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.