Opinion |

How the Jewish-American Elite Has Manufactured the Intermarriage 'Crisis'

U.S. Jewish communal professionals says intermarriage is a problem demanding multi-million dollar intervention. But Jews like me don't buy it: not their 'crisis' definition, the political framing, nor the 'solutions' they offer.

Rokhl Kafrissen
Rokhl Kafrissen
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A woman places a wedding ring on her fiance's finger during a mass wedding ceremony, August 19, 2016.
A woman places a wedding ring on her fiance's finger during a mass wedding ceremony, August 19, 2016.Credit: Reuters / Jaime Saldarriaga
Rokhl Kafrissen
Rokhl Kafrissen

There’s no easier way to calculate the disconnect between Jewish leaders and their constituents than to compare their deepest concerns. For example, in 2013, Jane Eisner, editor in chief of the Forward, wrote that what kept her up at night was whether young people in their 20s and 30s would get married and, more importantly, whether they would marry Jews in the wake of the Pew survey on American Jews that she pushed for.

Next up: Your grandchild's baptism

And if you’ve been on social media the last few weeks, you couldn’t have missed a new (and not uncontroversial) outreach campaign by the name of Jewbelong. Jewbelong is the product of marketing specialists with a mission: to get disaffiliated Jews intrigued by the Jewish brand. Under Jewbelong’s "New Ten Commandments" Jewish Grandchildren is number two, right below embrace of converts:

“You want them, right? Then raise your children to be Jewish. Children do not decide religion; parents do. No matter who you marry, decide ahead of time that the kids will be brought up as Jews. Wishy-washy will get your children joining a church or just not considering themselves Jewish. If the thought of being invited to your grandchild’s baptism troubles you, do something about it now.”

Despite its friendly, bantering tone, I can’t say I’ve ever once heard a friend of mine voice such a bizarre, and frankly, offensive sentiment.

And a few days ago, on the third anniversary of the Pew report, sociologist Steven M. Cohen asked: "Which of Our Grandchildren Will Be Jewish in This Age of Intermarriage?"

We can't afford to be Jewish parents

A quick survey of my friends and colleagues reveals an enormous "concern gap" between elite and average American Jews. The reality is that anxiety over theoretical grandchildren is not a luxury my generation can really afford.

Rather, what keeps my demographic up at night is the staggering burden of student loan debt, the skyrocketing cost of childcare, and the intimidating price of Jewish education. In short, my cohort faces the worst economic situation for young, child-bearing age people of the post-war era who would potentially want to raise Jewishly-identifying and educated kids.

Forget about worrying if my non-existent grandchildren will be non-Jews. My (quite justified) worry is about the untenable costs of being a Jewish parent today and the fact that a good Jewish education has become a luxury only for the wealthy, and/or those with the utmost commitment.

"Birthright" stole my kids' future

American Jews my age, the ones that so concern Eisner and Cohen, are all the more bitter, having seen millions of philanthropic dollars poured into free vacations for teenagers instead of subsidizing universal Jewish education. Given all that, to try to separate out demographic worries from life or death economics seems, from my perspective, dangerously foolish.

The elite obsession with demographics seems even more misplaced when compared to the profound depths of Jewish illiteracy holding among the vast majority of American Jews. Just to start, 48% of American Jews surveyed by the Pew study said they didn’t even know alef-beys. Consider: Almost half of American Jews cannot access even at entry-level traditional Jewish texts while 71% of non-Orthodox American Jews are intermarried. While the latter statistic is framed as a crisis, the former seems barely a footnote in the communal al kheyt.

Crisis? What "crisis?"

Of course, crisis is an interpretation, one with political connotations, at that. A crisis is a way of framing a high stakes set of facts as a problem, one that unfolds in a series of op-eds, webinars, million dollar studies, books, programs and special commissions. A crisis demands intervention and provides justification for those who just happen to specialize in those selfsame fields - journalists, academics, clergy, foundation heads. British sociologist Rogers Brubaker studies the relationship between groups and ethnic conflict. He called this class of specialists "ethnopolitical entrepreneurs." Ethnopolitical entrepreneurs ostensibly serve the interest of national and ethnic groups, but in many ways, they create and maintain the boundaries of the group itself. Ethnopolitical entrepreneurs are specialists who “may live ‘off’ as well as ‘for’ ethnicity.”

