November 12, 2013

What happens when Jews intermarry?

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.

FT_jewish-identity-by-generationAmong Jews, the adult offspring of intermarriages are also much more likely than people with two Jewish parents to describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or just “nothing in particular.” This is the case among all recent generations of U.S. Jews.

For example, among Jewish Baby Boomers who had two Jewish parents, 88% say their religion is Jewish; hence, we categorize them as “Jews by religion.” But among Baby Boomers who had one Jewish parent, 53% describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, even though they also say they consider themselves Jewish or partially Jewish aside from religion; they are categorized as “Jews of no religion” in the table. Far fewer Jewish Baby Boomers who had two Jewish parents (12%) are Jews of no religion today.

A similar pattern is seen among Jewish Millennials: 51% of Millennials who have one Jewish parent are Jews of no religion, compared with just 15% of Millennials who had two Jewish parents.

Summing this up, it appears that the share of Jews of no religion is similar – and relatively low – among recent generations of Jews with two Jewish parents. It is much higher (and also fairly similar across generations) among self-identified Jews with only one Jewish parent.

FT_13.11.12_JewishIntermarriage_one_parent1But it is also important to bear in mind that the percentage of Jewish adults who are the offspring of intermarriages appears to be rising. Just 6% of Jews from the Silent Generation say they had one Jewish parent, compared with 18% of Jewish Baby Boomers, 24% of Generation X and nearly half (48%) of Jewish Millennials. The result is that there are far more Jews of no religion among younger generations of Jews than among previous generations, as shown in the survey report.

When we look at all adults who have just one Jewish parent – including both those who identify as Jewish and those who do not – we see that the Jewish retention rate of people raised in intermarried families appears to be rising. That is, among all adults (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who say they had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, younger generations are more likely than older generations to be Jewish today.

FT_13.11.12_JewishIntermarriage_younger_generation1For example, among U.S. adults ages 65 and older who had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today (including 7% who are Jews by religion and 18% who are Jews of no religion), while 75% are not Jewish (meaning that they currently identify with a religion other than Judaism or that they do not consider themselves Jewish in any way, either by religion or otherwise). Among adults younger than 30 who have one Jewish parent, by contrast, 59% are Jewish today, including 29% who are Jews by religion and 30% who are Jews of no religion.

Finally, it has often been assumed that Jewish women are less inclined to intermarry than are Jewish men. As Bruce Phillips, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, has written: “In American popular culture, intermarriage has been the [domain] of Jewish males. Starting with ‘Abbie’s Irish Rose’ and ‘The Jazz Singer’ following the turn of the century through ‘Bridget Loves Bernie’ and the ‘Heartbreak Kid’ in the early 1970s to ‘Mad About You’ in the 1990s, the plot is about a Jewish married man in love with a stereotypical [non-Jewish woman].”

But our survey finds that Jewish women are slightly more likely to be intermarried than Jewish men. Among the married Jewish women surveyed, 47% say they have a non-Jewish spouse. Among the married Jewish men, 41% say they have a non-Jewish spouse.

Topics: Intermarriage, Jews and Judaism

  1. Photo of Gregory A. Smith

    is an associate director of research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Alan Cooperman

    is director of religion research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Jon2 years ago

    “Half-Jewish” network? That’s interesting. Judaism must be the only religion that you are only “half” of if you only share genetics from one person previously in the religion, but are a full participant yourself. The name of your organization seems to speak to a primarily racial criteria for group membership. That’s fine. However, Jewish groups should thereby be viewed as essentially racial nationalist groups in practice.

  2. mario ginzburg3 years ago

    Is there a percentage of the Jewish assimilation rate?

  3. Ery3 years ago

    What lies!!! So, the son of Ruth the Moabite is not a Jewish! Therefore who is David the son of Jesse??? Nothing because he was born from a NON-JEWISH woman!!! Who is Ephraim and Manases who were born from an Egypcian???!!! Who are the sons of Moses??? None! Because they were born from a woman from Madian!!!
    God does not forbit marriages with non-jewish people. Devarim specifically forbits it from those 7 specific nations!!! God forgave & spared other nations but not those.
    God hates divorce, what He has brought togethet let no man separate. Much less his lies.
    In that way you are not teaching nor showing what G-d commanded you to do,” love the foreing, remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt” “The LORD your G-d loves the foreign, widow, fathetless giving them food & clothing. Please read Badeembar 22:21-23 & Devarim 10-18-19
    And please don’t cause yourselves the anti-semitism raises against you. Thanl G-d for the love He poured out in my heart that I’m saying this just trying to help but imagine if some people would not have this kind of love…if I still fight so much against the bad feelings for the pain that a Jewish person has caused in me and part of my family, but not for one I’ll judge to all, right? So, I can understand why other people arise against you in hatred without making any distinction just against ” ALL THEM” you) taking it just “generally”. May HaShem really blesses you & blesses us as well. Baruch HaShem!

