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Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.
Theodore Sasson and his colleagues at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis released this week an important new study, Millennial Children of Intermarriage, funded by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation.
The study reports that millennial children of intermarriage – born between 1981 and 1995 – are less likely than children of inmarriage to have had a range of Jewish experiences in childhood; as a result, they are less likely to engage in Jewish experiences (Birthright, Hillel, etc.) in college; and currently they are less likely to exhibit Jewish behaviors and attitudes as young adults.
The study reports that for the most part, the fact that their parents are intermarried does not have direct impact on their current behaviors and attitudes – but Jewish experiences in childhood do: If their parents expose them to Jewish experiences in childhood, then they are much more comparable to the children of intermarriage. This confirms previous research by Len Saxe that Jewish education, not parental intermarriage, is the key determinant of later Jewish engagement. It’s something we’ve also been saying for years in response to the studies that have found low Jewish engagement among interfaith families; if Jewishly-engaged interfaith families weren’t lumped in with all interfaith families, but evaluated separately, they would look much more like inmarried families, which makes the important policy question how to get interfaith families Jewishly engaged.
The main focus of the study is to show the positive impact of participation in Jewish activities in college on children of intermarriage. Indeed, college Jewish experiences “for the most part were more influential for children of intermarriage, nearly closing the gap on many measures of Jewish engagement.” We wholeheartedly support efforts to increase participation in Birthright, Hillel and other Jewish groups and experiences for children of intermarriage in college. This appears to be the trend. Since 1999, 300,000 North American young adults have gone on Birthright trips, of whom 75,000 are children of intermarriage; the percentage has increased from 20% in the early years to over 30% recently. Children of intermarriage are still underrepresented — half of all Millennial Jews are children of intermarriage, partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish. We’d like to see many more of them participate.
Some of the interesting statistical comparisons from the study are:
The study includes important observations about the Christian experiences of children of intermarriage. The main point made is that Christian experiences in childhood were not indicators of participation in Jewish college activities. With respect to celebrating Christmas or Easter, “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage” – another point we have been making for over the years with our annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys. They recall holiday celebrations as “desacralized” – family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family. “Some indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.”
Another important observation concerns how children of intermarriage react when their Jewish identify and authenticity is questioned. The study reports that children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish reject the idea that their Jewish identity is diluted or inferior and view their multicultural background as enriching, enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices. “In interviews, children of intermarriage described being offended by reference to matrilineal heritage as necessary for Jewish identity. In many cases it was peers with two Jewish parents who challenged them. Even some with a Jewish mother reacted to this as an exclusionary boundary that has little to do with their experience of Jewish identity and living.” Interestingly, 40% of children of inmarriage described themselves as multicultural, compared to 52% of children of intermarriage.
Still another important observation is that for children of intermarriage, being very close to Jewish grandparents had a positive impact on many Jewish attitudes and behaviors in young adulthood. However, children of intermarriage by definition can have only one set of Jewish grandparents and as a result were less likely to have had a close relationship to Jewish grandparents; this was especially the case where their father was Jewish.
Finally, the study reports that Jewish experiences in childhood matter a great deal, and college experiences, especially Birthright, have a large impact on thinking it is important to raise children as Jews. In interviews, few children of intermarriage seemed to view being Jewish as a critical characteristic for their future spouse; the see themselves as proof that inmarriage is not a necessary ingredient for having a Jewish home or raising children as Jews. Many expressed a commitment to raising future children Jewish, or in some instance with exposure to Jewish traditions, regardless of whether they married someone who is Jewish. They often discussed the importance of giving children multicultural experiences and to sharing in cultural/religious tradition of their spouse.
