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The Chuppah Advantage

In an era of declining marriage, American Jews show surprising resilience. Why?

Charles Fain Lehman
November 12, 2019
Illustration: Gena Feith
Illustration: Gena Feith
Illustration: Gena Feith
Illustration: Gena Feith

In principle, a Jewish wedding is simple. As Anita Diamant writes, a halakhically valid ceremony only requires that “the bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from the groom, the groom recites a ritual formula of acquisition and consecration, and these two actions must be witnessed.” Yet few modern Jews would think that such a wedding “felt” Jewish. The chuppah, the seven blessings, and breaking a glass are all additional practices that have, over the ages, emerged as popular Jewish wedding customs. In the 21st century, the Jewish wedding continued adapting, expanding to include egalitarian rituals, modern ketubahs, agunah prenups, and same-sex marriage ceremonies.

This modernization may not be new in Judaism, but the backdrop for the most recent adaptations is worth noting. Today, only about half of American adults are married, compared with nearly three-quarters in the 1960s. Young Americans are choosing to delay marriage into their late 20s and early 30s: half as many under-35s were married in 2018 as were married in 1978. At the same time, “gray divorce” is on the rise as baby boomers dissolve their marriages (although millennials look likely to reverse that trend).

Amid this turmoil, Jewish marriage rates have proved surprisingly resilient. Surveys reveal that Jews are among the most-married religious groups in the United States, outpacing Catholics, Muslims, and Protestants. (Those statistics combine both Jews married to other Jews and married to non-Jews.) What is more, while other groups have seen precipitous declines in marriage since the middle of the last decade, the share of Jews married has remained roughly constant—a sign of persistence amid societal change.

What is behind this trend? The data point in several directions. Almost certainly, it is linked to Jews’ socioeconomic advantages. But at the same time, it appears that Jewish religious identity and communal bonds play a role. Overall, there are still fewer Americans getting married—a decline that applies to Jews and non-Jews alike. But within that larger trend, the durability of Jewish marriage—which has seen less of a decrease than other major religious groups in America—may provide some insight into the causes of the decline and how it can be reversed.

The Chuppah Advantage

Roughly 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish, or about 6.5 million people. Because of this relatively small size, it can be hard to paint a statistical picture. Luckily, some demographers have addressed this problem by conducting large, public surveys of substantial numbers of Jews.

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has done the most comprehensive recent work, namely in its 2007 and 2014 Religious Landscape Studies and in its 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans. These surveys provided a solid, if slightly out-of-date, picture of marriage among Jews in America.

That picture contains some surprises. Data from the 2014 study indicates that Jewish respondents were the third-most-likely to be married, among the major religions surveyed. Roughly 55% of the Jewish population was married, outpaced only by Mormons ( about 65%) and practicing Hindus (about 59%). Small subsamples mean larger margins of error, but the available data suggests that Jews are marrying at a higher rate than self-identified Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics.

The second, perhaps bigger, surprise comes when looking at trends over time. According to the Census Bureau, the married share of the over-15 population fell by roughly 2.6 percentage points between 2007 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, every religious group saw at least some decline between those two years.

The group that saw the smallest drop, however, was Jews. The relative magnitudes of decline likely reflect some statistical variation but are, nonetheless, surprising. The married share of the Jewish population fell by just 1.1 percentage points. By comparison, Mormons fell by 5.1 points, and Hindus by 18.9 points. In other words, while marriage declined in general, the Jewish married share remained roughly constant.

Amid a general marriage decline Jews are apparently doing better than most other groups. What, exactly, is going on?

Jews and the “Marriage Gap”

Socioeconomically speaking, American Jews are doing well. Jews are financially better off than most other demographic groups in the U.S., with one-quarter reporting that they make more than $150,000 annually, compared with 8% of the general population. In its 2013 “portrait,” Pew found that nearly 6-in-10 Jews graduated college, and nearly 3-in-10 have an advanced degree, respectively two and three times the general population rate. The only religious group with higher educational attainment, Hindus, also happen to be one of the only two groups along with Mormons marrying at a higher rate than Jews.

