The persecution historically faced by Jewish communities was always a double-edged sword: While it brought great suffering, it also yielded great cohesion. That cohesion is slipping away in America, where Jews have met with unprecedented social acceptance. The result: a tide of Jewish intermarriage.
In 1990, the rate of Jewish intermarriage was only about 29 percent, according to sociologist Bruce Phillips. As of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, 39 percent of all Jews were married to a non-Jew.
By 2030, interfaith families could account for 70 percent of the Jewish population, predicted Phillips, a Hebrew Union College professor and senior research fellow in USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. The demographic significance of this pattern is profound because research shows that children with only one Jewish parent are far less likely to identify as Jews.
While most Jewish communal leaders wring their hands over this trend, Phillips examines it from a new angle in a forthcoming book.
“Most of research on intermarriage has been driven by a ‘Jewish continuity’ narrative: ‘Is it good or bad for the Jews?’ I’m looking at it the way sociologists and demographers typically look at intermarriage,” he said.
“For me, the question is not: ‘Why do Jews intermarry?’ The question is: ‘Why do Jews in-marry?’ Because Jews are so well integrated into American society and such a small population, you would expect them to all be intermarried,” he said.
But they are not. In fact, research shows that after taking group size into consideration, Jews are more likely to in-marry than Asian-Americans or Hispanics.
The comparison is useful because it turns out the children of Jewish interfaith couples resemble the children of biracial couples in other ways. For example, Phillips noted, biracial children growing up in black neighborhoods are more likely to be identified by their parents as African-American on census forms than if they lived in a mixed-race or white neighborhood.
“Similarly, intermarried Jews who live in Jewish areas are much more likely to raise their children in Judaism than those who live on the fringes of a Jewish community,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ book, tentatively titled End of the Road or Bend in the River? also investigates how Jews and their non-Jewish partners negotiate Christmas, wedding ceremonies and child-rearing.
As a research fellow at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, Phillips participates in the Working Group on Religion in Southern California, a regional consortium of religion researchers. The group will publish a book next year exploring the region’s striking religious diversity.
Learn more about Bruce Phillips’ work on Jews in Southern California at USC News online.
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