Jewish Journal

Children of Intermarriage Want to Engage

by Susan Esther Barnes

March 12, 2014 | 1:30 am

Graphic from Wikimedia/JW Schmidt

Amid all the hoopla about the Pew Study, another recent study by Big Tent Judaism and the Jewish Outreach Institute called, “Listening to the Adult Children of Intermarriage” seems to have gone unnoticed. The subtitle, “What Jews With One Jewish Parent Need and Want From the Jewish Community” further clarifies what this study is about.

While some have been using the Pew study to “prove” that intermarriage is bad for Jewish continuity and should be stopped, and a few others ( including myself) have pointed out that disengagement may be what leads to intermarriage, not the other way around, this study shows that disengagement by adult children of intermarriage is our fault, not theirs.

As the first Key Finding in the study states, Jews with just one Jewish parent “are just as interested in Many Jewish activities as are the Jews with two Jewish parents,” however, they participate less because they don’t feel welcome. It turns out, not surprisingly, that those with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father feel more welcome than those with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, due to the tradition of matrilineal descent.

Although these findings are taken from a small sample size, I see no reason to believe the results are not significant. In a wide range of activities, from Jewish film screenings to social justice activities to High Holy Day services, Jews with one Jewish parent want to engage just as much as Jews with two Jewish parents do. But their actual participation rate is lower.

The problem, then, isn’t that interfaith marriages lead to children who don’t want to identify as Jewish or who don’t want to participate in Jewish life. The problem is that we aren’t making these people welcome in our Jewish institutions and at our Jewish events, both secular and religious.

The study notes that, although some institutions offer programming for interfaith couples or families, they don’t offer programming for adult children of intermarriage, who may not yet be married, or may be in-married. “I feel like we are a group that is often ignored or is a source of shame for the Jewish community” says one woman quoted in the study.

What this study shows is that the more we decry intermarriage, call it a tragedy, and try to fight against it, the more we will continue to push away these Jews of intermarriage who want to engage in Judaism but who are, understandably, made to feel unwelcome when the marriage of their parents is lamented in such a way.

Instead, if we embrace intermarriage as a natural result of the open society in which we live, and recognize the desire of the adult children of intermarriage to engage with us as Jews, then we can start to reach out to this ever-growing demographic in a way that is genuine and welcoming.

To denounce intermarriage is to turn away flocks of Jews who want to engage in Jewish life. To embrace intermarriage and to help parents raise their children as Jews, while fully accepting Jews with one Jewish parent, is the only way to ensure Jewish continuity in an open society.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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