“What has happened is that marriage has become an economic privilege, and Jews are by and large economically privileged, and also highly educated,” Dr. Len Saxe, director of Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, told Tablet.

Saxe pointed out that the time young Jews spend on education and career means they marry later—on average not before age 32 or 33, a few years past the national median.

This delay in marrying age, which had once been a cause for concern among social observers concerned with rates of family formation and demographic trends, turns out to be a big part of why Jewish marriages are above the national average.

“The length of time that Jews spend in education contributes to their not marrying in their 20s—school, starting careers,” Saxe said. “On the other hand, being economically secure enables them to marry. And that’s a broader secular trend.”

The trend he is talking about is sometimes called “the marriage gap.” While America has seen declining rates of marriage, those declines aren’t even across the population. Rather, the more educated and wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be married.

Today, Americans follow one of two family-formation strategies. Either they get a college degree and a job, and marry in their 30s; or they don’t, and remain unmarried. Jews, who have high rates of educational attainment, follow the former strategy, marrying more than other groups but later in life than earlier generations.

What About Religion?

In many people’s minds, marriage and religion go hand in hand. The data bear that out, showing that individuals who attend religious services more often are also more likely to be married. Part of this is because religious people marry at younger ages; part of it is because religious norms often encourage marriage. Religious marriages may be stronger, too: More-religious relationships predict greater marital happiness worldwide.

The marriage-religion link certainly appears to be the case for Orthodox Jews. “Marriage is normative in the Orthodox community,” Dr. Michelle Shain, assistant director of the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research, told Tablet. “It’s a mitzvah, a divine expectation, and it’s considered to be the appropriate state of being for an adult.”

The data from Pew’s 2013 survey confirm this, but that isn’t all they show.

Orthodox respondents were, unsurprisingly, far more likely to be married—about 70%, in total. But respondents who identified as “Reform” or “Conservative” were also substantially more likely to be married than non-religious Jews—approximately 55% married for both, compared with 41% married for Jews of no religion. (Other denominations, e.g., Reconstructionist, were not well-represented enough for closer analysis.)

Some of this finding is likely because of the marriage gap: Pew found that “Jews by religion” were 7 percentage points more likely to have a college degree than “Jews of no religion,” and 6 points more likely to make more than $150,000 a year. But the other way to interpret these data is that religious identification is both predictive and protective of marriage. That might be because religious observance promotes marriage and discourages divorce, or because even non-Orthodox Jews feel a halakhic pressure to marry.

Dr. Shain, however, expressed skepticism of a direct religious ID-marriage link. She pointed out that among non-Orthodox Jews, fertility rates have converged to the general population, meaning that marriages may have as well. She also told Tablet that in interviews she conducted with young Jews about family formation only Orthodox interviewees went out of their way to cite a Jewish influence on their life-course choices.

One other point against the religion-marriage connection: Most of the Conservative/Reform advantage disappears when looking at Pew respondents under the age of 50. This fits with Shain’s argument about fertility: While religion determined marriage preferences among older generations—even for Conservative and Reform Jews—the attitudes among younger, non-Orthodox Jews look more like the general population.

Yet, even Reform- and Conservative-identified Jews still distinguish themselves from their “no religion” peers. Religious involvement in general is an avenue for access to the kind of social capital that makes marriage formation easier. It also may be that identifying as religiously Jewish reduces assimilation to a culture in which the marriage rate keeps dropping.

In the long run, it looks like Jews at all levels of religious observance have stronger attachments to marrying than the general population but there’s also a direct correlation between a person’s religiosity and the strength of that bond. In other words, just being Jewish gives a person a statistical leg up for marrying but the more religious a Jew is, the more likely they are to marry.

Even after excluding Orthodox respondents, giving to a Jewish cause, being involved in a Jewish organization, having most or all of your friends be Jewish, and attending services at least monthly are all associated with a substantially higher probability of being married.

