From Hanukkah to Christmas… and Back

Jessica Ravitz of the St. Lake Tribune wrote an entertaining, insightful essay on the wonders and worries of being a child of an interfaith household late last month–and all in under 800 words.

When my Jewish parents split up, I was at an age when I would have sooner shoved tinsel in my mouth than throw it on a tree. It was before I could scream, “Merry Christmas!” With the arrival of my Protestant stepfather, I learned how. 

I was no dummy. Even at 5, I knew Hanukkah didn’t hold a candle, let alone eight of them, to Christmas. I reveled in the holiday cheer, tried not to break too many ornaments and carefully hung my stocking. One look at the loot under our tree and I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

While celebrating both traditions–or at least the “biggie” holidays from both traditions–was a boon to her toychest, she received little spiritual nourishment. Her family “bypassed God altogether,” a typical modern liberal response to the problem of religion (and this holds for inmarried as well as intermarried families). That may have made for peace at home, but it meant she felt like an outsider in the Jewish community.

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Do Children of Intermarriage Do Worse?

That’s the question posed by a study published in the September 2007 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, reports Christianity Today:

The authors noted studies confirming positive effects of religious participation on the lives of children in the form of higher self-esteem, overall satisfaction, higher grades, and reduced usage of drugs and alcohol. Given the likelihood that mixed-faith marriages would tend to reduce religious participation and cause marital conflict, the authors hypothesized that children would be negatively impacted by these marriages.

The study produced surprising results. Children of religiously unmatched parents did not manifest lower grades, lower self-esteem, or lower satisfaction. But they were far more likely to use marijuana and engage in underage drinking.

Hunter Baker of Christianity Today interviewed Richard Petts, the Ph.D. student at Ohio State who co-authored the study. I can’t tell for certain–the study is subscription-only–but the tenor of the interview suggests that the study looked at mixed-faith marriages among different Christian groups rather than Jewish-Christian intermarriages.

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JOI Announces Outreach Coalition

At its oversubscribed conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, the Jewish Outreach Institute announced the creation of a national directory of Jewish organizations committed to reaching out to the unaffiliated, including the intermarried, gays and lesbians and converts. Called “The Big Tent Coalition,” the online directory will list organizations that are friendly to the unaffiliated as well as provide a space for organizations to share resources, provide organizations with a “stamp of approval” from JOI and give individuals a place to find outreach-friendly organizations.

Much of this is similar to our own Connections in Your Area system, which also allows interfaith-friendly organizations to sign up and individuals to search for organizations. But the addition of JOI’s coalition to the field is laudable nonetheless.

I unfortunately had to back out of the conference at the last minute because we are putting the finishing touches on a redesigned website that will launch on Thursday, Oct. 25. That’s why I’ve been MIA from blogging the last few weeks, and why I will probably blog little again until the relaunch. There will be some exciting new features of the site as it rolls out, and I will keep you updated.

Are Museums The Next Frontier of Outreach?

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On Sept. 30, several hundred people gathered at a construction site at Fifth and Market Streets in Philadelphia to celebrate the groundbreaking on a new $150 million museum devoted to American Jewish history, according to the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is just one of several ambitious Jewish museum projects opening around the country in the next few years. In San Francisco, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is reopening this spring in a dramatic 63,000-square-foot structure marked by a giant glass cube pirouetted on one corner. In Boston, plans are afoot for a $40 million New Center for Arts and Culture on the greenway covering the central artery. While nothing in the New Center’s mission explicitly says the museum will be Jewish, all of its previous events have been Jewish-themed and the project was first proposed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.
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The Forgotten 360,000

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When Alex Schindler pioneered outreach in the early ’80s, the focus was on interfaith couples. It was all about getting those who had intermarried to feel welcome in the Jewish community, and feel like the Jewish community was something they wanted to be part of.

But what about their children?

According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, there are 360,000 Jews aged 18 to 29 whose parents are Jewish and something else. While some of these children benefited from the outreach revolution of the ’90s, most did not. Yet the Jewish community’s outreach efforts remain mostly focused on interfaith couples.

The latest cover story for j, the Jewish news weekly of northern California, explores this untapped population of children of interfaith couples. It’s a very diverse population, ranging from children who grew up with no religion, to children who grew up with too much religion, to children who were raised solidly in one faith.
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Intermarriage: Helping Jews Find Their Hotel Since 1970

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Ed Siegel, the Jewish intermarried former theater critic for The Boston Globe, has written an amusing piece for the Globe about interfaith couples. It begins:

I have a theory about intermarriage. I know some people think Judaism is going to die out if Jews keep marrying outside the religion, but if my circle of friends is any indication, there’s a practical, perhaps even evolutionary, reason for Jews to be marrying gentiles. In every relationship I know of, the Jew has the worse sense of direction.

…It’s the same in every relationship, male or female, gay or straight. The gentile looks at the map and says, “This way.” The Jew says, “After you.” Why is this? Did our forebears walk around the desert for 40 years because they couldn’t find their way out? It couldn’t have been that they liked the sights so much.

It’s a funny essay, but its point is less about the distinction between Jews and gentiles–his portraits strike me as a little tongue-in-cheek–than about the way that partners in a couple should complement each others’ strengths. In that way, intermarried partners can be a positive influence on each other because of their different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Interestingly, I think his theory is bogus. I’ve never noticed Jews having an exceptionally poor, or exceptionally good, sense of direction. But that’s why I also think his essay is notable. Even when the stereotypes have no connection to reality, I don’t mind seeing somebody put them in print. We should all be able to laugh out our foibles, whether real or imagined.