The study includes a set of policy implications that for the most part emphasize the importance of increasing the exposure of children of intermarriage to Jewish college experiences. They also note that Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource, and programs should be designed to leverage their influence; that attention should be paid to providing alternative forms of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah; and that initiatives should reflect the sensibilities of contemporary children of intermarriage who view their mixed heritage as an asset and react negatively to ethnocentrism. “Jewish organizations can continue to adopt different approaches on patrilineality, but all Jewish organizations can encourage awareness of the strong feelings of Jewish identity and authenticity felt by many individuals who claim Jewish status by paternity alone.” We agree completely with all of these suggestions.
We believe that one key policy implication of the study fully supports InterfaithFamily’s work in particular with our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model providing services and programs in local communities. The study stresses that “reaching more intermarried families with formal and informal educational opportunities for their children should be a priority. Such experiences launch children on a pathway to Jewish involvement in college and beyond.” Our services and programs are designed to foster a process starting with helping couples find Jewish clergy officiants for their life cycle events, offering workshops for new couples and new parents on how to make decisions about religious traditions and then offering educational programs for parents on raising young children with Judaism in interfaith families, among other things. While this is happening, the Directors of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects, who are rabbis, are building relationships with couples and recommending that they get involved with synagogues and other Jewish groups. If this process works — and our efforts at program evaluation are starting to show that it does — by the time the children of interfaith families are ready for formal and informal education, their parents will be much more likely to choose Jewish education for them.
For reasons not clear to us, the study questions whether it is possible to dramatically alter the status quo regarding the childhood religious socialization of children of intermarriage. At InterfaithFamily, we are committed to working toward that end.
The United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative movement’s youth group, recently re-evaluated the rules for its national and regional teen board members on dating. We shared the JTA story, and realized immediately that you, our readers, were interested in this news. From the number of clicks on Facebook to the comments you shared in favor of this decision, it’s clear this is a story that matters to you.
Why? I think a lot of us were unaware that USY prohibited its teen board members from dating outside the faith in the first place and found this news a little shocking. And the fact that the Conservative movement is supporting the dropping of this policy for its youth—the future of Judaism—is also a bold statement. In the JTA article, Rabbi David Levy, the professional director of USY and director of teen learning at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, explains that the original USY “constitution” was written by teens themselves and “it always has been their prerogative to change them.”
But the recent decision these teens made has been backed by the Conservative movement. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the USCJ said “…we can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”
Rabbi Levy is also quoted in the article as saying, “While we maintain the value that dating within the faith is key to a sustainable Jewish future, we want to be positive and welcoming to USYers, many of whom are from interfaith families.”
I commend the teens of USY and the USCJ for this decision, and I hope it leads to a more welcoming space for their members and potential members. I’d like to know what you think—please sound off below.
As the new year approaches, I’ve been thinking back over the past year—particularly about certain terms I’ve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.
NON-JEW: While “non-Jew” is an easy short-hand term and it’s clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what they’re NOT. For example, I identify as a “female,” not a “non-male;” and in my family I’m a “wife and mother,” not a “non-husband and non-father.” At InterfaithFamily, we’re concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about “non-Jews” in interfaith relationships, it sends the message—even if it’s interpreted subconsciously—that the person who isn’t Jewish is somehow “less than” by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her “outsider” status.
Granted, not using the term “non-Jew” can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think it’s better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I don’t know of an ideal term to describe someone who isn’t Jewish. One suggestion I’ve heard is PDF (“person of a different faith”), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isn’t Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesn’t have a “faith.” Do you have any suggestions?
And for the record, I’d love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, “a woman who is not Jewish” and “people who are not Jewish,” are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
HALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now I’ve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was “half-Jewish” I would probably have said something like: “You’re fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isn’t Jewish doesn’t make you ‘half-Jewish.’” (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: “which half, left or right?”) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as “half-Jewish” it’s not my place to tell him otherwise.
While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel “whole” and to know that he is “authentically” Jewish even if one of his parents isn’t Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that he’s “half-Jewish.” Perhaps that’s his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parent’s family. It’s not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.
