Relations in Tension:
Research on Jewish-Gentile Couples
By Tuvya Zaretsky, President of LCJE

Earlier this year Tuvya Zaretsky finished his dissertation "The Challenges of Jewish-Gentile Couples: a pre-evangelistic ethnographic study". It was submitted to the faculty of Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon, in April 2004.

American Jewish-Gentile intermarriage is a phenomenon that presents a missiological opportunity in this first decade of the twenty-first century. I was provoked into that awareness by a phone call from an intermarried Jewish woman seeking help for herself, her Gentile husband and their children. Aviva1 wanted to preserve her Jewish identity and that of their children. Her husband wanted their family to become Christians. They were at sharp odds over cross-cultural tensions. So, how could I minister to them spiritually? What do I need to know about their experiences to develop useful evangelistic strategies for Jewish-Gentile couples?

Those questions led to doctoral research to find out how Jewish-Gentile couples feel about their relationships and how they describe their experience. I became a learner in order to be come a better practitioner in the cause of making disciples. This paper shares some of those insights.

Asking right questions

Sociologist, Sylvia Barack Fishman, observed that "few topics have generated more passionate discussion than intermarriage and its ramifications."2 American Jewish public policy is based on questions about how mixed marriage affects Jews and Judaism. Communal leaders contend over the answers that they hope will preserve Jewish identity and prevent Jewish assimilation into the American majority. They allocate money and inaugurate programs to bolster Jewish continuity.

The impact of Jewish-Gentile marriage on American Jewish life is an important subject for communal planning. However, Jewish evangelism is not so concerned with the important question of Jewish continuity as it is with the formulation of evangelistic strategy. Hence, missiological interest leads us to seek information about the cross-cultural impact on Jewish-Gentile couples from their experiences together. What are the challenges of Jewish-Gentile couples? What part of that information would be helpful in formulating evangelistic strategy?

I. Qualitative study

Qualitative research seeks to discover meanings according to the descriptions used by the people being studied. I wanted to hear how Jewish-Gentile couples described the challenges of their relationships.

The first research question was "What are the challenges of Jewish-Gentile couples?" With that question in mind, I conducted field research, interviewing 27 heterosexual couples that were dating, cohabiting and married. In all cases one partner was Jewish. Six of the Jewish partners were believers in Y'shua (Jesus), while twenty-one Jewish partners were not believers.

The couples were from around Southern California. Details of the research design are published in Jewish Gentile Couples: Trends, Challenges and Hopes.3

Intermarriage Demographics

How dramatic is the American Jewish intermarriage rate? Prior to 1960 it was less than 10%. Subsequent decadal surveys showed Jewish intermarriage quadrupling between 1970 and 1990. The Jewish intermarriage rate between 1985 and 2001 has been reported at around 52%. Figures are based on the 1990 and 2000-01 National Jewish Population Surveys. The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey also reported that, of all Jewish adults married since 1990, "51% are married to a spouse who is not of Jewish origin." In America 81% of Jews who are living in cohabiting relationships are living with Gentiles.

Intermarried Jews have typically believed that they are the minority on the margins of the Jewish community. However, the demographics paint a very different picture. During the past nineteen years only 40% of American Jews married other Jews. Overall, 31% of American Jews are intermarried. Another 9% of the Jewish community married Gentile spouses who were converts to Judaism.

Intermarriage appears to replicate among children. Three-quarters of all children from Jewish-Gentile couples also marry non-Jews. Even among the 18% of children, who identify as Jews from intermarried couples, 60% of them intermarry just the same.

Often, the first step to ministry among the intermarried is simply telling couples the truth about the demographics. They are often surprised to find that they are a significant part of American Jewish married life and that they will be the majority if the trend does not change in the next two decades. Comparable situations are developing in Europe and Australia. Perhaps a surprise statistic was reported in HaAretz in early 2004. Ten percent of Israeli Jews are intermarried.