  4. Ellen Cottrill3 years ago

    Very interesting article. I recently read a book called A Jew in the Pew, written by a Jewish woman who is married to a Gentile, that deals with how their differences effect various aspects of their life together and the way they raise their children. It was not only a book that most couples in that situation could relate to, but, also a very entertaining read.…

  5. Elaine Fogel4 years ago

    Excellent data here. Although Jewish community groups have made some strides in developing programs to counter intermarriage, many Millennial females anecdotally say that it is extremely difficult to meet potential Jewish spouses.

    I’d like to see Jewish philanthropists, like those who kick-started Birthright Israel, focus on free North American social programs for Millennial Jews.

    1. Robin Margolis4 years ago

      Dear Elaine Fogel:

      The Jewish community has already tried making it easier for younger Jews with two Jewish parents to meet similar single Jews. These efforts failed.

      Jewish philanthropists funded large numbers of projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s designed to achieve this goal. They included all kinds of “Jewish continuity” projects such as JDub (a wonderful Jewish music company), Jewcy (the earlier website, not the new one associated with Tablet online magazine), “Heeb” magazine, and many, many other “continuity” projects, whose goal — expressed very bluntly — was to give young Jews with two Jewish parents chances to meet socially.

      The projects were also intended to help younger Jews develop appealing Jewish cultural alternatives for young Jews beyond synagogues and Jewish communal organizations.

      In fact, Jewish philanthropists funded these organizations so lavishly that many young Jews began making gentle fun of them, producing cartoons and essays mocking them as breeding projects and as ways of securing fast, easy money.

      But when the economic recession of 2008 came, and the contracts and grants under which many of these organizations were funded came up for review, the Jewish donors discontinued their funding, causing most of these organizations to collapse or dramatically downsize and become nearly invisible.

      The Jewish donors had expected these organizations to grow in membership and become self-supporting much faster than was realistic, in my personal opinion.

      There were other reasons why these projects failed, again in my opinion. They were geared to appeal entirely to young Jews with two Jewish parents, ignoring the fact that 48 percent of all Millenial Jews are adult children of intermarriage, according to the Pew Report.

      This meant that these projects sometimes exhibited the same clubby, “in-group” atmosphere that made mainstream Jewish organizations so alienating to Jewish young people. Only this time it was — and I believe unintentionally — young Gen X and Millenial Jews ignoring the interests of their half-Jewish peers, despite their good intentions to be welcoming.

      Few adult children of intermarriage likely empathized, for example, with Heeb’s amiable jokes in that era about Jewish nose jobs, having immigrant Jewish grandfathers or stereotypes of Camp Ramah — few half-Jewish people had ever had such experiences.

      These projects, despite being run by younger Jews, and having some half-Jewish staff members, rarely produced any articles, art or music that might interest adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage.

      So these young adult Jewish projects appealed to only half of their potential audience, another factor that kept the numbers of participants, buyers and subscribers low enough to cause Jewish philanthropists to discontinue the projects.

      Jewish institutions to some degree still fund outreach to help young, single adult Jews meet other Jews for marriage. This has caused well-publicized resentment among single Jews over age 40 — Gen X and Baby Boomers mostly — who feel that Jewish institutions virtually ignore them.

      You suggest that some type of North American outreach for young Jewish singles be created. Unless it targets the interests of Millenial adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, it will likely do as poorly as the “continuity” projects.

      I speak as someone closely acquainted with the needs of adult descendants of intermarriage.

      I thank the Pew Report for making this discussion possible, and providing a plethora of accurate statistics!

      Robin Margolis
      Half-Jewish Network

      1. Elaine Fogel4 years ago

        Thanks for this explanation, Robin. I wonder why philanthropists only focused on young people with two Jewish parents, when, as you and Pew indicate, 48% of all Millennial Jews are adult children of intermarriage. That, in itself, is discriminatory and short-sighted.

        Perhaps some of these funders were more religiously traditional and do not recognize the children of non-Jewish spouses as Jews. That, of course, doesn’t justify the exclusion, but it would explain it.

        Some of the Jewish Federations are still trying to connect young people, as is Hillel on campuses across North America. I admire their efforts. Yet, in this social media world, many young people turn to online dating sites, especially if they find in-person events intimidating or the timing doesn’t fit their schedules.

        As far as I know, JDate is the only Jewish option. Many couples I know met there and have married. On the other hand, its fees can be an obstacle. How about philanthropists sponsoring this channel?

        1. Robin Margolis4 years ago

          Dear Elaine:

          As far as I could tell, most funders of the Jewish “continuity” projects of the 1990s and early 2000s believed that Judaism could survive in America only if the majority of people with two jewish parents married other people with two Jewish parents.

          This cut across religious lines — some funders appeared to be secular Jews.

          There were frequent statements in the Jewish media that it was necessary to sponsor these projects to reduce the number of intermarriages. So everything connected with these projects — especially the publicity — was geared towards attracting only young Jews with two Jewish parents.

          When half-Jewish people see that a project is intended to reduce or prevent intermarriages, the message they receive is: “This project is intended to prevent people like me from being born.” The message is an instant turn-off.

          So even though most continuity projects didn’t officially exclude half-Jewish people and sometimes had a small number of half-Jewish participants and staff, the ideas that the projects were based on made them unwelcoming to the adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage.

