Interfaith Families

With intermarriage an acknowledged part of the American landscape, the only remaining debate is how to respond to interfaith unions.

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Around 50 percent of Jews in North America marry a non-Jewish spouse. Among them, only 30 percent raise their children as Jews. The following article examines this trend and the ways the Jewish community might encourage families where one spouse isn't Jewish to make Jewish choices and identify with the Jewish community. This article originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine and is reprinted with permission of the magazine and the author.

Last December, Edmund Case strolled the aisles of an Israeli vendor fair in search of gifts for his wife and two children. Like other patrons, he believed this was an ideal way to shop-- supporting Israel's economy while simultaneously checking off a long holiday to-do list. The difference, however, was that this corporate lawyer turned Jewish-outreach guru wasn't preparing for Hanukkah--he was shopping for Christmas.

Christmas Presents Made in Israel

"This year, all the Christmas gifts were made in Israel," he says with a chuckle. "As a joke I signed the card to my 20-year-old son 'Santa' but I wrote it phonetically in Hebrew letters. Some people would be aghast at that and say this is syncretism, it's a melding of religions and that this is an ominous development for Jewish identity. Mind you, this is something I wouldn't do before I thought my children's Jewish identity was solidified. But my kids have no confusion about this. They are Jewish, we celebrate Hanukkah in our home, but on Christmas, they exchange gifts at their grandparents' house. That's all it is. It doesn't have religious significance." 

Welcome to the world of intermarriage in the American Jewish community. According to the United Jewish Communities' National Jewish Population Survey 2000 released last fall, 5.2 million Jews live in the United States compared to 5.5 million a decade ago. Though some researchers refute the NJPS findings, citing slightly higher population figures, the bottom line is clear: The American Jewish community is, at best, remaining stagnant. While factors such as Jewish women sacrificing childbearing years to pursue higher education and careers are in part to blame, a main source is intermarriage. 

In 1990, the NJPS reported that 52 percent of American Jews intermarry. If the new population statistics are any indication, results of the 2000 intermarriage study, scheduled for release this spring, will likely be discouraging as well. If this is the direction the future is taking, a question arises as to how to keep Judaism alive in the children of interfaith marriages. 

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Amy Blumenfeld is a freelance writer and a former editor of George magazine. Her articles have appeared in various magazines, including People, Self, and Fitness.