Since 2009, the Jewish Futures Project at Brandeis University has been following participants in the Birthright Israel program to try to see how the program affected their Jewish identity. Since those who choose to take Birthright trips to Israel would be expected to have a greater Jewish connection than those who don’t, they compared those who actually took the trip to those who applied to the program but did not go.
All of the JFP surveys since 2009 have indicated an effect on the choice of marriage partner by Birthright. The 2020 survey found that “Birthright participants are much more likely to have a Jewish spouse or partner compared to similar nonparticipants: 55% versus 39%.” While one might expect that going on a Birthright trip might affect a person’s attitude toward Israel, it also turns out that the likelihood of having Jewish friends and spouse also increases.
In America, where the rate of intermarriage is high and increasing (a 2013 Pew poll showed that between 2005 and 2013, 58% of marriages of Jews were to a non-Jewish partner, a number which rises to 70% or more when only non-Orthodox Jews are considered), and where some have used the expression “a silent Holocaust” to describe the results of intermarriage, one might expect that the data about Birthright would be welcomed by all American Jews.
But if one expects that, one would be wrong.
In addition to the unease in the progressive Jewish community caused by Birthright’s positive vision of Israel, even the fact that it appears to reduce intermarriage is problematic for some. People in interfaith relationships are often insulted by the suggestion that there could be anything negative about the fact that they chose their partners because they fell in love with them, and not because of what they see as outmoded, even fanatical, beliefs that were developed in past times when Jewish life was more precarious. They insist that they are no less Jewish for having a non-Jewish spouse. They still may attend a (non-Orthodox) synagogue, light candles on Shabbat, observe some Jewish holidays, and of course enjoy “Jewish” food. They are, in other words, no different from non-intermarried Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Jews.
Indeed, an interfaith family, they argue, is actually capable of being advantageous to the Jewish community, because “Non-Jewish partners often become very engaged in and bring new insights and energy to the Jewish community. Intermarriage increases tolerance and respect for Jews…” (Edmund Case). Leonard Saxe, lead investigator on the Birthright survey, said that “It’s not necessary that people need a Jewish partner, or two Jewish parents, in order to engage in Jewish life. Interfaith families absolutely raise Jewishly engaged children.” And they suggest that this implies that they are not a danger to Jewish continuity.
But the numbers are against them. The 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews showed that 83% of children of marriages with one non-Jewish partner married a non-Jew, compared to 37% of those who have two Jewish parents. This means that regardless of the worthiness of interfaith families or how Jewishly engaged their children are, there will be significantly fewer non-Orthodox Jews in a few generations if the present trend continues.
Affluent Jewish parents don’t have many children, less than two per family on the average. That in itself will reduce the number of Jews in the next generation. And while some of the children of intermarried parents may go on to observe Judaism, others, who grew up with both a Hanukah menorah and a Christmas tree, will either prefer the tree – and will be encouraged by the majority culture to do so – or just grow up as secular Americans.
I understand that the question “what is legitimate Judaism” is fraught with difficulty. And I am not going to characterize any particular movement as “real” or “fake” Judaism. But if you are interested in Jewish continuity, I think it’s necessary to have some criteria beyond whether a person identifies as Jewish. For example, I would exclude “Jews for Jesus.” And I think that I would also exclude Rabbi Deborah Reichmann, rabbi and spiritual advisor for the Interfaith Family Project in Washington, DC. Reichmann objected to the Birthright survey’s lack of “nuance.” “Jewish people express their Judaism and Jewishness in many other ways than by marrying another Jewish person and having Jewish children,” she reportedly said. “People could be volunteering for environmental groups or social justice groups. Maybe they are involved in their school. They are doing tikkun olam in their own way.” Perhaps, but it’s a stretch to call this being Jewish (I call it “Tikkunism”).
Over the centuries, as the Jewish people sojourned in its many diasporas, it absorbed genetic material from its surroundings. Even Moshe Rabbeinu was intermarried, and since then many non-Jews became part of the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and King David were all descended from converts. Naturally, Judaism changed and evolved as well, and today there are Jews of every color, and numerous different traditions of observance. All this was a gradual process that took generations.
What is happening in America today is different. It may have been cruel for previous generations of Jews to stigmatize intermarriage, but that kept the process of absorbing non-Jews slow, and gave the culture time to assimilate them. They may have deliberately made conversion difficult, but that tended to weed out those who saw Judaism as the religious flavor of the month. But today the non-Orthodox movements, who welcome intermarriage and actively seek converts, have presided over an influx of new Jews at a rate unprecedented in Jewish history.
There is nothing wrong with these new Jews, as individuals. But the combination of a rapid influx of great numbers of people from other cultural groups, the lack of rigor (as in every other aspect of American society) of the conversion process, the replacement of Jewish ethics by liberal politics, and the replacement of Jewish ritual by political activism, has changed the face of the American Jewish community almost beyond recognition.
At the same time, the politicization of the non-Orthodox movements has turned many American Jews, regardless of their genetic backgrounds, against Israel. American Jews are found in the forefront of the anti-Israel movements there. The disconnect from the Jewish homeland is yet another way in which the non-Orthodox American Jewish community has separated itself from the Jewish people as a whole.
And this is precisely why Birthright has a positive effect on Jewish engagement of all kinds, including the choice of life partners. In Israel, the perception of all the diverse kinds of Jews as part of a unified people is inescapable. Being here awakens the feeling of peoplehood that is denied, even crushed, by the progressive universities that these Jewish students attend, and which is not nourished by the institutions of liberal Judaism.
Israel is not only the refuge of persecuted Jews, it is the repository of the culture – or perhaps I should say cultures – that make individual Jews part of the Jewish people. Birthright is more than a free ticket to a vacation; it can be a life-changing experience.