          That cut out 48 percent of their potential audience.

          If this type of thinking among Jewish funders doesn’t change, even added funding for JDate won’t work.

          Ironically, I’m told that JDate has a number of Christians participating in it who want to marry Jews.

          I think that funders need to shift from “getting people with two Jewish parents to marry each other” to “helping people who identify as Jews or are interested in Judaism meet and marry each other.”

          You’re absolutely right that young people prefer to use online dating websites and social media to meet. The “continuity” projects did set up some good websites, but their online outreach capabilities were never fully utilized.

          Robin Margolis
          Half-Jewish Network

  6. Robin Margolis4 years ago

    Dear Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman:

    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, an organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, i found your report accurate and helpful.

    I also look at this study as someone who co-authored the first book-length study of half-Jewish people in the early 1990s.

    It confirms pioneering research I did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which I predicted that half-Jewish people would be the majority of young adult American Jews by the year 2020. The future has arrived 7 years early.

    I also spent years telling skeptics that Jewish women were intermarrying at the same rate as Jewish men. That hypothesis has come true as well.

    I have spoken with hundreds of half-Jewish people and their intermarried parents, and I’d say the Pew report is much-needed wake up call for many segments of the Jewish community.

    I would suggest that the complaints about the report’s research and accuracy are simply shooting the messenger for bringing unexpected news.

    I have linked to this report in my group’s newsletter and urged them to read it. I believe that they will find it of great interest.

    I thank the Pew Research Center for their hard work!

    Robin Margolis

  7. Tony George4 years ago

    Great, so a slightly larger % of offspring of married out Jews identifies as “Jewish” than previously; so what. That same Pew studies shows these “Jews” don’t identify with religion, don’t identify with Israel, in fact don’t identify with any aspect of being “Jewish” other than lox and bagels. There is nothing positive in the Pew study for Jews or Judaism.

  8. David4 years ago

    This is a good point. But the Pew researchers do also suggest that the retention rate will be higher for this generation of Orthodox than for the last generation(s). On the other hand, who has a crystal ball?

  9. Dan Ab4 years ago

    Pew, like most other surveys of Jewish life, is still misinterpreting the relationship between denominational affiliation and intermarriage. This is most specifically shown in this line, ” “Intermarriage is practically nonexistent among Orthodox Jews; 98% of the married Orthodox Jews in the survey have a Jewish spouse.” This uses CURRENT denominational affiliation, not the affiliation where one was raised. What this statistic shows is not whether someone who was raised in the Orthodox world is less likely to intermarry. It shows that, an Orthodox Jew who intermarries stops identifying as Orthodox.

    Fortunately, Pew collected survey data on denomination raised. These data can be used to estimate the rate of intermarriage for people who are raised in various denominations. I hypothesize that “raised Orthodox” will have a much higher intermarriage rate than “currently Orthodox” (though not as high as other denominations), but intermarried adults who were raised Orthodox are less likely to consider themselves religious than intermarried adults who were raised non-Orthodox religious.

    1. Squall4 years ago

      Dan Ab : No it doesnt misinterpret datas. People who identify with orthodoxy in the 70s and before would never be considered orthodox today.

      They left massively orthodoxy upon immigrating in the US (most became conservative). It would make no sense to count them as orthdox when comparing intermarriage rates. You cant espace the fact that there is A LOT LESS intermmariage among traditionnal jews than among liberal ones.

  10. Stephanie Rapp4 years ago

    I must note that it is ironic and troubling to me to have so many males commenting on the behaviors of the Jewish people, especially of Jewish women. Alan Cooperman, Greg Smith, Steven Cohen, Theodore Sasson, Bruce Phillips. Is it really that hard to find women demographers, academics, sociologists to add their perspective? The previous article by Pew on the study also only included male voices. Since studies also seem to bear out that women, Jewish or not, who marry Jewish men are often the ones who support Jewish traditions and practices in their families, seems particularly irksome that Pew has not sought out female voices. One of the facts of American Jewish life, not different than American life overall, is that women are often not in leadership positions of organizations though they make up the vast majority of professionals at Jewish agencies. They tend to not be asked to serve on boards, serve as speakers at conferences, and serve as commentators on demographic studies. Come on, Pew. You can certainly do better in seeking out women to be a part of these national studies.

  11. Charles Lebow4 years ago

    The generational difference in self-definition being Jewish may be a reflection of the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent. Children of non-Jewish mothers used to know they weren’t Jewish.

  12. Luke Lea4 years ago

    Looks good. That means assimilation is working.

  13. David4 years ago

    This comment still misses one crucial aspect, how are the intermarriage statistics looking when you look at first marriages? A lot of intermarriage happens with 2nd and 3rd marriages, which are less likely to produce children. Often, the children from a previous marriage are split between the two parents. One parent could be raising them completely Jewish, while the other could be in a 2nd marriage which is an intermarriage which doesn’t.

    How many of first marriages are intermarriages, both the NET Jewish share as well as the strictly secular/non-Orthodox share? This is missing.