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What Do Children of Intermarried Parents Portend for the Jewish Future?

What Do Children of Intermarried Parents Portend for the Jewish Future?

Older man holding preschool-age boy on his lap. Both appear happy.

Heard@Biennial_3 _0.jpgFor the first time in American history, we knew in advance that the winner of the 2016 presidential election would have a Jewish son-in-law – Marc Mezvinsky or Jared Kushner, thus highlighting, among other things, the vast impact of intermarriage on the American and American Jewish scenes.

The election also pointed to three different scenarios, among the many, concerning intermarriage, underscoring how complex the phenomenon has become and why we properly wonder about its long-term implications.

Consider three intermarriage scenarios: Runner up Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who was born and identifies as a Jew, is married to Dr. Jane O’Meara, a Roman Catholic. Theirs is a blended family with four children and seven grandchildren: not one of those grandchildren identifies as a Jew.

Hillary Clinton’s Methodist daughter, Chelsea, married Marc Mezvinsky. Their two children, we are told, are being brought up in two faiths. We don’t know how they will identify when they grow up.

Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, converted to marry Jared Kushner, and they are raising their children as Orthodox Jews.

All three of these scenarios reflect the new post-intermarriage world in which U.S. Jews find themselves. Some 58% of all American Jews who married between 2000 and 2013 intermarried. If we focus only on the non-Orthodox, the intermarriage rate is much higher (more than 70%). As a result, at least half of all Jews reaching young adulthood today are children of intermarriage.

The question is what will happen to them: Will they become like the Sanders grandchildren, the Clinton grandchildren, or the Trump grandchildren?

The future of American Judaism, in many respects, rests on that question. In Israel, people read the intermarriage numbers, and many assume that every intermarriage will ultimately produce the Sanders result. That, in part, is why the current government feels that it can write off the Reform Movement – they think that it will disappear in a generation or two. Of course, that is not the way we see it. Increasingly, American Jews, especially in the Reform Movement, care less about intermarriage and more about how the resulting children are being raised.

The data, I warn you, is easily manipulated: A recent study showed that a whopping 84% of the millennial children of intermarried parents continue to identify in some way as Jewish. Fabulous news. Maybe we should have more intermarriage! But, the same study also reveals that only 22% of the millennial children of intermarried parents call themselves “Jewish by religion.” The rest say they are “Jews of no religion,” or claim to be Jewish and another religion. If that number holds up, then the number of American Jews and the number of Reform Jews will inevitably decline. We need to hold on to at least 50% of the children of intermarriage solely to maintain our numbers.

The truth is we don’t know what will be with the children of intermarried parents. What we do know is that our actions will make a difference. If the Jewish community rejects those children, and if Israel rejects them, chances are they will end up like the Sanders grandchildren – not identifying as Jews. If, however, they are embraced and encouraged and welcomed as converts – maybe they will end up as we hope Arabella, Joseph, and Theodore Kushner do – identifying as Jews.

Of course, the Trump children and grandchildren are not just Jews, but Orthodox Jews. In the old days, we said that 7-10% of American Jewry was Orthodox. Today, 27% of those under 18 are Orthodox according to the Pew Research Center. According to the New York Jewish Population Study, well over half (61%) of those under 18 in the New York City area are Orthodox.

The shockingly low birthrate among non-Orthodox Jews, who simply are not reproducing themselves (Reform Jews have 1.6-1.7 children per couple), has made the Orthodox community the demographic engine of American Jewry. And the more right-wing Orthodox they are, the more children they have.

Orthodox Jews will likely play a much larger role in 21st century American Jewish life than in the century just past, but it is not clear that all the children of Orthodox Jews will remain Orthodox. Beware of straight line analyses that project today’s realities unchangingly into the future. History is not predetermined.

We can do a great deal to shape it.

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. He is also past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Author or editor of more than 30 books, his American Judaism: A History won six awards. His most recent book is the award-winning Lincoln & the Jews: A History (with Benjamin Shapell).

Jonathan D. Sarna
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