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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The Rabbi Formerly Known as Half-Jewish

Not much time to blog today, but I need to mention these two great articles from The Jewish Week that are now a few days old:

Rabbi Beth Nichols, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, writes about her experience as an interfaith child in the rabbinical seminary. On Christmas day 2001, she was in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College, attending a class on intermarriage:

I found it both ironic and disconcerting to be discussing intermarriage on Christmas Day. That morning I approached my professor to express my apprehension for the day’s class: “I know we’re talking about intermarriage, and, well, this is my first Christmas away from home.” Registering his look of surprise, I explained, “My Dad’s not Jewish, and Christmas was a really important time in his childhood, so it became an important time in my family. I’m Jewish, obviously, but Christmas has a lot of wonderful family memories attached to it.”

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The Link Sink

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I’ve been meaning to give a shout-out to our friends at Jew-ish.com for a while, but better late than never. Since February, they’ve had a blog on interfaith marriage called Half-Torah (clever title). It was originally written by a gay man named Brian who was converting to Judaism; since May, it’s been written by a Jewish woman named Becca married to a non-Jewish “Jew-ish” man. I haven’t read every post, but I believe “Jew-ish” means that he doesn’t have any Jewish roots, but he’s so involved in Jewish life that he’s essentially an honorary MOT. Check it out. Becca puts up new posts more frequently than I do, and she’s not even paid for it.

Here’s the latest update on the polls we’ve conducted since July 10, the last time I updated you on our polls. Our July 10 poll asked “Can a person be half-Jewish?” and respondents were almost evenly split: 53% said “Yes, of course” and 47% said “No, you’re either Jewish or you’re not.” The July 31 question also saw a fairly even split. In response to the question “Is divorce harder for an interfaith couple than an all-Jewish couple?”, 55% said for an interfaith couple, 45% said for an inmarried couple. However, in response to our Aug. 14 question–”Is making your partner happy a sufficient reason to convert to Judaism?”–nearly all of the respondents (90%) said No. And most of you (60%) thought that children should not be allowed to decide their religion for themselves, according to our Aug. 28 poll.

In Broward County, Fla., a large Jewish cemetery, the 52-acre Star of David Cemetery and Funeral Home, is adding 31 acres and 10,000 plots for intermarried Jews and their families.

Adam Goldberg, son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, says he is tired of being typecast as a neurotic Jew.

Better Late Than Never

The few studies on the Jewish affiliation patterns of children of interfaith families have consistently shown that children of intermarriage have stronger Jewish identities as adults if they are bar or bat mitzvahed.

This article and video from The Charlotte Observer tells the story of Paloma Wiener, 16, and her brother, Brandon, 15, who are studying for their bat and bar mitzvah together. Their mother is Mexican and their father is Jewish, and they moved to Charlotte from California recently, so they got a late start on studying to become b’nai mitzvah. The fact that they are going through the process at a later age reaffirms their commitment to Judaism, and makes it highly likely their religious identity will remain with them throughout their lives.
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Three Stories

I’ve got three interesting stories today about the quirks of interdating and growing up in an interfaith family. I tried to come up with a clever way to link the three, but I’m at a loss. Here they are:

  • On Jewcy, Jordie Gerson complains that Jewish men have a hard time seeing her as a sexual being after they find out she’s a rabbinical student. She finds she can only have flings with non-Jewish men:

    …the non-Jews, they knew better. They knew that in my world they were not welcome, at least not for long. Well, by me, maybe, they’d be welcome. But not by the places I was going, and in the communities I would someday lead. Non-Jewish men assumed our relationship couldn’t become serious—and after the Jewish men who put me in the serious category automatically, this was an enormous relief.

  • Chris Schwarz, a photographer who opened a museum to honor the heritage of the thriving Polish Jewish community destroyed by the Holocaust, died a few weeks ago. Despite his devotion to Jewish history and remembrance, he was buried in a municipal cemetery in Krakow because his mother was not Jewish. He once said, “I am Jewish enough for the camps, but not for the rabbis.”
  • Also on Jewcy, the daughter of a Korean woman adopted by a Jewish family tells her story: how her mother rebelled against religion and didn’t raise her Jewish, how her grandmother “was always pushing” Judaism, how she went on a birthright israel trip because it was free, how she dated an Israeli soldier who was killed by terrorists. Now, she’s a firefighter in Israel.

