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Survey: Children of Intermarriage Identify as Jews Some of the Time

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif., May 8, 2005 (JTA) - A new survey of adult children of intermarried parents shows a high level of Jewish cultural identification and interest in Jewish studies, combined with low levels of childhood Jewish education and religious attachment.

Ninety young adults from Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, each with one non-Jewish parent, described their relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community in recent face-to-face interviews run by the Jewish Outreach Institute. Key findings from the study were slated to be presented Wednesday in San Francisco. The full report will be released later this month, and the institute’s executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, says he hopes Jewish organizations will use it to design programming to reach that growing population.

Preliminary analysis of the data suggests a population that “feels Jewish” in many ways, despite a lack of Jewish education or affiliation.

Just 30 percent of those interviewed identify with Judaism as a religion, but almost 70 percent say that being Jewish is important to them. Those who did not celebrate any Jewish rituals or holidays describe being Jewish in cultural terms — reading Jewish books, going to Jewish movies — or in terms of social action, such as giving to charity and working on tikkun olam projects.

One respondent said, “The older I get, the more I feel I want to cling to my Jewish roots, especially in these times, to see an alternative to the Christian right.”

Concerning formative Jewish experiences, one-third said they’d had some formal Jewish education as children, but a large proportion mentioned two specific Jewish experiences as being meaningful: being taken to see “Fiddler on the Roof” and/or "Schindler’s List.”

In other words, survey analysts wrote, “for many of these young people, Jewish history as filtered through a Hollywood or Broadway lens was their sole ‘Jewish experience’ while growing up.”

The institute’s assistant executive director, Paul Golin, says the interesting aspect of this response was that this population understood such films as touching their Jewish core. “A non-Jewish American seeing these films would not be having a Jewish experience,” he muses. “What else is out there in secular society that could be experienced as a Jewish experience? And how do we build a bridge between that experience and deeper Jewish engagement?”

Despite the minimal nature of their religious upbringing, nearly 40 percent of those interviewed had enrolled in a Jewish studies course in college, and 78 percent said they wanted to transmit a Jewish identity to their children. This finding conflicts with the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, which found that just 24 percent of students with one Jewish parent had taken a Jewish studies course.

Other findings cannot be accurately compared, as questions were worded differently in each survey. The same is true of the 2002 Hillel study of Jewish college first-year students.

Olitzky says the study reveals a population curious about its Jewish identity and ripe for creative outreach by Jewish organizations, particularly during the college years.

“If these kids are gaining their Jewish experiences through secular means, Jewish institutions need to exploit those secular means,” he says, instead of “working solely within the walls of their own institutions.”

For example, he suggests that instead of running its own Jewish film festival, Hillel might “insinuate a Jewish film” into an already existing nondenominational film festival, thus providing a “non-branded Jewish experience” for young people from intermarried homes who are interested in their Jewish heritage but might not step into a campus Jewish organization.

The study also revealed how important celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah is to this group. “We didn’t know how significant that was,” Olitzky says. “Take a typical kid from an intermarried home, with no childhood Jewish experience. He gets to the age of 12 or 13, he goes to his friends’ bar mitzvahs, comes home and says, ‘I want one.’

“How will the synagogue community respond to that? Will they say, You have to be a member. You have to have gone through our religious school.”

Another interesting finding concerns the level of comfort these young adults have with their dual religious identity. Many describe themselves as half-Jewish, seemingly unaware that the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent.

That seems to apply to their parents as well: While 77 percent of respondents with Jewish mothers were encouraged to identify with the Jewish religion, that number dropped to 45 percent for respondents with Jewish fathers.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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