SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Joelle Berman was shocked the first time someone suggested she wasn’t Jewish.
was 12 or 13, and I went with a friend to a Young Judaea meeting," says
Berman, whose intermarried parents were raising her Reform in New
When the leader of the day’s program
asked about her family, Berman thought nothing of
saying her mother was Catholic. The Reform movement, along with
Reconstructionists, considers anyone born of a Jewish mother or father
to be Jewish, as long as they are being raised as Jews.
But the Orthodox and Conservative movements don't recognize patrilineal descent.
The leader of the Hadassah-sponsored youth group told Berman in front of everyone that she wasn’t Jewish. She was floored.
"I didn’t even know what patrilineal descent meant," she says. "How could that be? I was
studying for my bat mitzvah."
23 and senior editor of JVibe, a magazine for Jewish teens, Berman says
she still finds herself having to prove her Jewish credentials.
feel I have to walk around with my Jewish resume on my sleeve," she
says. "I cite my life-cycle rituals, my Jewish camping experience, how
I led a trip to Israel, how I’m editor of a Jewish magazine — is that
good enough yet?"
Many others are in the same situation.
According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 360,000
Americans aged 18 to 29 have intermarried parents.
Jewish mothers, others Jewish fathers. Some were raised Jewish, some
weren’t. Some identify as Jewish, some don’t. Some are still trying to
figure out where they belong.
Despite its diversity, this population has one thing in common: It is largely ignored by the organized Jewish community.
since the NJPS in 1990 showed that nearly half of all new Jewish
marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, the Jewish community has
focused increasingly on interfaith outreach. But virtually all of that
outreach is aimed at young, intermarried couples and their children.
already grown children of earlier intermarriages are very much the
forgotten piece of the outreach puzzle. That's particularly true for
those older than 30, since the very few outreach initiatives that do
exist focus on young adults.
"It’s a population that is not on the Jewish communal radar," says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute
few Jewish federations, Jewish Family Services or synagogues make
specific overtures to this group. They tend to be lumped in with the
entire intermarried target audience, whether or not they are
intermarried. For those who are not, programs designed for two-faith
households can be irrelevant, even off-putting.
"It boggles my
mind that more people are not taking this up," says Rabbi Avis Miller
of Congregation Adas Israel, a large Conservative synagogue in
Ed Case, president of InterfaithFamily.com
a support community for intermarried families and their offspring,
wanted to create a special section on his Web site for young adults
from intermarried homes. He shopped the idea to foundations and big
donors, but says no one was interested in funding it.
community is geared toward families with young children," says Paul
Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
"Whatever exists for the adult children of intermarriage is primarily
grassroots initiatives of the people themselves."Little research
Not only is there little outreach to this population, there’s precious little research on it either.
The Jewish Outreach Institute commissioned a 2005 study
, and Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies published a 2004 paper
based on data from its own survey of Jewish life on college campuses and the 2000-2001 NJPS.
But that’s about it. Experts say that’s largely because the numbers only recently reached critical mass.
"This is the first wave of adult children from that huge rise in intermarriage that began in the 1980s," Golin says.
the wave is growing. A 2005 survey by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish
Campus Life found that 48 percent of college students who consider
themselves Jewish come from intermarried homes.
tremendous implications for the future of the American Jewish
community, says Clare Goldwater, Hillel’s associate vice president for
"Almost half have backgrounds where they celebrate
non-Jewish holidays, where they didn’t grow up with the assumption that
Jewish is the only way," she says. "They come from families with all
sorts of religious and ethnic traditions."
And it’s not just
those with non-Jewish mothers who feel alienated, conflicted or angry
about having to explain the "other" side of their families.
Snyder, 33, of Atlanta, is editor of "Half-Life," a collection of
essays by young adults like herself from intermarried backgrounds.
Although she converted years ago, she still encounters awkward social
"Someone will say, ‘That’s a nice sweater,’ and I’m
about to say that I got it for Christmas, but I don’t," Snyder says. "I
say, ‘My mother gave it to me,’ or ‘I got it for the holidays.’ "
It’s not that she’s ashamed, but there remains a lingering feeling of not being considered a "real" Jew, Snyder admits.
its 2005 study, Hillel explored the idea of special programming for
students from intermarried homes as part of its overall goal of
becoming more welcoming and accessible. Ultimately Hillel decided
against it, Goldwater says.
"Everything we know from focus
groups and Hillel professionals indicates that they are not interested
in being singled out," Goldwater says. "It probably makes them feel
even less included."
It’s not a monolithic group, anyway, which presents a challenge for programmers.
fully identify as Jewish, a percentage identify as half-Jewish, and
others would be offended to be called half-Jewish," Golin says.
