Convincing Millennials to 'Marry a Nice Jewish Boy'

One of the most effective incubators of Jewish marriage is Birthright Israel, a non-profit organization that gives grants to organizations to lead 18- to 26-year-old Jews on a free, 10-day trip to Israel. The organization compared marriage patterns among the people who went on Birthright and those who signed up but didn’t end up going—they got waitlisted, had a conflict, lost interest, etc. The waitlisted group is particularly large—in some years, up to 70 percent of those who sign up don’t get to go.

The difference was stark: Those who actually went on Birthright were 45 percent more likely to marry someone Jewish. This “is some kind of reflection of the experience in Israel, although there is no preaching during the ten days,” said Gidi Mark, the International CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel. “It was astonishing for us to realize that the difference is such a huge difference.”

It’s hard to measure the success of any of these programs definitively. There’s certainly some self-selection bias at work. At least some of those who joined youth groups, went to summer camp, and traveled to Israel probably grew up in families that valued and reinforced the importance of having Jewish friends and finding a Jewish partner, so they may have been more likely to marry Jewish whether or not they participated in these activities. But even among less observant Jews, there seems to be a lingering sense that Jewish social connections are critical, especially when it comes to dating. For many, this means that after quitting youth group, waving goodbye to camp, or flying home from Israel, they still feel an obligation to consider their Judaism as they make the plunge into the dating world.

A Good Jewish Man Is Hard to Find

Outside of the built-in networks of youth groups and summer camp, if a Jew wants to date another Jew, she’ll probably try JDate. Owned and operated by Spark Networks, the same company that runs ChristianMingle.com, BlackSingles.com, and SilverSingles.com, JDate is the primary dating service for Jews (and gentiles who are particularly interested in marrying Jewish people, for that matter). According to data provided by the company, they are responsible for more Jewish marriages than all other online dating services combined, and 5 out of every 9 Jews who have gotten married since 2008 tried finding their match on the Internet.

“The mission is to... ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come. The way that we do that is by making more Jews.”

But JDate sees itself as more than a dating service. “The mission is to strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come,” said Greg Liberman, the CEO. “The way that we do that is by making more Jews.”

Indeed, pictures of so-called “JBabies” featured prominently in promotional materials sent over by the JDate team. In JDate’s view, these new Jews will be the future of the people, but they’re also good for business. “If we’re at this long enough, if Jews who marry other Jews create Jewish kids, then creating more Jews ultimately repopulates our ecosystem over time,” said Liberman.

The "JBabies" that have resulted from marriages started on the Jewish dating service, JDate. (JDate advertising materials)

It’s hard to imagine this kind of language being used in other communities without provoking outrage, particularly if it was used in a racial context. But perhaps because they are so assimilated or because of their long history of persecution, Jews are given a collective pass in American culture—this casual reference to racial preservation seems almost wry and ironic. Companies like JDate use the strong association between humor and Judaism to their advantage: JBabies sounds like a punchline, where “White Babies” or “Black Babies” might sound offensive. But the company is also being serious—they want more Jewish babies in the world.

Even though it’s a private business, JDate doesn’t work in isolation – in fact, it’s strongly connected to the network of organizations that run youth groups, summer camps, and Israel trips, including the Jewish Federation. In some ways, joining JDate is the inevitable next step for teens once they leave the comfort of their temple’s youth group or campus’s weekly Shabbat services. “It’s not like a natural transition—go on a Birthright trip to Israel, come back, join JDate – but it’s not an entirely unnatural extension, either,” said Liberman.

Even for people who aren’t that interested in Judaism, which is true of at least some of the people on JDate, the site has become a cultural fixture. “At weddings, I’m very popular—I’m something of a magnet for Jewish mothers and grandmothers asking me if I have someone for their kids or grandkids,” Liberman said.

Making Jewish Babies Isn’t That Easy

But as everyone in the media has been eager to point out over the past month since the Pew study came out, these efforts aren’t without their challenges. A third of Jewish Millennials, or those who were born after 1980, describe themselves as having no religion – they feel Jewish by culture or ancestry only. Among all adults who describe themselves that way, two-thirds aren’t raising their kids with any exposure to Judaism at all.

More Jews are also marrying outside of the faith. Six in ten Jews who got married after 2000 had a non-Jewish spouse, compared to four in ten of those who got married in the 1980s and two in ten of those who married before 1970. By way of comparison, other minority religious groups in America have much higher rates of marriage to one another—87 percent of Mormons and 84 percent of Muslims marry a spouse within their faith.

Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life Project, 2013

Presented by

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

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