Thursday, October 05, 2006

How to Help Jews Marry Jews

I believe that it is possible to lower the intermarriage rate from 50% to 25% without requiring American Judaism to undergo a religious conversion. Membership in any of the liberal denominations frequently is not sufficient to prevent the children from intermarrying. The torture of bar and bat mitzvahs studies, coupled with the inevitable gala parties causes many young people to identify Jewish life with crass materialism. The girl whose parents last year gave her a one million dollar bat mitzvah and hired the rock stars of her dreams will not be spending a year in Israel at Bravender’s studying Torah any time soon.

I begin with the working premise that the vast majority of people who intermarry don’t start out life having made the decision they definitely want to intermarry. They don’t find themselves at some point in adolescence saying, “I’ve had it with being Jewish. I’m going to find myself some Asian or WASP to marry.” In the vast majority of instances, it just happens without too much forethought or planning. Assuming this premise is true, and it is only one of several possible hypotheses, we are forced to conclude that in most instances it happens because it’s natural and easy… and why not? It is this condition that has to be addressed.

I have a 4 point plan, by which I mean if contrary to fact anyone ever asked my opinion I would propose the following:

Social Set- A social set is a group of families and friends that hang out. They go out together, see each other with some frequency and regularity, visit each others homes, travel together and so on. They might meet in a shul or a country club or a basketball game. The venue is unimportant. Some people have one core set of friends. Others may have 2 or even 3. (If you have 25 sets they may not all be friends). A social set is multigenerational. Adults and children mix easily and frequently. What I am proposing is that every Jewish family makes it their business to belong to one core set that is clearly Jewish in ambiance and feeling.

I see the importance of social sets for intermarriage all the time. For example, I have these two friends. The first comes from a traditional Jewish home, and is married a woman who also comes from a very Jewish home. It appears their children will intermarry. My second friend comes from an assimilated home and is married to a woman one of whose parents is not Jewish. Their children will definitely not intermarry. What is the difference? The only thing I can see is that the second but not the first hangs out in a Jewish social set. The social set is not at all religious; it’s just comfortably and easily Jewish in a way that is understandable to anyone who has been around such groups. My first friend has graduated into a more stylish, faster much less Jewish social set. I believe it is this factor alone that accounts for the different trajectories of their children.

Children many times act out what the parents feel even when it is largely unconscious. Somehow kids can pick it up. A Jew who disparages being Jewish, even if it is only in a secret chamber in his heart is effectively signaling to his kids…don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I feel. And listen they do. A Jew who has little place in his life for other Jews will see the results in his kids.

Friday night- I think it’s important the there be a center to a home. Not necessarily a religious center, but rather a time where everyone sits down to a formal meal, each family according to its own style and capabilities. I’m not arguing there has to be a Sabbath, even though a Sabbath would be best. Even if no one goes to shul, and even if no one makes kiddush or lights candles, it is important that a family gets together and meet face-to-face without the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It provides an opportunity for parents to talk to children and for children to talk to parents. It provides a moment where there’s no television or video games. It enables a child to invite their friends for a Sabbath meal and, in turn, to be invited. A child who grows up without this center has no feeling for the cycle of Jewish life. A child who grows up with a special Friday night, even if it doesn’t have a religious character, has at least one differentiating characteristic, a remnant of a mitzvah if you want, that sets him/her apart from the rest of the world.

Summer camp- it would be nice if all children would have a Jewish elementary education. It’s not going to happen. At $15,000+ a year after tax, an average American Jewish family has to earn $45,000 to send two kids to day school. Strict Orthodox Jews with strong convictions about the importance of yeshivas are choking, unable to meet their financial obligations because of the high costs of tuition. It is unreasonable to expect Jews who don’t believe in a Jewish day school education to enroll their children because it will cut down on the rate of intermarriage twenty years down the road. Jewish summer camp is a different order of magnitude and is doable. A Jewish summer camp in the formative years when children go to camp has the ability to impress itself on a child in a lasting way. The camp doesn’t have to be particularly religious, although it must have Jewish elements to it. I believe that children who go to the Reform Movement summer camps, or even Labor Zionist summer camps, and certainly to Ramah, have a lower intermarriage rate than children who go to secular summer camps.

College- They once asked Willy Sutton, the famous bank robber, why he robbed banks. He said because that’s where the money was. Why do some young people meet and marry Jews and other don’t? One cause is some go to schools where there are Jews and others do not. A family that send their children to a college where the Jewish population is small is almost guaranteeing their child will date non-Jewish people and feel comfortable in secular and Christian environments. It’s a small step after college to continue dating outside the faith. There are more than enough great colleges where the Jewish population is considerable. (Many of the Ivy League and some of the seven sister schools, Stanford, U of Michigan, Tulane, etc.). A child has to be discouraged from going to places like Reed, Carlton, and other such very good but very goyish colleges. The data about colleges is readily available and should be publicized.

Summing up, my hypothesis is that if these four conditions are satisfied, the intermarriage rate would drop in half, even if no one is religious or Zionist. They are not terribly difficult and don’t require major changes in life style. Obviously I might be wrong. What I find disconcerting is that after so many years and so many discussions, a simple hypothesis like I just proposed has never been to the best of my knowledge tried or tested. (I don’t really know this. It might have been tested years ago and shown negative results. But I tend to doubt any large scale study was ever performed on a complex combination of conditions.) If I am wrong in my thinking, then indeed it is true that some form of religion and/or Zionist feeling is necessary to prevent intermarriage. I believe that these latter conditions are necessary if you want to get the intermarriage rate down to under 10%. The American Jewish leadership would be delighted with an intermarriage rate of 25%. Such a rate together with the high Orthodox fertility would prolong Jewish life in the Diaspora for a few more generations.

In a future blog I’ll take a look at an asymmetrical revealed preference theory of intermarriage. The friction hypothesis which I have assumed, to wit, Jews who hang with Jews marry Jews, is not the whole truth, but it certainly must be considered a big part of the story.


At 12:02 PM, Blogger mother in israel said...

Very good post. I once heard about a study that showed that if a person's two best friends were Jewish, s/he had a much better chance of marrying Jewish.
I agree that the relationship with the family is critical and that parents need to spend more time with their children, talking to them etc. But I think there also has to be Jewish context and content in the home. My parents were both born in Europe, in Yiddish speaking homes. For many Jews, their parents' Jewish identity is very strong even if their observance was minimal. That Jewish identity gets harder to pass on with each generation, so Jewish education and rituals become more important.

At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you have against religious intermarriage?

At 12:02 PM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

In a future blog I’ll take a look at an asymmetrical revealed preference theory of intermarriage.

I think you mean in a future post. The terminology is 'post' for the articles, and 'blog' for the whole collection.

I like the blog. Very well written.

Chag Sameach.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous...I have nothing against religious intermarriage as such, provided everyone is signed on to the rabbinic details of the conversion and understand the full implications of such choices. I do believe the statistics show that with each sucessive intermarriage, even if done under rabbinical auspices the chances of intermarriage in the next generation increase. I would think much depends on the way the next generation is raised.


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