The current rate of intermarriage is fact framed by these "entrepreneurs" as a crisis. The vast majority of American Jews, that intermarrying majority, see their marriages not as a crisis or even a cri de coeur but as an unremarkable choice. The tendency toward intermarriage is only one of many natural outcomes for a Jewish population living in an overwhelmingly safe and welcoming host country while radically disconnected from most of what has made Jews Jews over the last millennia. (See the previously cited statistic on Hebrew literacy).

The very act of surveying American Jews (as with the 2013 Pew study), whether on intermarriage or anything else, is a kind of group-making project that serves the interests of the ethnopolitical entrepreneurs as much, if not more, than the members of American Jewry.

Intermarriage as ethnic "conflict" (tension between Jews and the non-Jews they might marry) turns out to fit Brubaker's model surprisingly well. It succeeds in taking an extremely diverse, assimilated, unengaged group like American Jews and uses the frame of interethnic conflict to give the appearance of unity and agency. The wealth of different interpretations of and experiences of Jewishness is flattened by demographics and headlines telling us there is a shared narrative and shared concerns between individuals who may have very little in common with one another.

Most importantly, it heightens the appearance of difference between American Jews and non-Jews, at a time when meaningful differences between Jew and non-Jew are rare to non-existent.

The ethnopolitical entrepreneurs need conflict

The intermarriage crisis is the perfect ethnic conflict and, in a perverse way, Jane Eisner, Steven M. Cohen - everyone staking a claim to the intermarriage crisis turf- they need it as much as they claim to fear it, at a time when the average American Jew has vanishingly little interest in the Jewish institutions they lead or advise.

Our leaders may think intermarriage is some kind of third rail, but the real elephant in the room is, and always has been, Jewish education and cultural transmission. American Jewish parents had to decide how much time they were willing to allocate to Jewish education, what languages and texts were essential, and what kind of communal commitment they wanted to encourage in their children.

But as American Judaism began to reconstitute itself in the post-war era as a suburban, child-oriented enterprise, what became immediately clear to rabbis and Sunday school teachers was Jewish parents’ utter lack of interest in Jewishness as something that applied to them and the amount of time they were willing to commit to maintain their Jewishness was, in any case, minimal.

Be Jewishly ignorant. Just don't marry out

Studies as far back as the early 1950s were quite clear on this point. As far as a Jewish education went, while rabbis pushed for a model that would train children to become participants in an adult synagogue community, parents consistently preferred an educational model that transmitted feeling, not obligation. Only a tiny minority of the adult membership of most communities were core adult synagogue attendees. The American synagogue was much more successful as a social hub than as a site for fulfilment of everyday ritual obligations.

And the institutions responsible for the transmission of Jewish knowledge simply did what they could in the areas in which Jewish parents were concerned. This meant that post-Bar Mitzva or post-confirmation education were non-starters. Marshall Sklare, in his 1955 (updated in 1985) study of the Conservative Movement wrote this:

"The average parent is not strongly concerned about extending the religious or Jewish cultural horizons of his teen-age youngster. The parent does, however, have anxieties in the area of Jewish identification. The problem of intermarriage is of particular concern. From the viewpoint of the parent, if the child will spend his leisure time in the company of fellow Jews, the probability of an intermarriage taking place is lessened.

This "brute force" theory of continuity, unfortunately, isn’t merely a relic of the 1950s, but lies at the heart of the modern, multi-million dollar Birthright enterprise.

Even though the parents of the 1950s and 60s prioritized prevention of intermarriage over education, when Sklare, Benjamin Ringer and Joseph Greenblum published their Lakeville study, respondents were very clear that marrying within the Jewish faith (along with attending weekly services and being well versed in Jewish history and culture) was merely desirable, not essential, for leading a good Jewish life. Obviously that trend has only increased in the intervening years. And nowadays there isn't even a flicker of the social taboo that "marrying out" had even in the 50s and 60s.

Highly intermarried, deeply illiterate, universalist in outlook, yet paradoxically proudly Jewish feeling: this is the American Jew of 2016 as predicted more than sixty years ago by sociologists. What is astonishing is that rather than seeing the Jew of 2016 as a product of decades of choice, our leaders frame the very obvious outcome as a crisis. Perhaps we would do better to start asking ourselves whose crisis and to what end.

Rokhl Kafrissen is the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. Her writing on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life has been widely published. Follow her on Twitter: @RokhlK

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