Blog: My Jewish kids are the product of intermarriage, and other reasons for hope

A group of American birthright adults visits the dead sea on July 10, 2015. Photo by Matt Hechter/Flash90

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — Jewish leaders have long warned of the bleak Jewish futures in store for children of intermarriage. But these prognostications were based largely on information from more than a decade ago, when intermarriage was far less common and far less accepted by American Jews than it is today.

The data deficit was filled in 2013 with the release of the Pew study, and even more so this week with the publication of Brandeis University’s groundbreaking “Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement.”

The new study, based on surveys of more than 2,500 adult children of intermarriage (culled from the database of Birthright Israel applicants), is the first to ask so many young adults with just one Jewish parent so much about their Jewish upbringing and outlook. And it’s an important group of people to study, since fully half of American millennials who identify as Jewish are the products of intermarriage. The results could be read as good or bad news, depending on your perspective.

Before I continue, I should note that I’m hardly an objective reader. I’m married to a lapsed Catholic and for six years wrote a column and blog for The New York Jewish Week about intermarried life. Not only am I happily intermarried and raising two Jewish daughters, but my background is very similar to the children of intermarriage the Brandeis study documents (except that I’m too old to be a millennial).

My mother and father are both Jewish, but neither has any interest in synagogue or other Jewish institutional life. Soon after my parents divorced when I was 6, my mother, who I lived with, married my non-Jewish Christmas-and-Easter-celebrating (and now ex-) stepfather. I had no Jewish education, celebrated no Jewish holidays other than Hanukkah and Passover (along with Christmas), and had no bat mitzvah.

I was taught virtually nothing about Judaism other than the Holocaust and “Fiddler on the Roof,” until I got to college, when like many of the people in the Brandeis study, my Jewish trajectory changed dramatically thanks to campus Jewish life and Israel. (Birthright hadn’t been invented yet, so it was a semester at Tel Aviv University).

Though groundbreaking in its scope, the study’s findings weren’t terribly surprising to me: Children of intermarriage receive less Jewish education than their peers with two Jewish parents and are less likely than such peers to identify as Jewish or believe it important to marry a Jew. But they are often profoundly influenced by Jewish programming in college and beyond, such as Birthright trips to Israel, Judaic studies courses and campus activities sponsored by Hillel and Chabad.

Interestingly, 41 percent of those surveyed said they were raised exclusively Jewish, a glass-half-full or half-empty statistic that can be described as a plurality or minority depending on your outlook. (Seventeen percent were told that they were both Jewish and another religion, 18 percent were told that their religious identity was their choice to make, 18 percent were raised in no religion and 5 percent were raised exclusively in a faith other than Judaism.)

While intermarriage pessimists will likely jump on those statistics to talk about how awful intermarriage is (less than half of the children are raised exclusively Jewish), optimists will interpret them to say that the vast majority of children of intermarriage enter college with some Jewish identity (even if it’s relatively superficial) and a potential willingness to engage in Jewish life if given the right opportunity.

One major caveat, however: The entire study is of people who applied to go on Birthright trips, a cohort the researchers say is generally typical of the broader children-of-intermarriage population but to me seems like it must be biased toward people who have at least a minimal interest in Judaism and Israel. (A person who has one Jewish parent yet does not identify as Jewish – or is an active member of another faith – is probably less likely to consider applying for a 10-day Jewish identity-building Israel trip, even if it’s free.)

What I find most refreshing about the study is that it makes no pronouncements for or against intermarriage (and, incidentally, it finds that only a third of millennials with two Jewish parents believe it’s important to marry a Jew, so efforts to stop intermarriage seem rather quixotic).

Rather, it suggests ways that more children of intermarriage and their families might be drawn into deeper engagement with the tribe, suggesting more investment in programs for college students and young adults, along with alternative options for bar-bat mitzvah, a rite of passage that the study found many children of intermarriage want, yet feel is inaccessible.

It will be interesting to see if funders of Jewish youth programming follow the suggestions and what the next generation of children of intermarriage looks like.

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