Being an Interfaith Person

The recent New York Jewish Community Study can be (and has been) parsed from various angles (here, here, and here, for example). It turns out that while the Jewish population of the NYC metropolitan area (including Long Island and Westchester County) has grown slightly over the past decade, it has also become increasingly dichotomized. Rather than the familiar denominational spectrum, most New York Jews today fall either among the growing (and increasingly poorer) Ultra Orthodox, or among those (also growing in numbers) who are not affiliated with institutional Judaism.

In the rush to debate the significance and implications of this study, one finding is worth looking at more closely. Of those Jews surveyed, fully “12% […] consider themselves ‘partially Jewish.’” And this number, too, is on the rise.

Rising numbers of people report unconventional identity configurations. They may consider themselves “partially Jewish,” or may identify as Jews even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002). Of such people with unconventional configurations, 70% have a non-Jewish parent (or two).

Now, what are the implications and significance of this finding to the future of the American Jewish community?

When I joined JOI a couple of weeks ago, it was with the hope of using my research skills to help sustain the research-focused aspect of JOI’s work, both in terms of documenting our successes, and in terms of helping us think about ways to grow going forward. I fully believe in the power of research to help the American Jewish community be the best that it can be. Like many at JOI, I believe that interfaith couples are the largest untapped resource for the Jewish community; pushing them away just makes no sense. But I also think that the growing population of interfaith couples and their children challenges the more mainstream Jewish community to think harder about what it means to be an interfaith person.

Of course, the meaning of being ‘partially Jewish’ or an interfaith person can vary considerably according to one’s personal situation. For some, their Jewishness is solely ethnic or cultural, leaving room for a different religious identification to exist alongside the Jewish one. And these identifications can shift throughout one’s life. For example, one Jewish interviewee told the NYC Study interviewers that “I was born Jewish and years ago converted to Christianity, and then practiced Judaism again for my children.”

For others, the distinction between their “Jewish” and their “other” selves can be contextual – in different situations a different identity comes to the fore. “When I’m with my father, I’m Jewish; when I’m with my mother, I’m Catholic,” as another respondent to the study put it.

I think that the next big challenge, and the best way forward for the Jewish community, is to find ways to make these creative forms of identification into an asset, rather than viewing it as a threat. I am not suggesting that syncretism – observing more than one faith – should be the face of Judaism in the coming decades, just that we consider it as one of many possible ways to be Jewish and ‘do Jewish.’ Opening our doors in this is something the Big Tent Judaism Coalition strives to do through Public Space Judaism programming and lowering barriers to participation. Can a person raised a Christian who has a Jewish mother, and adopts some Jewish practices later in life bring new and enriching sensibilities to the study of Jewish texts? Can the child of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother (recognized by both religious communities as a valid member) form new rituals that can be meaningful for Jews and non-Jews alike? Can there be a Jewish star atop a Christmas tree? An Easter egg on the seder plate? Insulation from outside influences has been an important way that Judaism survived over generation. But is insularity the best strategy in the twenty-first century? If not, how does Judaism honor and include other traditions without losing itself?

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