The other day, while picking up my two-year-old daughter from daycare, I ended up chatting with a mom going in to pick up her daughter. She asked what I do, and I explained that I work for the Jewish Outreach Institute, which seeks to promote a more welcoming, inclusive approach to the Jewish community. That was all the prompting she needed to share her “Jewish disengagement” story with me.
She and her husband are both adult children of intermarriage who grew up identifying as Jewish. However, when they decided to get married, they talked to two different Reform rabbis, and neither was willing to marry them. As far as this mother was concerned, she was no longer interested in seeking out the Jewish community. And yet when I talked about JOI’s efforts to change the traditional view of intermarriage and mentioned an upcoming informal Tot Shabbat in our neighborhood, she was very interested. Something in her was clearly seeking a connection to Jewish life; she just needed to be engaged in a positive way that could overcome the negative vibes that had pushed her away.
I should mention that I’m relatively sensitive these days to issues pertaining to adult children of intermarriage, given that I now have some skin in this game—literally. My daughter is herself a product of intermarriage, which makes her a future “adult child of intermarriage.” Of course, to me she’s just my child, and I want her to be Jewish. Yet, I’m concerned to hear the experience of this other mother, because I know that the path she and other adult children of intermarriage forge—or don’t forge—may impact the type of welcome my daughter receives when she comes of age and naturally begins contemplating her Jewish—and other—identities.
JOI has long been concerned with the topic of adult children of intermarriage. (See JOI’s study entitled “A Flame Still Burns: The Dimensions and Determinants of Jewish Identity Among Young Adult Children of the Intermarried”.) In the United States today, there are more Americans in their 20s and younger born to just one Jewish parent than to two Jewish parents—perhaps as many as a million or more children of intermarriage. Yet, they are disproportionately underrepresented in organized Jewish communal life, even in programs that welcome their participation, such as Birthright Israel. What’s preventing their engagement? What can the organized Jewish community do to better serve their interests and needs, and empower young-adult children of intermarriage to fully express their Jewish identity? How can we help people like the mother I met transform a negative experience into a positive and engaging one?
To address these questions, JOI has begun inviting individuals with one Jewish parent and one parent of another religious background to partner with us through JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors Program, to create change in the Jewish community. This is an opportunity for adult children of intermarriage to join with their peers to explore issues of leadership, identity expression, and advocacy as a catalyst for change—by participating in a unique cohort of Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors.
It is in our collective Jewish interest to make Judaism’s tent as big, welcoming, and inclusive as possible. Because the adult children of intermarriage we engage today will become the positive role models who welcome my daughter and her generation of children of intermarriage in the future.
For more information about the Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors Program, please contact Hannah Morris at HMorris@JOI.org.