Jews Stick Together

Pew’s 2013 survey asks several questions relating to Jewish-community involvement. In particular, respondents were asked: how frequently they attend Jewish services; if they donated to a Jewish cause; if they were a member of a Jewish organization other than a synagogue; and how many of their close friends were Jewish. To avoid complication, the chart below is restricted to those Pew identified as “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion;” respondents who identify as Orthodox were also excluded.

The results are dramatic: Even after excluding Orthodox respondents, giving to a Jewish cause, being involved in a Jewish organization, having most or all of your friends be Jewish, and attending services at least monthly are all associated with a substantially higher probability of being married. In other words, there is a correlation between being involved with Jewish community and being married.

Notably, that correlation depends on present, adult participation. Just being involved with Judaism as a kid isn’t enough—Pew data show no significant effect on marriage share from having had a bar mitzvah, or having attended a Jewish day school, both experiences that took place in the past, rather than at the time of the survey.

While the available data is not dispositive, there is at least a plausible argument that being involved in a religious and ethnic community promotes marriage. To the extent that Jews want to marry other Jews, being part of a Jewish community necessarily promotes marriage. (This may in part be because Jews want to find a mate of similar socioeconomic status, what is called assortative mating.) Further, religious communities are a powerful source of social capital, which in turn facilitate pairing.

Fully assessing the impact of Jewish communal involvement on marriage, would require a randomized experiment where some Jews are exposed to community and others are not. That kind of study doesn’t exist, but second best is the Cohen Center’s Jewish Futures Project. The JFP has tracked a cohort of young Jewish adults who applied to Birthright Israel between 2001 and 2009, using those who did not participate as a “control group” compared with those who did. The most recent report indicates that those who went on Birthright were significantly more likely to inmarry, but as likely, or slightly less likely, to be married compared with those who did not. In short: Birthright does not raise a Jew’s probability of marriage but it ups the odds that if they do marry, that person will be a Jew.

That said, Birthright is a single, past experience, rather than ongoing involvement. As with bar mitzvahs and Jewish day school attendance, the JFP results may be showing that past Jewish participation doesn’t increase likelihood of marrying, while present participation does.

There is, of course, one ritual intimately related to the Jewish marriage that may have an effect: the Jewish wedding. As Diamant notes, “one of the first choices for two Jews planning a wedding today is whether to make the event recognizably Jewish at all. ‘Do we go to a justice of the peace and forget about religion and tradition altogether?’”

In general, the choice of formal wedding or not has subsequent effects: A report from the National Marriage Project at UVA found that 41% of those who had a formal ceremony report a high-quality marriage, compared with 28% of those who did not. Such enhanced marriage quality could induce couples to choose a formal wedding. Analogously, it is plausible that the opportunity for a Jewish wedding—with its unique pageantry, and opportunity to affirm the relationship in the eyes of a shared religious and ethnic community—makes marriage just a little more attractive for Jews.

What Jewish Marriage Shows

The biggest factors contributing to the relative strength of marriage among Americans appear to be some combination of socioeconomic advantage and religious obligation, which is especially pronounced among more observant Jews. There is evidence showing that involvement in Jewish culture matters too. The correlation between Jewish cultural attachment and marriage is weaker than it is with religiosity and socioeconomic status but it still exists as Jews who exhibit communal involvement are, on average, more married than those who do not.

There is a temptation to reduce these community effects to pure economics, but it is important to remember that cause and effect can run the other way: “Thick” community ties can promote socioeconomic success as much as vice versa. That the marriage benefit seems to accrue to Jews who are religiously and communally involved seems to suggest a deeper truth, that strong marriages are preceded by strong communities.

That may be the ultimate lesson, for Jews and gentiles alike. The decline in American marriage takes place against the backdrop of a general rise in social disconnection, with each doubtless reinforcing the other. That Jews have weathered that is, to some extent, a product of their social ties; if other groups in America want to do likewise, they must rebuild those ties.

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a 2023-24 Robert Novak fellow with the Fund for American Studies.