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What Leads Children of Intermarriage to Identify as Jews?

A 2006 study of Jewish college students by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life showed that 47 percent of all self-identifying Jewish students on American college campuses came from interfaith homes. All demographic signs point to the adult children of intermarriage as the coming majority. But at the same time, only half of the students surveyed saw themselves as Jewish by religion--compared to 90% of children from families with two Jewish parents.

"Almost half have backgrounds where they celebrate non-Jewish holidays, where they didn't grow up with the assumption that Jewish is the only way," said Clare Goldwater, Hillel's associate vice president for Jewish life. "They come from families with all sorts of religious and ethnic traditions."

A 2006 study of Jewish college students by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life showed that 47 percent of Jewish students came from interfaith marriages.

So one is left to wonder: what factors lead the adult children of intermarriage to see themselves as Jews?

In A Flame Still Burns, a study conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute in 2005, the researchers found that having a Jewish upbringing and having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah seem to be the strongest determinant of later Jewish identity, with about a 90 percent correlation. Also, if the mother is Jewish, the children tend to identify as Jewish more often (77%) than if the father is the Jewish parent (45%). Having an ongoing and close relationship with a Jewish grandparent also has long-term positive effects on a Jewish identity.

For Robin Margolis, her grandmother was absolutely crucial for her Jewish identity. Margolis, who was raised as an Episcopalian, did not discover her mother was Jewish until after she died. Margolis had always been interested in Judaism, but "when I contacted my long-estranged Jewish family," she recalled, "only my Jewish grandmother was willing to accept me." Margolis felt an immediate connection to her grandmother. "She strongly encouraged my newly-found Jewish identity," Margolis said. "Her support was very important, as it was hard for me to remain Jewish in the face of so many Jews at that time not wanting adult children of intermarriage in their communities." That's why Margolis later established the Half-Jewish Network, a website to help the adult children of intermarriage support each other.

A family's relationships and beliefs are probably the most important factors leading to the religious identity of adult children of interfaith marriages. More than two-thirds of the population studied in A Flame Still Burns identify with whatever religion their parents practiced at home.

If there is no religious identity in the home, the children tend not to adopt any religious identity, Jewish or not. Some interfaith couples say, "We'll let the children decide what they want to be when they grow up." Not only does that lead to "negligible Jewish identity" (A Flame Still Burns), but it could even lead to dysfunction.

Laurel Snyder, a writer living in Atlanta, is the editor of Half Life, a collection of essays written by professional writers who were raised in interfaith families. She said, "From talking to hundreds of people, I've found that the kids who are the most damaged are those where there was no decision (on religion). Kids need an identity. If there's no answer to 'What religion are you?', then these kids either become seekers where they embrace everything or they are afraid to embrace anything."

Sometimes the non-Jewish parent can be the key to a child's Jewish upbringing.

For example, Sarah Church's mother was Jewish and raised her as such, but with a name like Church, people questioned Sarah's Jewishness. Fortunately, her non-Jewish father was very supportive of her Jewish identity, even after her parents divorced. "He read me The Joys of Yiddish as a bedtime story," she remembers. "He enjoyed helping me learn Hebrew and at my Bat Mitzvah, he said, 'She taught me how to kvell (feel pride in the accomplishments of others).'"

Laurel Snyder, editor of Half-Life, a collection of essays by writers from interfaith homes, has found that the most damaged children of intermarriage are those who were raised by parents who didn't make a religious decision for them.

Andi Rosenthal also had a name to contend with, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. "I was educated at parochial schools," she says, "but with a name like Rosenthal, the nuns looked at me funny." Her only exposure to Jewish life early on was attending Bar or Bat Mitzvahs of some of her father's family. After taking some Jewish studies courses in college, she eventually decided to convert and will enter rabbinical school this fall.

Reaching the Lost Population

Of equal importance to discerning what factors can lead to Jewish identity is understanding what obstacles can hinder one.

The organized Jewish community devotes few resources and time to this population, and hence many of them are "out of the loop." Part of the reason for that, according to Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, is that "there is not a whole lot in the Jewish community for anyone in their 20s and 30s, whether you're from a 'Jewish' or interfaith family. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations focus on families."

And, of course, there is a compounding problem for interfaith children. According to traditional Jewish law, Jewishness is passed down through the mother. So while the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is considered Jewish by almost everyone, many people--Jewish or not--do not consider the child of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father as Jewish. Said Tobin, "There is a considerable part of the Jewish community that says, 'You're not Jewish.'" That's changing, due to the Reform and Reconstructionist movement's position that the children of Jewish fathers are Jews, as long as they were raised in the Jewish tradition, but Margolis likens Jewish acceptance of the child of a Jewish father to spinning a "roulette wheel." "Some let you join, while others say no. There could be two temples in the same neighborhood with opposing views," she said. The Secular Humanist movement, for example, recognizes as Jewish anyone who identifies with Jewish culture--regardless of their parentage.

It is very upsetting for some who grew up practicing Judaism their whole life to learn that they now have to convert. "Dan" is a student in Australia who was born in Israel. He says, "I always considered myself Jewish. I grew up in Israel, then went to Jewish elementary school in Australia." But he was shocked to discover that his mother's mother was not Jewish. "Everything I had believed in all my life was shattered," he adds. "I learned my own home country, Israel, wouldn't consider me a Jew, nor would the Orthodox Jews for whom I had developed a deep respect. It left me without a solid identity."

However, there is more attention and interest in the adult children of intermarriage now than at any time in the previous two decades, although it is still infrequent and ramdon. Some of it is self-generated, such as Margolis' website, but a few initiatives have originated in the "official" Jewish community.

In Seattle, the local Jewish Family Service got together with Jconnect Seattle, a post-college program, to run a four-week discussion class in January for young adults from intermarried families. Just over three years ago, Rabbi Avis Miller of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington launched "Open Dor," a pun on the Hebrew word for "generation," a workshop for young adults "with mixed or non-Jewish ancestry." The Jewish Outreach Institute also consults with communities on how to reach the young adult children of intermarriage, while InterfaithFamily.com regularly publishes articles from this demographic.

After its 2005 study, Hillel explored the idea of special programming for students from intermarried homes as part of its overall goal of becoming more welcoming and accessible. Ultimately Hillel decided against it, Goldwater said.

"Everything we know from focus groups and Hillel professionals indicates that they are not interested in being singled out," Goldwater said. "It probably makes them feel even less included."

It's not a monolithic group, anyway, which presents a challenge for programmers.

"Some fully identify as Jewish, a percentage identify as half-Jewish, and others would be offended to be called half-Jewish," said Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the growing number of children of interfaith marriages may actually contribute to Jewish population growth. The 2005 Boston Community Study found that 60 percent of all children of intermarriage in the Boston area were being raised as Jews--which means that intermarried couples were actually increasing the size of Boston's Jewish community.

"Intermarriage is an opportunity, not a problem," said Tobin. "It's our response that is the problem."

Some material taken from "Outreach Overlooking Children of Intermarried" (March 8, 2007), by Sue Fishkoff, JTA.

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." 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!") A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Ron Lux

Ron Lux is a writer who lives in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles with his wife, Betsy and his children, Mara and Ethan. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, the Animation Writers' Caucus and the Golf Writers Association and has written for television and national periodicals, including articles on Jewish communities in Brazil, Ireland, Wales and the Bahamas.

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