“Would you ever marry a non-Jew?”

In The Atlantic, Emma Green writes a piece titled “Convincing Millennials to ‘Marry a Nice Jewish Boy’“. The story’s byline:

Confronted with an unprecedentedly secular crop of young people, Jewish leaders are pushing intra-religious marriage harder than ever. Their favorite approach? Youth groups.

Oi vey! What pesky Jewish ethnocentrism the Elders have!

An acquaintance gave a few of us a ride after the annual post-Yom Kippur feast. Stuffed with bagels, lox, kugel, and every kind of pound cake imaginable, the four of us chatted happily about life in D.C., past trips to Israel, and guilt over skipping religious services earlier that day.

And then the conversation turned to dating.

Would you ever marry a non-Jew?” Sharon asked from the backseat. Answers varied; one person said she wasn’t sure, while another said she might consider marrying someone who was willing to convert. Debates about intermarriage, or marriage outside of the faith, are common in the Jewish community, but her question still struck me as remarkable. Here were four twentysomething women who hardly knew each other, already talking about the eventuality of marriage and apparently radical possibility that we would ever commit our lives to someone unlike us. This conversation seemed very “un-Millennial”–as a whole, our generation is marrying later, becoming more secular, and embracing different cultures more than any of our predecessors. If the same question had been asked about any other aspect of our shared identities–being white, being educated, coming from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds—it would have seemed impolite, if not offensive.

Ahh… but what of the widely non-discussed ruse that ‘Jewish’ is solely a ‘religious’ category and not a racial one? It’s naive to think twenty-something Sharon didn’t implicitly define ‘Jewish’ in racial terms when she asked “Would you ever marry a non-Jew?”

Consider this juicy bit of cognitive dissonance noted in the recent Pew Study on Jewish identity:

[J]ust 26% of U.S. Jews say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% of the general public… But while relatively few Jews attach high importance to religion, far more (46%) say being Jewish is very important to them.

Also, consider that only 2% of the Jewish population are ‘converts’. (In contrast, “Christianity is by far the fastest growing religion in regard to new converts. The number of new converts to Christianity is more than twice the combined number of new converts to all the other tabulated religions.”)

So, if one accepts the former premise (that ‘Jewish’ is entirely a religious category), 2% is a very low percentage of successful ‘converting’. Why the bad track record in the Conversion Dept? Well, when is the last time you’ve encountered a Jew actively trying to convert gentiles to Judaism?

A more plausible explanation is that ‘Jewish’ is in fact covertly understood as a racial category, one with an amazing 98% race-religious overlap.

It’s called Jewish ethnocentrism, an evolutionary strategy of non-assimilation.

Back to Emma Green:

The lesson, then, that many Jewish kids absorb at an early age is that their heritage comes with responsibilities—especially when it comes to getting married and having kids.

In large part, that’s because Jewish organizations put a lot of time and money into spreading precisely this message. For the Jewish leaders who believe this is important for the future of the faith, youth group, road trips, summer camp, and online dating are the primary tools they use in the battle to preserve their people…

… In every denomination, the leaders I talked with are thinking intentionally about how to strengthen the sense of connection among teenaged Jews.

“There’s no question that one of the purposes of the organization is to keep Jewish social circles together at this age,” said Matt Grossman, the executive director of the non-denominational organization BBYO, which serves about 39,000 American students each year.

“If they’re in an environment where their closest friends are Jewish, the likelihood that they’re going to end up dating people from those social circles, and ultimately marry someone from those social circles, increases dramatically,” Grossman said.

Organizations like Hillel, a non-denominational campus outreach organization have gathered data on the most efficient ways of encouraging these friendships. [Whoa! “Non-denominational”? How can that be possible if being ‘Jewish’ doesn’t have a racial component? – Ed.]  “If you have students reaching out to other students to get them involved in Jewish life, and when an educator is paired with them, they end up having more Jewish friends than your average student,” said Abi Dauber-Sterne, the vice president for “Jewish experiences.”

And what of JDate? It’s no different than ChristianMingle.com, right? Green notes:

Outside of the built-in networks of youth groups and summer camp, if a Jew wants to date another Jew, she’ll probably try JDate. Owned and operated by Spark Networks, the same company that runs ChristianMingle.com, BlackSingles.com, and SilverSingles.com, JDate is the primary dating service for Jews (and gentiles who are particularly interested in marrying Jewish people, for that matter). According to data provided by the company, they are responsible for more Jewish marriages than all other online dating services combined, and 5 out of every 9 Jews who have gotten married since 2008 tried finding their match on the Internet.

But JDate sees itself as more than a dating service. “The mission is to strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come,” said Greg Liberman, the CEO. “The way that we do that is by making more Jews.”

Indeed, pictures of so-called “JBabies” featured prominently in promotional materials sent over by the JDate team. In JDate’s view, these new Jews will be the future of the people, but they’re also good for business. “If we’re at this long enough, if Jews who marry other Jews create Jewish kids, then creating more Jews ultimately repopulates our ecosystem over time,” said Liberman.

Ecosystem? Wow.

So, what does Emma think of this? She’s clearly uncomfortable with the above sentiment, but attributes it to… drumroll… a ‘long history of persecution’ and Jews being ‘so assimilated’:

It’s hard to imagine this kind of language being used in other communities without provoking outrage, particularly if it was used in a racial context. But perhaps because they are so assimilated or because of their long history of persecution, Jews are given a collective pass in American culture—this casual reference to racial preservation seems almost wry and ironic. Companies like JDate use the strong association between humor and Judaism to their advantage: JBabies sounds like a punchline, where “White Babies” or “Black Babies” might sound offensive. But the company is also being serious—they want more Jewish babies in the world.

Even though it’s a private business, JDate doesn’t work in isolation – in fact, it’s strongly connected to the network of organizations that run youth groups, summer camps, and Israel trips, including the Jewish Federation. In some ways, joining JDate is the inevitable next step for teens once they leave the comfort of their temple’s youth group or campus’s weekly Shabbat services. “It’s not like a natural transition—go on a Birthright trip to Israel, come back, join JDate – but it’s not an entirely unnatural extension, either,” said Liberman.

Even for people who aren’t that interested in Judaism, which is true of at least some of the people on JDate, the site has become a cultural fixture. “At weddings, I’m very popular—I’m something of a magnet for Jewish mothers and grandmothers asking me if I have someone for their kids or grandkids,” Liberman said…

… 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.

In the last section of her article, Green — seemingly oblivious to the race vs. religion dimension — conflates the two competing definitions of ‘Jewish’:

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.

In the years to come, will liberal platitudes toward abandoning race as a component of one’s identity lead to increasing levels of Jewish millennial inter-marriage? Or will the wishes and knowledge of the Elders prevail?

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