Yet while I now wouldn’t “correct” someone who identifies herself as “half-Jewish” because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as “half-Jewish.” In my—admittedly liberal—understanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a child’s mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as “fully Jewish” as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a “half-Jew” can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohen’s blog “Don’t Call Me a Half-Jew”) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.
Which brings me to the third term I don’t like…
PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a person’s mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized “patrilineal descent” (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parent’s gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of “Who is a Jew?”
Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isn’t Jewish as a “matrilineal Jew”—such a person is simply a “Jew.” Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldn’t refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a “patrilineal Jew.” The modifier “patrilineal” is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.
My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual lives…and a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone else’s.
Are there terms that you’d like to leave behind in 2014? I’d love to hear what they are.
I recently went to B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp to conduct a Sensitivity Training on being respectful of kids from interfaith homes with Rabbi Robyn Frisch for the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) Kallah program. It was exciting to meet teenagers from all over the world attending this program where they can study about Judaism and learn how to work with groups of their peers. These teens are the future leaders of colleges, of non-profits and of businesses.
We began our training with a discussion of whether the teens participating ever felt “different” in their community. The conversation then moved to the topic of different ways to handle potentially awkward situations regarding interfaith families. The teens had great ideas about respecting one another and not criticizing others even if they saw someone criticizing another peer. We were very impressed when one of the teens talked about creating a program to alleviate some of the ignorance that was occurring around them.
We then discussed how even if you don’t know all the answers, asking questions can educate you and empower someone who might feel awkward or not included. The process of asking questions can make someone go from feeling vulnerable to proud of their situation. We all agreed that an awkward situation can become a learning opportunity if people use non-judgmental questions to deflate the tension.
The teens were so incredibly respectful to us and one another. They were very welcoming regarding interfaith and diversity issues. We discussed awkward situations that might happen in school or with new members of BBYO. We all agreed that respecting others and even respecting the person who may be less educated/more judgmental is vital.
I clearly remember being a participant at this program many years ago and have many fond memories. I remember being exposed to many new concepts and finding my voice as a Jewish teen. The BBYO Kallah program is a unique leadership opportunity for all teens looking to explore their Jewish heritage. I hope that InterfaithFamily helped these teens find their voice regarding interfaith issues.
I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover: “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”
I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.
And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a
Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji (her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.
One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”
That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.”
When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).
The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read. I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.
If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.
I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.
The staff at InterfaithFamily is feeling grateful, humbled and inspired by the recent grant we received from BBYO. At their International Convention in February, BBYO teens were given the option to participate in a Shabbat learning session hosted by the Slingshot Fund. In this session, they experienced an expedited (but real!) 90 minute grant giving process.
They were first given the Slingshot Guide, which includes 50 innovative up-and-coming Jewish organizations and 17 “standard bearer” organizations, of which InterfaithFamily is one. The Guide states: “InterfaithFamily leads the conversation and demands a place for interfaith families in Jewish communal life.”
BBYOers were then split into groups and each group was assigned a handful of organizations from the Guide to research. After taking all 67 organizations in the Guide into consideration, each group got to pick their favorite and pitch it to the other groups. What a great exercise in philanthropy!
One of these groups chose InterfaithFamily as their grantee. The group members—one in particular who is in an interfaith family—found the work we do to be meaningful to them. When they pitched InterfaithFamily to the larger group, many other kids felt connected to our cause as well. Out of all of the organizations that they could have chosen to fund, the BBYOers chose one: InterfaithFamily!
Here at InterfaithFamily, we spend a lot of time working with parents and couples. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the children of intermarried parents, as does the greater Jewish community. But the minority voice in the equation is that of the children themselves. To know that our mission is important to them is extremely validating and adds a sense of responsibility to our daily work.
Going forward, look out for more essays and resources devoted to the children of interfaith families, because I plan to make sure we rise to the challenge of using the BBYO grant to help these kids feel welcomed and supported in the Jewish community.