The Adult Children of the Intermarried: The “Forgotten”?

JTA just released a package of stories on the adult children of the intermarried, by Sue Fishkoff. It’s an important and interesting series, although not without its flaws.

The centerpiece of the package is an article that looks at how little Jewish programming there is tailored to the needs of adult children of intermarried. Fishkoff calls this population “the forgotten piece of the outreach puzzle.” It’s true; Fishkoff doesn’t say it, but there seems to be an attitude among Jewish policy-makers that this population is already “lost” and it’s better to focus on young intermarried couples who haven’t had children yet or whose children are young. There’s no doubt that programming geared to young intermarried parents has the potential for greater impact, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the 360,000 young adults with one Jewish parent. We know of, and Fishkoff shares, stories of a number of adults who chose Judaism as young adults.

As Fishkoff documents, however, there seems to be a growing awareness of this forgotten population. So far the major movement to engage this population is happening on the periphery of the Jewish world, with things like Robin Margolis’ Half-Jewish Network and Laurel Snyder’s collection of essays Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes. But things are brewing in the mainstream Jewish community: the Jewish Outreach Institute is working with Hillel to create outreach programs on four pilot campuses, JConnect and Jewish Family Services in Seattle held a discussion class on the issue and three years ago, Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. launched “Open Door,” a workshop for adults with “mixed or non-Jewish ancestry.”

There are numerous challenges to reaching this population: their affiliation to Judaism is much more cultural than religious, meaning they tend not to belong to Jewish organizations; they can be wary of the organized Jewish community, which often isn’t welcoming to the children of non-Jewish mothers; and they don’t like being singled out. Reaching them is less a matter of creating programming focused around the issue of coming from an interfaith home than it is a matter of creating programming that speaks to their sense of Jewish identity and avoids potentially sensitive issues, like matrilineal descent.

The other major piece in the package is a little more problematic. Titled “For kids of intermarriage, choices are complex,” it discusses the variety of religious choices that children from interfaith homes might make. Fishkoff admits that “experts stress the importance of giving such children a good Jewish education, as research shows that this makes them much likelier to become committed Jewish adults,” but spends most of the article making the case that anything can happen. She doesn’t rely on research for this notion, but anecdotes. And each of these anecdotes has a serious flaw.

Take Robin Margolis and her family. She is now a committed Jewish adult and her brothers are all Christians–one is even a minister. But they were raised as Christians and didn’t even know their mother was Jewish until Robin was in her 30s.

Or the children of Jill and Tom Docking. They were raised Jewish. Today, one child identifies as Jewish while the other is more equivocal. “If people ask, I say I was raised Jewish and I leave it at that,” he says. But there’s no indication either child has adopted another religion. And it’s not like it’s uncommon for an unmarried 27-year-old child of two Jewish parents to be equivocal about his religious background as well.

Another example is the children of Marty Wasserman and her former husband. One child chose the Judaism of her mother, the other child chose the Catholicism of his father. But Marty converted to Judaism after the divorce, after the children were already born. Further, both children went to Catholic high school. Their experience is hardly typical.

The final example is of a couple where the mother raised one child Jewish while the father raised the other child Catholic.

In the podcast associated with the package, Fishkoff says, “Although giving them a Jewish upbringing reduces the chance that they will look elsewhere, it’s not a guarantee at all.” This suggests that Fishkoff believes that personal choice has as much an impact on how adults identify as does upbringing. But in each example she points to, it’s clear that upbringing was a more powerful factor in the interfaith child’s identity as an adult than personal choice. Yes, there are no guarantees, but if you raise your child exclusively in one religion, it is much more likely they will end up identifying with–or practicing–that religion as an adult than not.

I liked the individual stories quite a bit more because they make no claim to offer a holistic portrait of children from intermarried homes. They’re just interesting stories: Jeff Fry, who was raised a Unitarian by his Jewish mother and Congregationalist father but became engaged with Judaism in college; Rachel Crossley, who grew up in a dual-faith home but got into Judaism in Hebrew school and is now a rabbinical student; and Ephraim Rosenbaum, who, despite his very Jewish-sounding name, doesn’t favor either his father’s Judaism or his mother’s Catholicism.

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