Jewish Outreach Institute has developed a guide for Jewish
professionals to use in reaching out to the young adult children from
intermarried homes. They have presented it in San Francisco and at
Hebrew Union College, and are using it to help Hillel create outreach
programs on four pilot campuses.
The campus program won’t single
out these students from any other unaffiliated group, Golin says, but
it "will help Hillel create programs that avoid things they have told
us are turnoffs."
For example, the guide notes that students
from intermarried homes feel drawn by Jewish culture, so the suggestion
is to screen Jewish-themed films in a local movie house rather than a
synagogue or JCC, and hold a discussion afterward in a cafe or bistro.
experts and young adults from intermarried homes say there are now so
many of them, it’s not much of an issue, at least in their own age
"I don’t run in circles where it comes up," says Berman,
who is active with the Kavod Jewish Social Justice House, a
transdenominational center in Boston for young Jews interested in
"There are people from Conservative and Orthodox
homes, and they would never dream of questioning my Jewish identity,"
she says of the Kavod center. "We focus on more important things."
wasn’t the case a generation ago, says Fern Chertok, co-author of the
2004 Cohen Center paper. Today’s students "know lots of other kids of
intermarriage, they’re not unusual, and being Jewish is part of their
hyphenated self," one of many identities that the millennial generation
takes on and off at will.
For people in their 40s and older from
intermarried backgrounds, however, "Judaism is more of an umbrella for
their identity, more central," Chertok says.Making connections
of the young adults do want a safe place to explore their religious and
ethnic questions. That’s why Jewish Family Service of Seattle got
together with Jconnect Seattle
, a post-college program, to run a four-week discussion class in January for young adults from intermarried families.
worth it for communities to look and see if there’s a need rather than
assuming there’s not," says co-facilitator Marjorie Schnyder, director
of Jewish family life education at Jewish Family Service. "People may
feel welcome but still want to connect with others like themselves."
participant was Shelly, 26, who declined to give her real name because
her parents still live in the small Idaho town where she grew up. It's
a place she describes as "very narrow-minded and anti-Semitic."
that Shelly is an adult, she feels ready to explore her mother’s Jewish
background, which the family hid after they moved to Idaho when Shelly
"It’s great to hear other people’s stories and talk
about how we’re going to raise our own children," she says. "And it’s
helping me connect even more with my mother."
research that has been done on adults from intermarried backgrounds
reveals that many feel deeply connected to their Jewish cultural and
ethnic heritage but have little if any involvement with Jewish ritual
In the Hillel study of college-age young adults
who consider themselves Jewish, more than 90 percent of those with only
one Jewish parent said they’re ethnically Jewish, but just half said
they were Jewish by religion. In contrast, more than 90 percent of
those with two Jewish parents said they were Jewish by religion.
"Those with a non-Jewish parent are much more likely to identify as Jewish ethnically than religiously," Goldwater says.
Jewish Outreach Institute study yielded similar findings. Interviewing
90 young adults from intermarried homes in Boston, Chicago and San
Francisco, it found that very few had received any formal Jewish
education, and just 30 percent considered themselves Jewish by religion.
almost 70 percent said "being Jewish" was important to them, and 78
percent said they wanted to pass along their Jewish identity to their
Unaffiliated adults from intermarried families who
want greater involvement often are hesitant to enter synagogues or
other Jewish institutions, outreach experts say. But they are curious —
and the movements, so eager to absorb the newly intermarried, aren’t
getting the message.
The Reform movement does not run programs
specifically targeting the adult children of intermarried parents. Why
would they need it, the thinking goes, if the movement recognizes
children of one Jewish parent as Jews?
But that ignores the
conflicted feelings many such adults have about their dual heritage,
even those raised unequivocally as Jews, as well as the fact that
children don’t always follow the path laid out for them by their
Kathy Kahn, outreach director for the Union for Reform Judaism,
estimates that 15 percent of the 75,000 people who have taken the
movement’s Taste of Judaism introductory classes come from intermarried
homes where they were raised as Christian, both Christian and Jewish,
or with no religion.
"And they’re coming back," she says.
Kahn says that shows this population, which was not raised Jewish, should not be written off.
Just over three years ago, Avis Miller in Washington launched "Open Dor,"
a pun on the Hebrew word for "generation," a workshop for young adults
"with mixed or non-Jewish ancestry." She uses the workshop to funnel
those interested into other Jewish education or conversion classes.
come from varied backgrounds. Some had parents who were Holocaust
survivors and hid their Jewishness. One Mormon woman found out she was
related to a founder of B’nai B’rith — the name Koon had been changed
These experiences are a wake-up call, Kahn says.
are some who say we should decide who to spend money on by seeing how
hard their Jewish heart beats," she says, referring to outreach that
focuses on deepening Jewish connections for those already within the
"But a person whose Jewish heart is not beating that
strong now, it could happen next year, or in five years, or in 10
years. You never, never know who will find their way back."