Jew­ish on Their Own Terms: How Inter­mar­ried Cou­ples Are Chang­ing Amer­i­can Judaism

Jen­nifer A. Thompson
  • Review
By – September 8, 2014

The high rate of inter­mar­riage among Amer­i­can Jews is often cit­ed as an indica­tor of the ill health and dis­mal future of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. In her book, Jew­ish on Their Own Terms: How Inter­mar­ried Cou­ples Are Chang­ing Amer­i­can Judaism, Jen­nifer A. Thomp­son takes a dif­fer­ent view. Rather than using num­ber-dri­ven” rates of inter­mar­riage as an indi­ca­tor of the degree of assim­i­la­tion in the com­mu­ni­ty, Thomp­son looks instead at the com­plex­i­ty and diver­si­ty of the lives of inter­mar­rieds” and their par­ticipation in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life — con­clud­ing that inter­mar­riage does not nec­es­sar­i­ly imply assimilation. 

Thompson’s analy­sis is based on her in-depth ethno­graph­ic research and lengthy inter­views with inter­mar­ried cou­ples, com­munal lead­ers, and rab­bis of all denomina­tions. She was also a par­tic­i­pant-observ­er of inter­mar­ried groups and nation­al con­fer­ences on the topic. 

Amer­i­can Judaism is being chal­lenged by the glob­al­iza­tion of cul­ture, sec­u­lar­ism, the dis­rup­tion of com­mu­nal bonds, and oth­er fac­tors. Thomp­son argues that the inor­di­nate atten­tion direct­ed at the high rates of inter­marriage deflects the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty from address­ing the real issues, in her words, the nature of Jew­ish­ness itself.” In-mar­rieds also need help to enrich their reli­gious prac­tice and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and strength­en their con­nec­tions to Jew­ish com­mu­nal organiza­tions. Sim­plis­tic and judg­men­tal notions of good” and bad” Jews are not appro­pri­ate: a more nuanced ana­lyt­i­cal view of Jew­ish life and expe­ri­ences among inter­mar­rieds and in-mar­rieds is needed. 

Thomp­son seeks recog­ni­tion for the pro­grams that seem to work to keep inter­marrieds inte­grat­ed into the larg­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, like The Mother’s Cir­cle, a trans-denom­i­na­tion­al edu­ca­tion pro­gram devel­oped by the Jew­ish Out­reach Insti­tute geared to reach out to inter­mar­rieds, in which Jew­ish edu­ca­tors and rab­bis serve as non-judg­men­tal experts at meet­ings of small groups of non- Jew­ish women who are mar­ried to Jew­ish men. The meet­ings pro­vide the women with knowl­edge and sup­port to encour­age them to choose Judaism for their families. 

Jew­ish on Their Own Terms is a sig­nif­i­cant new book that pro­vides fresh insights into the social world of inter­mar­rieds and the forces shap­ing today’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Its intent is to speak direct­ly to inter­mar­ried cou­ples and their fam­i­lies;” to enable them to see an accu­rate por­tray­al of their con­cerns and expe­ri­ences.” But the book does much more: it calls to the whole Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Index, notes, references.

Relat­ed content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions