Convincing Millennials to 'Marry a Nice Jewish Boy'

“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

But even as Jewish leaders look ahead at the trends that will define the future of the Jewish population, they are thinking about how to work with the growing number of current students who were raised by intermarried parents. This is common at United Synagogue Youth (USY), a conservative organization that serves more than 12,000 students, said Rabbi David Levy, the director of teen learning. “It’s a balance of finding a way to be positive about marriages in the faith without being judgmental of the families that these teens come from,” he said.

Although there was a lot of consensus among the Jewish leaders I spoke with about how to work with teens in general, they had different ways of dealing with the tension between wanting to show openness and wanting to support Jewish marriages. Rabbi Avi Weinstein, who helps lead the campus outreach arm of the ultra-Orthodox organization Chabad, was upfront about his view that “marrying outside of the faith is one of the greatest challenges facing individual young people and the Jewish people as a collective.” Chabad, which reports that it interacts with close to 100,000 students each year, is trying to combat that trend directly. “Jewish education, both formal and especially informal Jewish education, is very effective in preventing intermarriage and in helping young people build strong Jewish identities as they mature,” Weinstein wrote in an email.

“Our donors want the Jewish community to be strong—that’s why they invest in us. They’re concerned about the relationships that our kids are having with each other.”

In contrast, the Reform rabbi, Bradley Solmsen, was the only person to push back against the premise that Jewish students need to be interested in heterosexual marriage at all, arguing that youth groups have to welcome LGBTQ and interfaith students alike. This points to an interesting aspect of this debate: Encouraging marriage for the purpose of Jewish procreation sets gay Jews apart from their community.

No matter how welcoming these leaders want their youth groups to be, they’re faced with data that suggest a hard truth: Jewish marriages lead to more Jewish families. According to a massive study on Jewish life in American recently released by Pew, 96 percent of Jews with a Jewish spouse are raising their children religiously, compared to only 20 percent of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse. Another 25 percent of intermarried couples are raising their kids with Jewish culture. Again, there’s a correlation versus causation question here: People who marry other Jews are likely to feel strongly about their faith already, so it makes sense that most of them would raise their kids religiously. But the comparison is still stark: Couples with two Jewish partners are about twice as likely to raise their kids with any kind of Jewish exposure.

Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Hillel, summed this problem up nicely. “Living a Jewish life in America in the 21st century is truly a choice,” he said. What this means is that organizations are feeling more pressure than ever to make Judaism seem attractive to young people—the future depends on it. “There should be no question to you or to those who read your work about our commitment to building Jewish families, Jewish marriages, Jewish relationships, that are core to the long-term growth and flourishing of the Jewish people,” Fingerhut said.

Adding to the trickiness of the situation, donors are getting worried. “Our donors want the Jewish community to be strong—that’s why they invest in us,” said non-denominational BBYO’s Grossman. “They’re concerned about the relationships that our kids are having with each other.”

“I think everybody’s concerned about the trend,” the Orthodox rabbi, Micah Greenland, said. “Everybody is concerned among our stakeholders.”

***

In brief, here’s the situation: Overall, millennials have doubts about getting married. If they do want to get married, they think it’s fine to marry someone of another race. If they’re Jewish, they’re more likely than ever to have a non-Jewish spouse, especially because many grew up with a non-Jewish parent. And if they don’t marry a Jew, they’re much less likely to raise Jewish kids.

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

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