Threats to satisfaction and stability

Research literature from the fields of sociology and psychology tells us that marital satisfaction and stability are threatened by intermarriage. Researchers found that religious faith, in particular, is a factor in martial stability.

Thus, religious differences between partners from divergent ethnic communities result in greater tension and an increased risk of divorce than marriages among similar ethnicities and religions. Research comparisons between Jewish-Jewish marriage and Jewish-Gentile marriage found the divorce rate among the intermarried to be approximately double.4

Traditional Communal Approaches

American Jewish communal leaders heatedly debated public policy in response to intermarriage. Two approaches have dominated the answers to the growing fact of Jewish-Gentile marriage. They are the Blended Tradition or the One-Faith approaches.

Neither approach was based on the needs of intermarried couples. Both approaches appear to be based upon the interests of Jewish communal leadership to preserve the status quo. It is in their interest to maintain the present leadership structure with the right of rabbinic Judaism to validate whoever it chooses as authentically Jewish.

Blended Tradition

The Blended Tradition, or Interfaith Option, sees a Jewish-Gentile couple as incorporating or blending two faiths into their one family. Sociologists encourage interfaith parents to help their children appreciate their two religions. This has been suggested as a way of provided them with "the best of both worlds" by blending both family traditions.

The authors who write about the Blended Tradition approach generally are intermarried themselves.5 Their critics charge that teaching children both faiths only confuses them about their identity and alienates them from both communities. Naturally, the sharpest critics of the Blended Tradition or Interfaith Option are the writers who advocate the One Faith approach.

One Faith Approach

One Faith advocates say that they provide children with a more of a stable and traditional approach. They suggest that children have a clearer sense of identity and emotional security when they are taught a single, consistent moral code within one religion. The One Faith approach is the almost exclusive domain of the proponents of Judaism.

However, moderate Jewish voices fear that such a one-sided approach will further alienate intermarried Jews. Surprisingly, the American Jewish Committee Study in 2002 found that American intermarried Jews do not want an unambiguous connection with Judaism. Jewish partners do not want to be pressed into any religion, but still want their children to be identified as Jews. Gentile Christian partners expressed feeling marginalized or pressured to an unacceptable conformity.

Jewish-Gentile couples dwell on a new cross-cultural frontier. They already experience significant cultural changes. They are often open to new ideas and especially fresh spiritual hope for their families and their children.

II. Research findings

In order to communicate Y'shua effectively, I wanted to know the challenges of Jewish-Gentile couples. So, I conducted qualitative interviews to hear their perspective.

As I interviewed Jewish-Gentile couples, I noticed that they organized the descriptions of their challenges into two primary categories. Their struggles unfolded within specific time periods in their relationships. Those chronological phases began with the dating period, to the wedding event, continued as a couple without children and finally as a family with children.

At the same time they ordered challenges within cultural categories. There were five primary types of issues related to identity, religion, life-cycle events, family and children.

When these two perspectives on challenges were brought together, like binocular lenses, within the chronological phases of relationships and the cultural categories for issues, a complex phenomenon of challenges became evident.

Five key challenges

Analysis of the interview data revealed multi-dimensional challenges in five areas.

Challenge 1: Confusion over Identity Differences

Challenge 2: Tension over Religious Differences

Challenge 3: Disagreements over Life-cycle Celebrations

Challenge 4: Challenges to Family Harmony

Challenge 5: Discord over Training Children.

Some observations

Some insights were derived from those five key challenges.

1. At the dating stage, a couple was often trying to conform a partner to the ideal image of the mate. The Jewish partner often thinks that the Gentile might just convert to Judaism in order to satisfy Jewish parents. In the least, Jews resolved that they could marry a Gentile as long as Jesus would not be part of the family. Sometimes they never discussed their differences for fear of ruining the romance.

2. Couples sometimes had trouble understanding the differences in their ethnic or religious identities. Often the confusion was just from the use of terms. Jews confused "Gentile" and "Christian." Non-Jews didn't see the distinction between the ethnic term "Jewish" and the religious one, "Judaism."