The Bratz Pack

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BRATZ’s movie debut last week was no match for the Transformers–it made $4.2 million in its opening weekend vs. $155.4 million for Transformers–but when it comes to toy sales, it’s no contest. BRATZ has generated more than $2 billion in revenue, and its sales are closing the gap on the most successful girl’s toy in history, Barbie.

So what–or who–are Bratz? They’re the anti-Barbie, large-headed, wide-eyed, multiethnic dolls who wear skimpy clothes and are supposed to be teenagers, unlike the mature, demure 20-something Barbie. Like Barbie, they were created by a Jewish entrepreneur and like Barbie, they reflect the ethos of the time. When Barbie debuted in 1959, the ideal of feminine happiness was white, blonde, rich and monogamous; in 2007, the ideal is younger, more racially diverse, sassier and independent.
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Making a Half- Whole

A good counterpoint to Sue Fishkoff’s article on half-Jews is Deborah Sussman Susser’s op-ed in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix on her Jewish identity. It begins: “I didn’t think of myself as half Jewish until I’d been told I wasn’t [Jewish] at all.”

This is the other side of the coin of those who define themselves as half-Jews while the Jewish community insists on defining them as Jews or non-Jews. Susser considers herself Jewish, while society in general considers her half-Jewish and the traditional parts of the Jewish community consider her not Jewish at all.

I knew I was Jewish enough that the other kids at school made jokes about picking up pennies and told me I was going to hell, Jewish enough that my first “boyfriend” at summer camp had broken up with me when I told him my religion. “I hate Jews,” he’d said simply.

This sense of being both on the inside and outside of the Jewish community made affiliation difficult for her. In college, she worried that she would be “outed” at Hillel events. At synagogue, she cried. When she got engaged to a Jewish man, her Reform rabbi told them theirs was a mixed marriage. The amazing thing is, despite her bad experiences, she still identifies strongly as a Jew, lighting Shabbat candles and sending her daughter to Hebrew school.

Half-and-Half

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Our current poll question for our Web Magazine issue on Growing Up in an Interfaith Family is “Can a person be half-Jewish?” Appropriately, a day before the issue went online, jacqueline-of-all-trades JTA reporter Sue Fishkoff wrote a story titled “‘Half-Jews’ fight for acceptance.”

For years, people have been saying they were half-Jewish, but the Jewish establishment never gave the moniker any credence. The different denominations are divided on what makes someone Jewish–the Orthodox and Conservative say only a Jewish mother can have a Jewish child, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements say a Jewish father can have a Jewish child provided the child is raised Jewish–but they are united in their opposition to the notion of divided identity. You can’t be half-Jewish. You either are Jewish, or you’re not.

But a growing number of grass-roots efforts are looking to gain acceptance for those who identify themselves as half-Jewish:
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Half-Jewish SF Seeks Ortho Jewish SM

A. Pinsker of the New York Press has written a moving, funny story about her relationship with a self-described “post-modern Orthodox Jew” and the way his spirituality ignited her–and his dogma made him reject her.

Pinsker’s father is Jewish and her mother is not, but both share a distrust of religion. She’d never dated Jewish before–”it’d just be too close to home,” she says–instead opting for a rainbow of races, religions and nationalities. Meanwhile, she says, “my mother married my New York Jewish dad most likely to spite her very old-school, anti-Semitic parents.”

Despite of–or perhaps because of–the lack of religion in her home, she says, “secretly, there was nothing I liked more than celebrating the Sabbath at my Orthodox neighbor’s home.”

Dating this hip-hop-loving guy who lived in rabbinical students’ quarters helped re-awaken that fondness for Orthodox practice, but eventually she runs into the brick wall facing all Jews with non-Jewish mothers: the traditional community’s denial of their Jewishness.

I’d say more, but it’s worth reading. The title alone should be enough to grab you: “A semi-shiksa lusts for her ultimate fetish: A cute Jew-boy.”

Who is a Jew? Who Cares?

Julie Wiener, in typically brilliant fashion, has written a great piece on the “Who is a Jew?” debate as seen through the eyes of her 3 1/2-year-old daughter:

At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel — or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.

But newly cognizant of the fact that she is Jewish, and that Jewishness is not universal, she has become fascinated with categorizing everyone she knows, sorting them into “Jewish” and “Christian.”

She is Jewish. Her friends Owen and Stephanie are Christian. The other kids at Tot Shabbat are Jewish. Her babysitter Maria is Christian.

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