Last week a series of minor earthquakes hit the northern Israeli town of T’veria (Tiberius). No harm done, but it did remind everyone in the area that they are living on top of one of the Earth’s major tectonic fault lines. Now everyone is talking about home preparedness kits and aftershocks.
Over here, the North American Jewish community has experienced its own minor earthquake: the image presented by the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive study of the U.S. Jewish population. No harm done, but we were all forcefully reminded of a couple of major fault lines of our own.
On the one hand, we were reminded that the Jewish community extends beyond religious affiliation. Not only are a growing number of Jews identifying as having no religion, but even among those who do consider Judaism their religion, only 39% are synagogue members and only 29% visit a synagogue more than a few times a year.
On the other hand, the Pew aftershocks also brought to the fore the fault lines within the organized Jewish community, which is divided on the issue of how to respond to this increasing lack of institutional affiliation. Is it best to hunker down and focus on the few who still consider Jewish institutions relevant, or is it more advisable to transform existing institutions to accommodate the needs and wants of those who don’t show up?
Partially in response to the Pew reverberations, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is now proud to release a new study of one major population that is relevant to this discussion – adult children of intermarriage. We now know that a majority of Jews born today are born to one, rather than to two Jewish parents (recall the 58% intermarriage rate and 71% among the non-Orthodox found by Pew). According to Pew, 1.3 million adult U.S. Jews (25% of all Jews; 16% of Jews by religion) have one parent who is not Jewish. In our study, we looked at those Jews with one Jewish parent who (by their own definition) are engaged in Jewish life, say being Jewish is important to them, and raise or plan to raise their children Jewish by religion. We found that while these more Jewishly connected Jews with one Jewish parent are highly interested in Jewish participation, they are less likely than similar Jews who have two Jewish parents to have actually participated in such activities. This is especially true when it comes to participation in Jewish institutions.
Seeing as the earthquake is over now, I ventured across the hallway here at JOI headquarters to talk to my colleagues Brenna Kearns and David A.M. Wilensky to learn more about their experiences growing up in homes with one Jewish parent and one parent of another background. David is the son of a Jewish-born father and a Jew-by-choice mother who converted when he was young. Brenna’s mother is Jewish and her father is an atheist who was raised Catholic.
How has the fact that one of your parents is of another religious tradition played into your Jewish journey?
BRENNA: I’ve always felt Jewish, even when I didn’t know what being Jewish meant. Part of my pull toward Judaism, I think, comes from my close relationship with my mother (my Jewish parent), even though she herself isn’t religious. Living on the other side of the country from my family has been both lonely and liberating for my burgeoning Jewish identity. Because neither of my parents are religious, my choosing Judaism was definitely a rebellion, but not a rejection of a different faith tradition.
DAVID: My parents’ marriage began as an intermarriage: My mom came from a typical non-religious, Christmas-celebrating American family; and my dad’s family was very involved in a Conservative synagogue, though he hadn’t been personally involved in many years. They found the only rabbi in the Austin area in those days who would officiate at an intermarriage, mostly to mollify my (paternal) grandparents. Eventually, we became very involved with a Reform temple, Congregation Beth Israel – and my parents took Beth Israel’s Intro to Judaism course together. By the end of the course, my mother – who was so involved with synagogue life that she was regularly mistaken for Jewish – decided to convert. Though I grew up in the Reform movement, it eventually ceased, for a variety of reasons, to be the right place for me. And that left me with a problem: As a patrilineal Jew who wanted to go to and participate fully in services, but did not like Reform services, my options were limited. When I read over JOI’s new study, I was surprised by how much of myself I saw in it. Our study shows that adult children of intermarriage – even those of us who say we are highly involved with the Jewish community – are far less likely to identify with a particular Jewish denomination. It had not occurred to me that my preference for independent minyanim [prayer groups] and other informal, unaffiliated Jewish religious groups could be a result of being a patrilineal Jew. But after reading the results of our study, I am forced to confront the possibility that the way I participate in the Jewish community has been determined by my parentage to a much higher degree than I had previously imagined possible.
Do you feel that (either today, or at an earlier time) you needed special support, treatment, or resources from Jewish institutions due to the fact that you grew up in a home with one parent who was not Jewish?
BRENNA: It’s not because I grew up in a home with a parent who wasn’t Jewish, but because I grew up in a home that wasn’t engaged with Jewish life that I feel like I needed special support. When I first found my way to the Jewish community, there was so much that I didn’t know. I sometimes feel like a Jew-by-choice, because in a lot of ways, I am. I don’t have many Jewish family traditions or observances to fall back on or return home to, which can be lonely, especially around the holidays. It would be really nice to share my Jewish practice with others.
Our study found that while half of all children of intermarriage feel it is important for them to identify as such, 40% of Jews with one Jewish parent (and 50% of Jews with only a Jewish father) are uncomfortable identifying as children of intermarriage within Jewish institutions. Has either of you ever felt the need to “closet” the fact that one of your parents is/was not Jewish?
DAVID: Though I always tell my story when asked or when it comes up in conversation, I am sometimes surprised by how much I pause before “outing” myself. In explicitly Conservative settings and when speaking with people who identify as Conservative Jews, I often hesitate. Conservative Jews are a part of the same greater liberal Jewish world that I am a part of; their judgment matters. Patrilineal descent is the one thing that keeps me from going to Conservative synagogues more often. For a while, however, I went to one regularly. Eventually, in an effort to participate fully in the life of that synagogue, I “outed” myself to the rabbi. Her reaction was essentially, “Now, why’d you have to go and tell me that? We never would’ve known!” I’ve written before about my subsequent decision to undergo a Conservative “conversion.” In recent weeks, partially because of JOI’s study of adult children of intermarriage, I have only just started to realize that I buried some serious personal misgivings at the time of that “conversion.”
We found that the greatest need of adult children of intermarriage is for Jewish institutions to become more accommodating to them. In an ideal world, how should Jewish institutions relate to adult Jews with one Jewish parent?
BRENNA: Embrace us, but don’t just embrace us in YOUR image. Don’t assume we know or don’t know things (a good rule of thumb for interacting with people of any and every background!). Welcome us to your institution and the Jewish community, and be respectful of our families and our traditions. Share with us what you find beautiful and challenging about Judaism, and give us room to discover what is or isn’t meaningful for ourselves.
Thank you both. JOI is proud to be a leader in the areas of Jewish outreach and engagement. For more information about our study, please contact me at ZRotem[at]JOI.org . If you are a Jewish professional who wants to learn more about making your own institution more welcoming and accessible, please contact Brenna at BKearns[at]JOI.org . If you are a Jewish volunteer leader looking to open the tent of your community, please contact David at DWilensky[at]JOI.org .