Response to Pew: Acceptance of Intermarried May Be Key

by Zohar Rotem

Intermarriage is not the problem. The dramatic overreaction to the recent Pew study of American Jewry provided a loud platform for many traditionalists to revive the oft-repeated canard that intermarriage itself is the cause of declining participation in the organized Jewish community; some even suggest that intermarriage is synonymous with the end of Jewishness in those households. In order to actually grow the Jewish community however, we must operate on a more nuanced view.

I don’t deny the finding – confirmed by multiple studies, including the 2001 National Jewish Population Study and the recent Pew study – that, on average, intermarried Jews lag behind their in-married peers on various measures of Jewish participation. What I am denying is the notion that intermarried individuals and their children participate less because of intermarriage. Jewish identity is too complex, and impacted by too many factors, for such simplistic causal relations.

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) has just released a study, “Listening to Adult Children of Intermarriage,” addressing some of those factors. Our study points to the lack of acceptance of the intermarried and their children, rather than intermarriage itself, as a pivotal reason why these individuals participate less in Jewish life. How is our study different from all other studies? In addition to the standard Jewish sociological questions about participation (Do you go to synagogue? How often do you light Shabbat candles?) we also asked a different set of questions about interest in Jewish participation. This allowed us to compare Jews with one Jewish parent (the adult children of intermarriage) to their peers with two Jewish parents regarding not only their Jewish participation but also their interest in Jewish participation.

What’s the difference? A considerable one. In our study, we compared Jews with one Jewish parent side-by-side with very similar Jews who have two Jewish parents. Respondents in both groups described themselves as engaged in Jewish life; they all said being Jewish is important in their lives; they all said that they are raising (or plan to raise) their children as Jewish by religion. Consistent with previous studies, we found that Jews with one Jewish parent do participate in Jewish activities less than Jews with two Jewish parents. However, the novelty of our study is that it also found that both groups express interest in these activities roughly at the same level.

Odd, isn’t it? Take two people – one with two Jewish parents, the other with one Jewish parent. Both say they are very interested in religious activities, yet one goes to synagogue often and the other rarely does. When we asked them why that is, Jews with one Jewish parent repeatedly said that the thing they need most from the organized Jewish community is greater acceptance. One respondent, a married woman in her 30s, said, “I am the adult child of intermarriage and have often felt out of place… I feel like we are a group that is often ignored or is a source of shame for the Jewish community.”

Two other findings also support this conclusion. When we compare respondents with no children to those with children, we find a noticeable increase in various measures of Jewish engagement and participation. We refer to this upward tick following the transition to parenthood as “the kid bump.” We found that Jews with two Jewish parents primarily experience the kid bump as an increase in identification with a specific Jewish denomination, with no increase in their (already-high) level of Jewish engagement. For Jews with one Jewish parent the picture is reversed. When they become parents, they describe themselves as more Jewishly engaged but their level of identification with a particular Jewish denomination stays very.

ACOI graphs

By now there should be alarm bells ringing in the heads of anyone who works for a denominationally-affiliated Jewish institution. Currently, one in four adult American Jews (about 1.3 million) has one parent who is not Jewish, and Jews with one Jewish parent are likely to become the majority in a generation or less. So why are those Jews with one Jewish parent for whom Judaism is high on their agenda not affiliating with the organized Jewish community? And what can be done about it?

A third finding offers one possible answer. There is one subset of adult children of intermarriage for whom the findings above do not apply; their level of actual participation in Jewish life matches their high level of interest. This subgroup is Jewish communal professionals. Jews with one Jewish parent who work (full- or part-time) for a Jewish organization and institution are no different from their peers with two Jewish parents in how much they participate in organized Jewish communal activities.

So what’s the difference? These are people who, in one way or another, have already transcended the barriers stacked against the intermarried and their children by the organized Jewish community. They are already on the inside, so it is relatively easy for them to find venues to express their high level of Jewish interest within the confines of Jewish institutions. For all others, their interest in Jewish participation remains expressed primarily in self-guided and exploratory ways. They surf the web or read Jewish books; they identify as secular or “just Jewish.” They feel that being a child of intermarriage is an important part of their identity, but are uncomfortable “outing” themselves as children of intermarriage within Jewish institutions (especially if they are patrilineal Jews, that is, with a mother of another background).

We hope that this study will serve to raise a discussion about the best ways to welcome and include the intermarried and their children. Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach institute is proud to be a leader in this area of developing proven programs and methods for the inclusion of the intermarried as well as other populations traditionally marginalized or from institutional Jewish life.

The full report – “Listening to Adult Children of Intermarriage” – is available here.

Zohar Rotem is program officer for evaluation at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, a national nonprofit working to promote a more inclusive and engaging Jewish community for all who might benefit, including intermarried couples and their children. He can be reached at ZRotem@JOI.org.

This piece originally appeared in Jweekly.com.