised Jewish, and fully expect that percentage to increase in the coming decade. While we don’t necessarily advocate for Ziggy Marley’s other avocation, we do recommend that those in the community who continue to stir fear around intermarriage find a way to instead share our positive vibrations.
Paul Golin is Associate Executive Director, Jewish Outreach Institute.