American Jewish Community Must Learn From Jewishly Engaged Intermarrieds to Remain Vital

The Jewish community needs to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life.

When I set out to write my book From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, I wanted to demonstrate through the telling of my family’s story that intermarriage has not been as bad for the Jews as many in the Jewish community would have us believe. I wanted to show that the reality of the religious lives of mixed faith families is more nuanced and richly Jewish, than is often portrayed through surveys, statistics, and snapshot anecdotes.

For years, the Jewish community’s belief that intermarriage is a significant factor in the decline of the Jewish population has been reinforced by how it collects its data. Jewish demographic surveys mostly look at rates of intermarriage and Jewish childrearing by intermarrieds. There have been few studies that I’ve come across that dig deeper into this issue through qualitative and quantitative research; few researchers, academics, or community leaders interested in understanding the hows and the whys of Jews who are intermarried.

This focus on calculating the percentage of Jews that intermarry and raise singularly Jewish children has failed to move the debate about how to best address intermarriage and its effect on Jewish continuity forward in a meaningful way. Instead, it continuously creates communal hysteria and vitriol with the release of each new study.

One of the problems with the data on intermarriage is that it captures the religious choices of families at a single point in time. This method assumes that interfaith family life is static. However, an intermarried family’s relationship to faith can be as dynamic as an inmarried family’s.

For example, some not Jewish partners choose to convert after many years of living a Jewish life. Previously uncommitted couples decide to engage Jewishly when a child is born or starts preschool. Interfaith families who identify as Jews of no religion become more involved after a significant life event. Families who start out as dual-faith later make the decision to have singularly Jewish homes. Children of intermarriage choose to identify as Jews in some way when they reach adulthood.

Until recently, most demographic studies have failed to measure the Jewish identification, engagement, and experience of interfaith families in a way that captures scenarios such as the ones highlighted above. However, after the publication of the Pew report, Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies asked the Pew research team to look at the rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identified as Jews.

He found that over the years, “the proportion of adult children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish has steadily increased, reaching 59%” for children born after 1980. The result was almost evenly split between those identifying as Jews by religion and those identifying as Jews of no religion.

In discussing his findings, Sasson states in the Spring 2014 issue of Contact, “the higher-than-expected rate of Jewish identification among the adult children of intermarriage is…a significant milestone. The rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identify as Jewish exceeds the rate at which their parents claimed to be raising them as Jewish in the NJPS 2000-01 survey.”

Sasson’s data captures people like my cousin, the child of a Jewish father and not Jewish mother raised in a home with no religion. During his first year of college, he met other kids like him. Some of his friends had heard of Birthright and suggested that they all look into it.

The idea of exploring his Jewish heritage interested my cousin enough that he announced at his family’s secular Christmas dinner that he was planning to apply to go on the Israel trip with his friends. My Jew of no religion uncle, who had been turned-off by the faith after his bar mitzvah, did not resist the idea. He said, “I’d be okay with that.”

By collecting data on intermarriage and the child-rearing choices of intermarried Jews in the way that we do, we do not allow for the possibility that being Jewish or engaging in Judaism can become important or of interest to interfaith families and children of intermarriage over time. Dr. Sasson’s findings will hopefully get the Jewish research community to consider additional ways to study intermarriage’s effect on Jewish identity.

I hope to see more qualitative research being done too in order to better understand why intermarrieds are or are not choosing Judaism, and how they are engaging in Judaism if they are associating themselves with the Jewish people in some way. But, until communal leaders start asking these questions, it is up to intermarrieds who are actively choosing Judaism to make our voices heard.

By sharing my family’s interfaith and Jewish journey in From Generation to Generation, I hope others will be encouraged to share their story. Our narratives can help answer questions such as why, how, and when are intermarrieds making Jewish choices.

The Jewish community needs to learn from and leverage the experiences of interfaith families living Jewishly in order to draw more intermarrieds into American Jewish life. If it does not, the predictions of the communal pessimists will eventually become reality.

Sasson suggests that the Jewish community support efforts to maximize the percentage of intermarrieds raising Jewish children and welcome young adults not raised as Jews to explore their Jewish heritage. He seems to recognize what many Jewishly engaged intermarrieds already know; Jewish spouses will not sustain us, but Jewish engagement will.

From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity is available at Indibound, Amazon and other retail outlets.

