Convincing Millennials to 'Marry a Nice Jewish Boy'

Confronted with an unprecedentedly secular crop of young people, Jewish leaders are pushing intra-religious marriage harder than ever. Their favorite approach? Youth groups.

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An acquaintance gave a few of us a ride after the annual post-Yom Kippur feast. Stuffed with bagels, lox, kugel, and every kind of pound cake imaginable, the four of us chatted happily about life in D.C., past trips to Israel, and guilt over skipping religious services earlier that day.

And then the conversation turned to dating.

“Would you ever marry a non-Jew?” Sharon asked from the backseat. Answers varied; one person said she wasn’t sure, while another said she might consider marrying someone who was willing to convert. Debates about intermarriage, or marriage outside of the faith, are common in the Jewish community, but her question still struck me as remarkable. Here were four twentysomething women who hardly knew each other, already talking about the eventuality of marriage and apparently radical possibility that we would ever commit our lives to someone unlike us. This conversation seemed very “un-Millennial”–as a whole, our generation is marrying later, becoming more secular, and embracing different cultures more than any of our predecessors. If the same question had been asked about any other aspect of our shared identities–being white, being educated, coming from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds—it would have seemed impolite, if not offensive.

Although many religious people want to marry someone of the same faith, the issue is particularly complicated for Jews: For many, faith is tied tightly to ethnicity as a matter of religious teaching. Jews do accept conversion, but it's a long and difficult process, even in Reform communities—as of 2013, only 2 percent of the Jewish population are converts. Meanwhile, the cultural memory of the Holocaust and the racialized persecution of the Jews still looms large, making the prospect of a dwindling population particularly sensitive.

The lesson, then, that many Jewish kids absorb at an early age is that their heritage comes with responsibilities—especially when it comes to getting married and having kids.

In large part, that’s because Jewish organizations put a lot of time and money into spreading precisely this message. For the Jewish leaders who believe this is important for the future of the faith, youth group, road trips, summer camp, and online dating are the primary tools they use in the battle to preserve their people.

***

Youth Group, the Twenty-First Century Yenta

Although Judaism encompasses enormous diversity in terms of how people choose to observe their religion, leaders from the most progressive to the most Orthodox movements basically agree: If you want to persuade kids to marry other Jews, don’t be too pushy.

“We try not to hit them over the head with it too frequently or too often,” said Rabbi Micah Greenland, who directs the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox-run organization that serves about 25,000 high school students each year. “But our interpersonal relationships are colored by our Judaism, and our dating and marriage decisions are equally Jewish decisions.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum of observance, a Reform organization, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), seems to take a similar tack, especially in response to frequent questions from donors and congregants about intermarriage trends. “Our response to [concerns about] intermarriage is less to have conversations about dating—we want to have larger conversations about what it means to be Jewish,” said the director of youth engagement, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, who estimated that NFTY serves about 17,700 Jewish students each year.

If you want to persuade kids to marry other Jews, don’t be too pushy.

But make no mistake: This doesn’t mean they have a laissez-faire attitude about intermarriage. In every denomination, the leaders I talked with are thinking intentionally about how to strengthen the sense of connection among teenaged Jews.

“There’s no question that one of the purposes of the organization is to keep Jewish social circles together at this age,” said Matt Grossman, the executive director of the non-denominational organization BBYO, which serves about 39,000 American students each year.

“If they’re in an environment where their closest friends are Jewish, the likelihood that they’re going to end up dating people from those social circles, and ultimately marry someone from those social circles, increases dramatically,” Grossman said.

Organizations like Hillel, a non-denominational campus outreach organization, have gathered data on the most efficient ways of encouraging these friendships. “If you have students reaching out to other students to get them involved in Jewish life, and when an educator is paired with them, they end up having more Jewish friends than your average student,” said Abi Dauber-Sterne, the vice president for “Jewish experiences.”

Summer camp is also effective at building Jewish bonds. Rabbi Isaac Saposnik leads a camp for Reconstructionist Jews, who are part of a newer, progressive movement to reconnect with certain Jewish rituals while remaining modern. He spoke about his movement’s effort to expand their tiny youth programs, which currently serve around 100 students each year. “The focus went first to camp, because the research shows that that’s where you get—and I don’t love this phrase—the biggest bang for your buck.”

“The focus went to camp, because the research shows that that’s where you get... the biggest bang for your buck.”

For the most part, organizations have seen a remarkable “bang.” Rabbi Greenland reported that of the NCSY alumni who married, 98 percent married a Jew. According to a 2011 survey BBYO took of its alumni, 84 percent are married to a Jewish spouse or living with a Jewish partner. “These bonds are very sticky,” said Grossman.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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