Around One in Four British Jews Intermarry, Study Finds - Less Than Half of U.S. Rate

New study from London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research shows that while intermarriage is broad in scope, the British Jewish community is unlikely to experience runaway assimilation any time soon.

Pavel Tolchinski

LONDON – For the first time ever, Britain, home to one of the world’s largest Jewish populations outside Israel, has come out with a comprehensive report on intermarriage. And it turns out the picture is less dramatic than many here – with an eye on the situation across the ocean – expected or worried about.

The study, released Tuesday by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, shows that while intermarriage is broad in scope – with around one in four Jews in Britain “marrying out,” – the community is unlikely to experience runaway assimilation any time soon.

The current intermarriage rate among self-identifying Jews in Britain (a figure put at about 290,000 people), according to the report, stands at 26 percent. This is the highest level for a generation in Britain: yes. And it reflects an upward trend, yes. But the rate has been rising very slowly since the late 1980s, and remains significantly and consistently lower than the equivalent intermarriage figures in the USA.

With some 5.4 million Jews, the United States has by far the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. It also has the highest intermarriage rates: The most recent figures there, collected in 2013 and published by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, show intermarriage rates to be 58 percent.

“We can only speculate as to why the rate is that much lower in the U.K.,” says JPR senior research fellow Dr. David Graham, who authored the new report. “My thinking is this: American society has a more open and fluid approach to identity, where the focus is on the individual’s right to choose their religion. In addition, Britain’s Jewish community is more religious than the U.S.’s, which of course means less intermarriage.”

Without a lot of other comparative international data in Europe or South America, it is difficult to contextualize the British situation, Graham admits. But a look at one other country with a large Jewish population – Australia, with about 112,000 Jews – where there have been similar studies on intermarriage – is instructive.

“Australian census data almost replicate the British picture,” says Graham, an indication that “America is the exception and not the rule.”

The JPR report does not offer a hypothesis for the slow rise in intermarriage rates in Britain – the numbers have risen by only two percentage points since the 1990s – but it does argue that “it is unlikely to be related to the impact of any boost to Jewish educational programming that might have occurred since intermarriage became the [object] of communal anxiety.” This, explains Graham, is because the intermarriage slowdown predates the main communal intervention drives such as Jewish school expansion and trips to Israel.

Other significant findings in the new study – which weaved data together from the 2011 U.K. national census and two JPR National Jewish Community Surveys – show that while practically all (96 percent) of children of Jewish couples are raised as Jews, this goes down to 31 percent when the parents are intermarried.

Within this, it seems to make a big difference as to whether the Jewish partner in the marriage or relationship is the mother or the father. Some 44 percent of children raised by an intermarried couple where the mother was Jewish, identified as Jewish. This, in comparison to children of Jewish fathers married to non Jewish mothers, where the percentage of children identifying as Jewish was only 10 percent – i.e., Jewish fathers are four times less likely to raise Jewish children than Jewish mothers are.

The children of all intermarried couples, perhaps not surprisingly, are more than twice as likely to intermarry themselves, according to the report.

Another finding, in tune with the times, is that Jews, like their counterparts from other religions, are marrying later than they have been in a generation – seven years later than in the 1970s. Cohabitation rates among Jews have also climbed. While 89 percent of Jewish couples are married, one out of ten cohabits. This is especially true for the young, with one out of every three Jewish couples in their late twenties opting to share kitchen, bedroom and even children, but holding off on the chuppa.

Same-sex Jewish couples, according to the survey, make up 1.8 percent of the general Jewish couples population – slightly higher than the national average of 1.6 percent, but much lower than the percentage of same-sex couples amongst Buddhists (3.6%) or those of mixed ethnicity (4%).

Whether married or cohabiting, Jews are more likely to live in a couple – rather than alone – than any other group in the country, coming just ahead of Christians and Hindus and far ahead of Muslims, Buddhists and others. One out of six Jewish adults lives as part of a couple. Among the explanations given for this in the report is that it is a reflection of a “Jewish cultural norm to form families.”

One more statistic to come out of the new report – which will undoubtedly be repeated by many a Jewish mother across this country trying to win an argument with her offspring – is that intermarried couples are more than twice as likely to get divorced as their all-Jewish counterparts.

But before anyone starts with any “I told you so”s, a final finding: Of those who marry – whether to a fellow Jew or not – and then divorce, it seems that the second time around they are not listening to their moms or rabbis or anyone else: Intermarriage, according to the study, is two and a half times more likely among those remarrying after a divorce.