Resource:

Theodore Sasson, “Investing in the Children of Intermarriage,” Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2014, Volume 16, no. 1, 8-9. http://www.steinhardtfoundation.org/wp-install/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/spring_2014.pdf

 

 

 

Make Jewish Behavior Contagious, Hire Jewish Babysitters

 

One of Sammy's favorite babysitters recently returned from a semester in Israel. When he's old enough, Sammy wants to do a similar program.

One of the things I’ve learned about being a parent is that while my husband and I are our son’s primary role models and key influencers of the choices he makes, raising a child is a communal effort. Teachers, coaches, siblings, camp counselors, clergy, extended family, babysitters, and peers play a part in shaping who and what our child will become.

Cameron and I often talk about how fortunate we are to have found many excellent teachers and coaches for our son Sammy. Over the years, they have helped to nurture his love of learning, bolstered his confidence and self-image, and reinforced the values and behaviors that we work to instill at home. 

But some of the most influential people in Sammy’s life are not the adults or family members he interacts with, or even his peers, but rather his teenage and young adult babysitters. For Sammy, our first and only child, these young people are like older siblings and the influence they exert on him is significant.

This isn’t surprising. Recent research has shown that older siblings are often more influential than parents. While many studies focus on how bad behavior by older siblings foreshadows similarly bad behavior by younger ones, findings also suggest that older siblings’ good behavior can be just as contagious.

We’re lucky, the kids – well kids to me – who sit for Sammy are mensches. A mensch has rectitude, dignity, and a sense of what is right. It is a person to admire and emulate. What makes this Yiddish word a fitting description of our sitters is that they also all happen to be Jewish.

The hiring of Jewish babysitters was coincidental. We were connected to them through friends, teachers, rabbis, and acquaintances at our synagogue. This access to teens and twenty-somethings with strong characters and a desire to earn a few dollars watching children has been a fringe benefit of temple membership.

Over the years our sitters have shown Sammy how to interact with adults and children in positive ways, be responsible, respectful, and goal- and achievement-oriented. They have nurtured his love of reading, architecture, and sports; and encouraged creativity and physical activity.

This accidental Jewish babysitter pool also has, through their actions and choices, fostered Sammy’s connection to Judaism. These Jewish teens and young adults show Sammy that there is more to living Jewishly than services, religious school, and holidays; and demonstrate that there is Jewish life post-bar mitzvah.

For example, our teen sitters have all continued or are in the process of continuing their Jewish education through confirmation. They attend or attended Jewish summer camp. They play baseball in the JCC Maccabi Games, a yearly Olympic-style sports competition for Jewish teenagers in North America. They travel to Israel.

One is active in his campus Hillel and is a founding member of a Jewish fraternity at his university. Another teaches in our synagogue’s religious school, sits on its board of directors, and is involved with the temple’s young adult group.

Hearing about all of these Jewish experiences is making an impression on Sammy. He tells us that he wants to engage in Judaism in similar ways.

When one of Sammy’s favorite sitters told us he would spend the spring semester of his junior year on the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program, Sammy announced that he would do the same. After this teen returned home and shared his experience, it intensified Sammy’s desire to go.

Listening to another talk about participating in the staff-training program at the Jewish summer camp that both he and Sammy attend caused Sammy to state that he too will be working as an Avodah when he is old enough. Knowing that another teen that helps us will be traveling to Israel with his family next summer on our synagogue’s trip is one reason why Sammy is eager to go.

I love that Sammy has Jewish young people to look up to because, as a kid, I didn’t. I lived in a town with only a handful of Jews, didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, and didn’t have any Jewish babysitters.

The closest person in my life to a Jewish older sibling was my youth group advisor, who was married with young children. While he encouraged me to participate in youth activities, taught me the importance of social justice, and nurtured my connection to Israel, he was not participating in Jewish activities that could be part of my Jewish experience in the near term.

I also didn’t meet him until I was in high school. Sammy has had young Jewish role models in his life since age four, exposing him to Jewish activities that he will have the opportunity to do in the coming years–youth group, Israel, confirmation, working at Jewish summer camp, and participating in high school and college programs. He plans to be very busy.

With all of the talk in the Jewish community about encouraging Jewish engagement, maybe what we need is a corps of Jewish babysitters who play the role of older siblings for our children. I know that I worry less about Sammy making Jewish choices when he gets older because of the teens that help us.

If you want to make Jewish life contagious, ask your Jewish friends, acquaintances, and fellow temple members if they know any Jewish teens or young adults interested in babysitting. It will not only give you the opportunity to spend an evening with your spouse or partner, but it will also be an investment in you children’s Jewish future.

