Two national surveys released yesterday suggest a growing tolerance among Jews on issues concerning intermarriage but indicate deep divisions on how to accommodate Jews marrying outside the faith.
The companion studies were conducted by B'nai B'rith Women and the Jewish Outreach Institute. They mark the first large-scale effort to gauge Jewish attitudes on issues resulting from a "demographic revolution" stemming from intermarriage, said Egon Mayer, a senior research fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the City University of New York.
The surveys come at a time when the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews has increased fivefold for men and twelvefold for women in the last generation, a trend that is expected to continue even though marriage between Jews and gentiles is forbidden by Jewish law, according to B'nai B'rith Women, a national Jewish women's organization.
The studies "empower people in local communities to talk publicly about an issue that until now has most often been treated as a private family drama," Mayer said.
The surveys reflect how interfaith marriage has become a fact of life in American society from a generation ago, when attitudes toward it generally were perceived as more restrictive.
While neither survey is scientific, they tried to represent adequately the Jewish community. The B'nai B'rith Women survey appeared in the spring issue of Women's World, a newsletter that goes to 100,000 Jewish households. More than 2,000 responses were received.
The companion survey, sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute, was sent to 9,000 rabbis, synagogue presidents and members of the boards of various Jewish organizations in an effort to reach a broad cross-section of Jewish leadership. That survey had a 24 percent response rate.
About 80 percent of the Jewish laypeople who responded to the survey said they would prefer to see a 35-year-old daughter marry a gentile rather than remain single. About 60 percent opted for intermarriage over singlehood when the possible choice concerned a son.
Only 14 percent of the respondents said they would try to dissuade a 35-year-old single daughter or granddaughter from intermarriage, while 35 pecent said they would try to dissuade a 35-year-old son or grandson.
But the overwhelming majority said they would try to dissuade the intermarriage of a son or a daughter at a younger age. The survey of Jewish leaders had similar findings.
"Jewish parents are opposed to interdating and intermarriage, but when push comes to shove, when you get a young man or women in the thirties, they would rather see them married rather than wait for Mr. or Ms. Right who is Jewish," Mayer said.
When Judith Golub, a 41-year-old Jewish woman, told her mother that she was seeing a man named "Sid," she said her mother responded, " 'That's nice. What's his last name?' When I told her 'Johnson,' she said, 'I knew I shouldn't have asked.' "
Golub, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, said her family has since accepted her marriage of three years to a Presbyterian. Golub said her husband has no plans to convert nor does she. He is cutting short a business trip so he can be with her family for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. "He's really good on that stuff and I really appreciate his openness," Golub said.
Both surveys show a highly unified rabbinate split against the laity on the issue of how an interfaith couple should be married. Faced with the reality of an impending intermarriage, American Jewish laypeople overwhelmingly want their children married by a rabbi. But among Jewish leadership, rabbis are extremely opposed to officiating at a marriage between a Jew and a gentile.
Among orthodox rabbis, 100 percent of those who answered the survey were opposed to performing an interfaith marriage. In the conservative movement, 95 percent of the rabbis were opposed to it, while 60 percent of the rabbis in the reform movement, the most liberal branch of Judaism, were opposed to performing interfaith marriage.
The surveys also showed contrasting attitudes on the issue of Jewish identity. Under Jewish law, a child is Jewish only if born to a Jewish mother. The reform movement, however, recently said it will accept a child as Jewish if either parent is Jewish as long as the child is reared with a sense of Jewish identity and follows certain rituals within the framework of Judaism.
More than 90 percent of Jewish laypeople said they would define their grandchildren as Jewish if they were raised Jewish, even though the mother is not Jewish, according to the B'nai B'rith Women survey.
But rabbis were deeply divided on matrilineal and patrilineal descent. Reform rabbies are willing to accept patrilineal descent, while orthodox rabbies are firmly opposed to it, the survey of leaders found. The conservative rabbis are split, with about 40 percent indicating they would define a child as Jewish even though the mother is not Jewish.
Judi Marden, a 42-year-old Jewish woman, said the potential for problems comes on holidays. On Christmas Eve, Marden said, her husband, who is Methodist, goes to church with his parents while she and their 2-year-old son stay home. They keep a Jewish home and do not have a Christmas tree.
"In most cases, it's a matter of compromise," said Marden, the director of marketing and communications for B'nai B'rith Women who has been married for five years.
The two surveys show that rabbis and Jewish laypeople generally are in favor of converting a gentile spouse in an interfaith marriage. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the clergy were in favor of conversion. Among the laity, 60 to 80 percent supported conversion.
"To put it crassly, they realize it's damage control," Mayer said. "What surprised me is the degree to which the laity . . . are not as much in favor of actively seeking conversion. They don't want to seem like they are meddling in the personal affairs of their children. Rabbis see themselves exercising leadership."