3. "Missionary dating" by a Gentile Christian partner was ultimately recognized as a strategic "mistake" and often as an act of disobedience tot he Lord. Most admitted that they knew they should not be "unequally yoked?"6

4. Christians partners worried about the eternal state of their Jewish partners. Jews described feelings of guilt about their part in undermining the survival of the Jewish people.

5. Couple that committed to be married navigated a minefield of cultural symbols in planning the wedding. That event would declare their identity together and the religious preference(s) in their home. They had to find peace in their different preferences and those of their extended families.

6. Cross-cultural tensions in their relationship with extended families continued after the wedding. Holidays and life cycle or events were especially difficult family times. The adaptability of a spouse was crucial in preserving marital peace and comfort.

7. Gentiles, especially Christians, were far more open to learning about Jewish life than Jewish partners were to discover Christian faith, holidays and rituals.

8. Religion could be practiced separately so long as neither partner attempted to practice in the home or to press the other to be involved. Ultimately I found the key challenge in the Jewish-Gentile experience was a longing for spiritual harmony.

9. Family peace was more difficult to maintain with the arrival of children. Two question were most difficult, "What will the identity of the children be?" and "Who will teach them about the complex identity that they have inherited from their parents?"

III. Missiological implication

These research findings should be helpful for those of us in mission service to the Jewish people. I anticipate that they would also be helpful for outreach among messianic congregations and churches where significant numbers of Jewish-Gentile couples are present. Technically, this was a pre-evangelistic study. I hope to produce a manual of suggested ideas that will help all of us strategize for evangelism in the context of Jewish-Gentile couples and their families. I would welcome suggestions for ministry to this group from others of our fellowship, along with success stories of what is already being done.

In 1995, Michael Rydelnik presented a helpful paper to the LCJE on the subject of outreach to reach intermarried couples.7 It summarized the efforts by several messianic congregations at that time.

Several messianic congregations are promoting spiritual harmony as a help to Jewish-Gentile couples. That commendable approach recognizes the key challenge that was identified in my research. I would specifically compliment Scott Brown and the Son of David congregation in Rockville, Maryland (www. sonof david. org). They have dedicated themselves to proclaiming the Messiah Y'shua without embarrassment over the Gospel or shirking the cause of Jewish evangelism. They have effectively oriented their ministry to embrace Jewish-Gentile couples.

A useful tool was also produced by Nikki Hevesy for Chosen People Productions in 2002 and introduced to the LCJE North America at the Dallas, Texas meeting. It is a 47-minute documentary style video that shows intermarried couples describing their challenges and their resolution of tensions through spiritual harmony in Jesus. No surprise that Scott Brown was co-producer.

Earlier I noted that preservation of Jewish continuity is a worthy cause, but not the task of Jewish evangelism. It may well be an outcome from calling true Israel to the only spiritual root in the on true salvation in Messiah Y'shua. The non-Jesus believing Jewish, or traditional, One Faith, approach to intermarried Jews puts the hope for resolving assimilation in the call to a greater commitment to Judaism.

Some Messianic efforts are perhaps making a similar unintended error by following a similar diffused approach. An emphasis on "Messianic Judaism" can depart from the clarity of the Gospel of Jesus. David Rudolph's recent book, Growing Your Olive Tree Marriage: A Guide for Couples From Two Traditions, seems to place a greater emphasis on a Messianic, Jesus-believing, form of Judaism than the Gospel message in Jesus.8 The need for spiritual harmony was a key challenge reported by Jewish-Gentile coupes. Promoting anything, apart from the saving grace in Jesus, will likely fail to meet that need that was revealed by those who were intermarried.

Some suggestions

As already mentioned, I hope to develop a worker's manual with suggestions for strategic ministry initiatives to dating, cohabiting and intermarried Jewish-Gentile couples. The following are offered as some preliminary thoughts.