Church, State, and Jewish Engagement

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening prayers at government meetings, even if predominately Christian, do not violate the Constitution. How do Jewish and Jewish interfaith families prepare to confront the mixing of church and state?

I did not intend to write a blog on the recent Supreme Court decision on ceremonial prayer. I actually planned to write about the amazing Jewish teens and young adults who babysit our son Sammy and are a powerful influence on him. But then I opened the Sunday paper and read about Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that opening prayers at town council meetings in a suburb of Rochester, New York do not violate the Constitution even if the prayers were predominately Christian. As I read, I thought that starting governmental sessions with a prayer that often stressed Christianity sounded like something that happened in Bible Belt Texas, not Upstate New York.

In Dallas, which is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, religion in public life is common, so common, in fact, that it is easy to find examples of the religious mixing with the secular on a daily basis. Business meetings often begin with a prayer and offices conduct Bible study at lunch. City sports leagues run clinics that teach baseball skills and the Christian Bible, dance schools help children learn to praise Jesus through ballet, cheerleaders at public high schools print Bible verses on spirit banners used for athletic events, and billboards advertise Christ-centered talent preparation for models and actors. If you live in a less overtly religious region of the country, you may think that these examples of life in the Bible Belt sound unbelievable, and before moving here, I would have too, but I assure you, they are real.  

The hyper-religious culture in the part of the country I live in sparked my interest in the Town of Greece case. As I continued reading, I came across excerpts of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. He noted that there was no reason to view ceremonial invocations as an endorsement by the state of any particular religion unless actions that are more blatant were present. He suggested that offended adults could either not participate in the prayer portion of a meeting or remain quiet while the religious message was delivered. Kennedy wrote, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

After reading this quote, I wondered how many adults were actually firm enough in their own beliefs and educated enough about other faiths to appreciate different religious voices, and not feel excluded or disrespected. I know from my own Jewish journey that I have only really strengthened and defined my beliefs since meeting my husband, becoming a parent, and engaging in adult education. I am sure that 15 years ago if I was in a government or business meeting, or in a public school setting that began with a prayer of any kind that I would have felt uncomfortable and like I was an outsider. 

The blurring of the lines between church and state challenges many of us, including those of us with strong religious identities, and who believe in a wall of separation between church and state. So, how do we prepare ourselves to confront these situations and more importantly, how do we prepare our children who will not only face these scenarios as adults, but may have to deal with them at school? How do we raise children to be the kind of adults Kennedy assumes exist in America – adults that are confident in their beliefs and religious identities, yet value diverse religious perspectives? How do we ensure that our children and we are strong enough to speak-up when religion in pubic life becomes exclusionary or proselytism? How do we do this in the context of intermarriage?

Raising children in an interfaith home presents both challenges and opportunities with respect to these questions. Maybe children who are raised in interfaith homes and intermarried adults can more easily appreciate a variety of religious ideas. Maybe children of intermarriage have beliefs that are less firm or weaker faith identities, or maybe they have stronger ones because our families are forced to think and act more consciously about religion. Maybe they are no different from children from inmarried homes – they are as connected or disconnected as their parents.

As I consider these questions, I think about the current emphasis in progressive Judaism on engagement. We are told that Jewish engagement now is imperative so we can guarantee a Jewish future. But in light of the increasing incursions of the religious into secular life as demonstrated by the Town of Greece decision, engaging with Judaism through ritual, education, camps, community groups, and social networks is not just of Jewish importance, but it is of practical importance. Engagement builds our knowledge base and identity muscle. If both are weak, how can we expect to confront religion in public life in a rational and productive way? If we know who we are, what we care about, and what are our core beliefs then it is easier to handle these public encounters with faith with pride, dignity, and resolve.

All of the ways we choose to engage with religion will help prepare our families and children for life in the not always secular world. Town of Greece v. Galloway gives all of the subjects we discuss in this space and actions such as lighting Shabbat candles, participating in Jewish education, attending Jewish summer camp, being active in a synagogue or Jewish community, and discussing with our children our beliefs and those of our not Jewish partners and extended families significance beyond Jewish continuity.

The Extended Influence of Camp

Sammy with "our Israelis" Tal and Gilad. Two weeks ago, Gilad was in Dallas to help Sammy celebrate his 9th birthday.

Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.

The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammy’s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.

Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.

The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.

Prior to one of Sammy’s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”

We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.

During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.

With Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. “Yes!” he said with a celebratory fist pump.

It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.

No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.

I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child – help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.