By Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman Pew Research Center
American Jews have been debating the impact of intermarriage for decades. Does intermarriage lead to assimilation and weaken the Jewish community? Or is it a way for a religion that traditionally does not seek converts to bring new people into the fold and, thereby, strengthen as well as diversify the Jewish community? The new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews did not start this debate and certainly will not end it. However, the survey’s findings on intermarriage, child rearing and Jewish identity provide some support for both sides.
For example, the survey shows that the offspring of intermarriages – Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent – are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.
Yet the survey also suggests that a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are Jewish in adulthood. Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.
Surveys are snapshots in time. They typically show associations, or linkages, rather than clear causal connections, and they don’t predict the future. We do not know, for example, whether the large cohort of young adult children of intermarriage who are Jewish today will remain Jewish as they age, marry (and in some cases, intermarry), start families and move through the life cycle. With those cautions in mind, here’s a walk through some of our data on intermarriage, including some new analysis that goes beyond the chapter on intermarriage in our original report. (We would like to thank several academic researchers, including Theodore Sasson of Brandeis University, Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College and NYU Wagner, and Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California, for suggesting fruitful avenues of additional analysis.)
First, intermarriage is practically nonexistent among Orthodox Jews; 98% of the married Orthodox Jews in the survey have a Jewish spouse. But among all other married Jews, only half say they have a Jewish spouse.
In addition, intermarriage rates appear to have risen substantially in recent decades, though they have been relatively stable since the mid-1990s. Looking just at non-Orthodox Jews who have gotten married since 2000, 28% have a Jewish spouse and fully 72% are intermarried.
Also, intermarriage is more common among Jewish respondents who are themselves the children of intermarriage. Among married Jews who report that only one of their parents was Jewish, just 17% are married to a Jewish spouse. By contrast, among married Jews who say both of their parents were Jewish, 63% have a Jewish spouse.