1. Discussion topics and biblical truths: A list of appropriate topics and biblical truths for ministry to Jewish-Gentile couples needs to be developed. One of the most helpful resources for such lists has come from small groups of intermarried couples. I find that, when asked, they come up with an agenda of specific discussion topics that naturally lead into discussions of relevant spiritual subjects.

2.Bible studies: Bible studies on the lives of Jewish people who have been intermarried are helpful to get into discussion of important Biblical issues of sin and salvation. They help to create a non-judgmental atmosphere, where couples can identify with Jewish heroes of the faith who were married to non-Jews, like Joseph, Moses, Boaz and Esther.

3.Appropriate social structures:
The havurah is a small group that traditionally functions alongside a synagogue or a Jewish community center. It is an appropriate vehicle for discussing social and spiritual issues in a practical manner and in egalitarian setting. A havurah for Jewish-Gentile couples is culturally appropriate and quite comfortable as a joint learning setting.

4.Internet ministry: The internet has been a safe environment for Jewish-Gentile couples that were looking for resources. Workers in Jewish evangelism are particularly equipped to minister from a mutually understanding Jewish-Christian perspective. Web sites are a good place to answer FAQs from Jewish-Gentile couples.

Children's ministry: The field of Jewish evangelism has much to offer intermarried couples with children. It is possible to teach children about the Jewish ethnicity of one parent and the evangelical faith of the other. When parents are will to embrace such a Two-Faith option, it also means an open door of ministry to the Jewish parent. Bible studies and readings for children can be developed with an eye on ministering to the heart of the parents at the same time. Backyard kids' clubs and Shabbat school programs, like the Club Maccabee in Skokie, IL, have been good models. So have the children's camps like the Jews for Jesus Camp Gilgal.

Exciting opportunities

Missiologist Paul Pierson taught a course on "Historical Development of the Christian Movement." I remember him saying, "spiritual breakthrough and renewal movements usually begin in the margins of a society."

Jewish-Gentile couples regard themselves as marginalized, on the fringes of their respective communities. They present a strategic opportunity for evangelistic ministry among a people that is uniquely prepared for spiritual awakening. Most of them do not realize their potential to form a new community amidst American Jewry, embracing their Gentile partners without stigmatizing their faith in Jesus.

In my study, Jewish-Gentile couples appreciated finding out that their personal experiences were more normal to Jewish life than they had been led to believe by Jewish religious leaders. Thus, trust is not difficult to establish with them. They are a potentially receptive audience for strategic Jewish mission resources. More than ever we have every reason to still not be ashamed of the gospel. We know that it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes -- to the Jew first and also to his or her Gentile partners.


1. Pseudonyms are used here and for research informants throughout this report.

2. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004: 166.

3. Enoch Wan and Tuvya Zaretsky, Jewish Gentile Couples: Trends, Challenges and Hopes. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2004.

4. A. Clamar: 1991 and S.C. Eaton:1994

5. Lee F. Gruzen, Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: How Interfaith Parents Can Give Children the Best of Both Their Heritages. (New York: Newmarket Press, 1990). Roy A. Rosenberg, P. Meehan & J.W. Payne. Happily Intermarried: Authoritative Advice for a Joyous Jewish-Christian Marriage. (New York: McMillan, 1988). Lee Gruzen is an Episcopalian who with her Jewish husband, Jordan, is raising their two daughters in both heritages. Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration. (New York: Villard, 2002).Schaper. Raising Interfaith Children: Spiritual Orphans or Spiritual Heirs?, 1999. Mary HelÚne Rosenbaum and Stanley Ned Rosembaum. Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage. (Boston: Ragged Edge Press. 1999). Joan C. Hawxhurst. The Interfaith Family Guidebook: Practical Advise for Jewish and Christian Partners. (Kalamazoo, MI: Dovetail Publishing, 1998).

6. II Corinthians 6:14 "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers."

7. Rydelnik, Michael. "Reaching Intermarried Couples: A Marketing plan for Messianic Congregations" Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism Bulletin: 42, 11/95. Pp. 10-15.

8.Baltimore: Lederer Books, 2003

Tuvya Zaretsky