Jewish/Christian Interfaith Marriages Focus of Sociologist’s Study

<p>Arnold Dashefsky, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. Photo by Daniel Buttrey</p>
Arnold Dashefsky, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. Photo by Daniel Buttrey

Professor Arnold Dashefsky, head of the University’s Judaic Studies program, and a team of researchers interviewed nearly 150 mixed Jewish/Christian couples throughout the nation for a study on interfaith marriage in the U.S.

Their focus was on what tends to draw interfaith couples to Judaism and what drives them away.

The study explains how intermarriage runs against the established Jewish religious tradition, and explores the tension between that tradition and the way people are living now, with intermarriage having risen steadily since the 1970s, according to Dashefsky, a professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

A key finding in the research was that interfaith couples – who often struggle for acceptance from family and the Jewish community – diverged from the typical interfaith couple in that they were actually more observant of many Jewish traditions than the overall Jewish population.

Participants in Dashefsky’s study, interviewed between 2001 and 2005, exceeded respondents in the most recent National Jewish Population Survey (2000-2001) on a number of measures related to spirituality and religious observances, including lighting Hanukkah and Shabbat candles, attending a Passover Seder, and visiting Israel.

Respondents in this survey were also more likely than those in most surveys of the Jewish population to report that their children were being raised as Jews: 72 percent, compared to the national average of one-third.

“These findings,” says Dashefsky, “point to the diversity of experiences among the intermarried, and the need for a diversity of responses to this phenomenon.”

Respondents for the study were taken from four cities in different regions of the nation: the Northeast (Boston), the Midwest (Saint Louis), the West (San Francisco Bay Area), and the South (Atlanta).

While not a statistical public opinion poll, the study provides important information on the relationship between intermarried couples, Judaism, and the Jewish community today, says Dashefsky.

Asked what pushes them away from Judaism, many interfaith respondents cited perceived rejection by rabbis, family members, and/or the Jewish community; negativism of rabbis in either refusing to perform an interfaith marriage or signaling disapproval; expectation for conversion of the Christian partners; and the questioning of the children’s Jewish identity by extended family members, rabbis, and others.

Those with more positive experiences cited the perceived warmth of the community; the availability of Jewish education classes; acceptance of intermarriage without conversion; and reduced tensions for interfaith couples with Jewish community acceptance.

The study also found that when contemplating marriage, half of all Jewish respondents were concerned about their parents’ reaction to interfaith marriage and whether there might be a problem later about raising the children as Jews.

Also, half of Jewish respondents reported that they had a Christmas tree, and about 75 percent said they exchanged Christmas presents.

Based on this study, Dashefsky says, in order to make these couples feel more welcome, “the Jewish community must turn away from the prior outlook of rejecting the partners of interfaith marriage to the contemporary view of embracing a gentler, more nurturing environment for them, in order to strengthen communal continuity and personal identity.”

The study was presented last summer at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Boston. The theme of the conference this year was “Religion Crossing Boundaries.”