The Latest on Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

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The latest evaluation of Birthright Israel, Beyond 10 Days: Parents, Gender, Marriage and the Long-Term Impact of Birthright Israel, has important information and implications for intermarriage policy. The headline, as reported by Len Saxe, the leader of the Cohen Center team that did the evaluation, in a piece for the Forward, is that “Birthright’s alumni, compared to similar young Jews who did not participate in the program, are more highly connected to Israel, more likely to have a Jewish spouse and raise Jewish children, and more likely to be engaged in Jewish life.”

The study makes many interesting observations:

  • For much of the twentieth century, women were more likely to inmarry than men; today, among married Jewish adults under age 40, 20% of Jewish women have a Jewish spouse compared to 41% of Jewish men (p. 4).
  • Spousal conversion is relatively rare, less than 5% of Jewish women’s partners convert, and 16% of Jewish men’s partners (p. 13)

There are also extensive discussions on differences between men and women in terms of behaviors and impacts of Birthright.

I am most interested in the study’s findings on how children of interfaith couples are raised. The study reports that among intermarried Jewish men, 38% of Birthright participants are raising their first child Jewish, compared to 17% of non-participants; among intermarried Jewish women, participants and non-participants are “equally likely” to be 51% are raising their first child Jewish (51% of participants compared to 56% of non-participants, which the study says is not a statistically significant difference). To me, the influence Birthright apparently has on influencing participants to raise their children Jewish is its more important impact, even if limited to men as opposed to women.

The report notes that “those who are not raising their oldest child Jewish are most likely to be undecided or not raising their child in any particular religion” (58% of intermarried Jewish men participants and 44% of intermarried Jewish women participants) and that “For both men and women with non-Jewish spouses, the likelihood of raising their oldest child in another religion is less than 10%.” (p. 15)

It is a fine thing if more Birthright participants than non-participants marry other Jews, but if you invert the study’s information on rates of inmarriage, it is clear that there is extensive intermarriage among participants. That is especially true among participants who themselves have one Jewish parent. Thus:

  • 38% of all participants who are married are intermarried, compared to 56% of non-participants (because 62% of participants and 46% of non-participants are likely to have a Jewish spouse) (p. 12)
  • of men and women with two Jewish parents, 30% of participants who are married are intermarried (because 70% are likely to have a Jewish spouse), compared to 45% of non-participants (p. 14); for men, 24% are intermarried, for women, 37% (p. 13)
  • of men and women with one Jewish parents, 67% of participants who are married are intermarried (because 33% are likely to have a Jewish spouse), compared to 80% of non-participants (p. 14)

These high levels of intermarriage will continue as more and more young adults with one Jewish parent participate in Birthright: the study notes that applicants with one Jewish parent have grown from less than 20% almost two decades ago to nearly 35% in 2017, and those applicants are still under-represented, given that half of Jewish millennials have one Jewish parent (p. 4).

This evaluation amply supports the continuing importance of making Birthright widely available, including especially to young adults with one Jewish parent. But I believe it supports the need for programmatic interventions aimed at interfaith families with young children and at new interfaith couples to support their Jewish engagement.

One of the most important conclusions of this and past Birthright evaluations is that interventions work: childhood experiences influence adult Jewish engagement, and “educational interventions have the capacity to continue shaping Jewish identity through multiple stages of development including the college and young adult years.” (p. 26) There is no reason that would not be the case for interventions aimed at interfaith couples before they have children and after they do.

The study aptly notes that strategies for engaging young adults with one Jewish parent or two Jewish parents “likely need to be tailored to their unique backgrounds” (p. 26), which I believe supports the need for programming that is targeted to young adults with one Jewish parent as well as to interfaith couples and families. Saxe notes in his Forward piece that developing Jewish identity requires experiences as well as knowledge and the central role of having those experiences as part of a Jewish group; that fully applies to designing programming for new interfaith couples and for interfaith families that builds knowledge and brings them together for Jewish experiences.

Finally, to me there is huge potential in the 58% of intermarried Jewish men participants and 44% of intermarried Jewish women participants who are raising their first child as “None, Undecided” – to say nothing of the 72% of men and 35% of women non-participants who are doing the same.

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