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.
Across the spectrum of observance, youth group rabbis want to welcome these kinds of students. They certainly don’t want to alienate them with oppressive lectures about the importance of dating other Jews.
But they do kind of want them to get the hint.
This is why the question of intermarriage among Jews is so fraught, especially given the recent discussion stirred by the Pew study. Every commentator has an opinion on the alleged assimilation of the Jewish people, but few are willing to argue outright that the future of American Judaism largely hinges on who today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings choose to marry and have children with. Millennials will determine how the next generation of Jews feels about heritage and faith, but leaders and journalists are shy about engaging them in explicit conversations about race. Perhaps this is for good reason, given how those conversations look to non-Jews and Jews who don’t share this ethnic view of Judaism.
The idea of “marrying to preserve one’s race” seems thoroughly at odds with the ethnically accepting, globally aware values of the Millennial generation. But rabbis will keep pitching them on why their marriage choices matter.
“It certainly is one of our 613 commandments, is to marry somebody Jewish,” said Greenland. “But on a much deeper level, it’s about engagement in Jewish life.”
“Look, I’m a rabbi,” said David Levy, who works with the Conservative USY. “But I believe the Jewish community has a unique, special, and powerful message for the world, and it’s one that deserves continuance for the world.”
“But I’m a little biased,” he added. “I’ve bet my life’s career on this.”