From the Archive: Jewish teens and interfaith dating

Julie Wiener

At United Synagogue Youth's 2014 convention, being held in Atlanta on Dec. 21-25 , the board voted to relax the youth organization's ban on interfaith dating. (Courtesy of United Synagogue Youth)

At United Synagogue Youth’s 2014 convention, being held in Atlanta on Dec. 21-25 , the board voted to relax the youth organization’s ban on interfaith dating. (Courtesy of United Synagogue Youth)

Last week the teen leaders of United Synagogue Youth voted to amend a longstanding set of rules banning the Conservative movement youth group’s teenage board members from dating non-Jews.


For those who see intermarriage as an epidemic threatening the Jewish community and interfaith dating as the first step to intermarriage, the decision was troubling.

But for others, the move was simply an acknowledgment of prevailing norms among young non-Orthodox American Jews, many of whom were themselves raised in interfaith families.

While the American Jewish community has become increasingly accepting of intermarriage, teens questioned restrictions on interdating even in earlier decades when marrying out of the Tribe was still taboo. In JTA articles dating back to the 1950s, even teens who objected to intermarriage frequently reported that they found interdating acceptable.

Such attitudes were not limited to unaffiliated Jewish teens; rather, most of these articles focused on teens who were active in Jewish life, whether through youth groups, Jewish summer camps, or Jewish sports competitions like the Maccabi Games.

A 1954 article on the Jewish Youth Council Institute at a camp near Denver, reported that a prominent local Reform rabbi told participants that dating gentiles is a “step toward intermarriage.” However, the same article noted, in a discussion at the gathering “a majority of the teenagers present saw no connection between dates they might have and intermarriage, and wanted their parents to approve of interdating.”

Similarly, a 1959 survey of 900 teens attending Reform movement camps found “they are strongly against intermarriage, although they do not oppose ‘dating’ non-Jews.” Of about 900 teen-agers questioned, 95 percent of those who answered the questionnaire said they would be reborn as Jews if they had a choice and had to do it over again.

In 1966, the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., branch of the American Jewish Committee surveyed its teens and discovered that 84 percent were “unopposed to dating non-Jewish teen-agers, and two-thirds of them said they had dated non-Jews. Somewhat over one-half, however, rejected the possibility of intermarriage.”

Three decades later, Brandeis University surveyed 1,000 participants in four regional JCC Maccabi Games, finding, among other things, that the majority of Jewish teenagers wanted to marry a Jewish partner but did not object to dating non-Jews:

In contrast to adults, the teens made a distinction between dating and marrying within the religion. More than half the teens surveyed – or 52 percent – said marrying someone Jewish is very important to them while only 37 percent said that exclusively dating Jews is of equal importance.

“By and large these are two separate concepts for the kids and they would prefer that the adult world deal with them separately,” [the survey coordinator Amy] Sales said.

While parents may bury their heads when they hear that distinction asserted, the teens rationalize to themselves “I don’t want to marry, I just want to go to the prom,” Sales said.

A 2002 study of teens whose families belonged to Conservative synagogues — the demographic that USY serves — also found relatively high levels of comfort with interdating. While the study’s main finding, according to the JTA report, was that alumni of the movement’s Ramah camps were more Jewishly committed than Conservative teens who did not attend the camps (and more committed than Conservative alumni of several other non-Orthodox Jewish camps), even the Ramah alumni acknowledged dating non-Jews. While 78 percent of the Ramah alumni “said it is ‘very important’ to marry someone Jewish,” JTA reported, only 30 percent “said they date only Jews.”

Sheldon Dorph, Ramah’s national director at the time, told JTA those findings were “scary”:

“Ramah looks a little better than other Jewish camps” in terms of the percentage of alumni committed to marrying Jews “and yes, Jewish camping is better than no Jewish camping, but the study shows pretty clearly how strong the majority culture is” in accepting intermarriage, Dorph said.

[Gabe Friedman contributed to this article.]