The 2013 Pew Center’s “Portrait of American Jewry,” which found a 71 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and a 58 percent rate overall, caused much rabbinic hand-wringing and communal soul searching.
Few saw the soaring numbers, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970, as an opportunity.
But a study released earlier this month by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that the millennial children of intermarriage are likely to find their way back into the fold — with the proper intervention.
The study found that experiences in college often are more likely to shape Jewish identity than childhood influences.
“The period of emerging adulthood is one of profound experimentation and change,” said sociologist Leonard Saxe, co-author of the study. “Jewish identity is open to influence well beyond the developmental years. The question moving forward is not ‘how many,’ but ‘how.’”
The results, based on surveys of more than 2,500 adult children of intermarriage and in-marriage between the ages of 19-32 (culled from the database of Birthright Israel applicants), compared the religious upbringing, college experiences and current attitudes of the two cohorts. Today, half of American millennials who identify as Jewish are the products of intermarriage, according to the study’s authors.
The conversation comes shortly after the Reconstructionist movement’s historic decision to drop the longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students. Supporters of the change argued that the ban embraced an outdated way of defining Jewish identity and community, while opponents feared dropping the ban would undermine the movement’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood.
For Rebecca Levy, the 26-year-old daughter of intermarried parents, the question is personal. Levy joined a panel earlier this month at UJA-Federation to discuss the study’s findings. Though her fellow panelists — Jewish academics and outreach professionals — hotly debated the theoretical question of whether intermarriage was a “problem or opportunity,” Levy spoke from experience.
“I don’t see myself as a problem,” she said, responding to the moderator’s clumsily worded question inquiring if she thought of herself as a “problem.” Her retort: “I see my background as a huge asset.”
For Levy, a doctoral student at Harvard, grappling with identity was a part of dinner-table discussions growing up. “I dealt with constructing an identity earlier than most, but I don’t see that as a negative,” she said, remaining composed despite the rigorous questioning.
Levy’s journey to Jewish adulthood typifies what the study would consider an intermarriage success story. Though she grew up with no Jewish education and minimal observance of holidays, she joined a Jewish sorority as an undergraduate at Cornell. Shortly after college, she went on a Birthright Israel trip that left her deeply changed.
“I’m still in touch with the IDF soldiers who joined the trip,” she said, gesturing to her cell phone. “Just last night, I called to see how they’re doing,” she said, referring to the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Completing the Jewish journey, she met her fiancé at a Jewish event through her sorority. Together, they intend to raise a Jewish family.
“If you asked me five years ago what’s the most pressing issue, I would have said intermarriage,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism, a organization that provides diverse programming, services and outreach training. “Today, it’s engagement.”
He added that, unlike the boomer generation, millennials do not operate from a perspective of obligation, but rather from a perspective of personal gain. The March 2014 Pew study on millennials found that young adults are disengaging from institutions en masse, with nearly a third affiliating with no political party or religion.
“‘How would I benefit from engaging with my Judaism?’ — that’s the question outreach professionals have got to answer,” he said in a telephone interview.
Referencing Levy’s story, panelist Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, executive director of the Tufts University Hillel, stressed the importance of “peer-based relationship engagement.” Or, to paraphrase: college keg parties — in a Jewish context — matter.
“It’s the friends-bringing-friends effect,” said Rabbi Summit emphatically, stressing the importance of personal networking to attract Jewish-identified students. Over one-fifth of the 5,000-plus undergraduate population at Tufts is Jewish, according to Hillel International. Rabbi Summit said 65 percent of Jewish-identified students are involved with Hillel. A quarter of the students on Hillel’s leadership board, including the president, are children of intermarried parents.
“We have to stop talking about intermarriage as a shanda and a busha,” he said, using the Yiddish words for embarrassment and shame. “We have to see it as an opportunity to engage new students and come up with creative programming.”
“I met my fiancé at one such alcoholic evening,” Levy quipped. She seconded Rabbi Summit’s statement about the importance of Jewish “friends.” “They were my critical link. I wouldn’t have gone to Jewish events if I didn’t have friends to go with,” she said.
Still, Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College, maintained that despite the possibility of successful intervention later in life, intermarriage is still an existential “problem.” Though the study stressed the importance of college programming, numbers across the board indicated that children of intermarriage were less likely to celebrate Jewish holidays, identify as Jewish or raise their children Jewish with no college Jewish experiences. The typical child of in-married parents identified as Jewish by religion 85 percent of the time, while the typical child of inmarried parents identified only 20 percent of the time.
“What surprised me about this: little. But what’s important to recognize here is a lot,” he said, adding that “fear of offending the intermarried” has often repressed candid conversation of the topic.
Cohen commended the study for the “grandparent finding,” the discovery that having an active relationship with a Jewish grandparent can be a game-changer for the adult children of intermarried parents. Thirty-six percent of children of intermarriage with a maternal Jewish grandparent said they were “very close to their grandparent(s).” Respondents described the importance of these relationships.
“I came to understand what Judaism meant through phone calls with my grandmother,” one 33-year-old male wrote on the survey.
“Kids might give mixed reviews about their parents, but they generally have nice things to say about grandparents,” said Cohen.
And while children of intermarriage were far less likely than children of in-marriage to have attended Jewish day school, Hebrew school or youth groups, participation in Birthright Israel, Judaic studies courses and campus activities sponsored by Hillel and Chabad effectively closed the gap in Jewish engagement between the two cohorts.
“I see myself as a Jew,” said Levy, responding to a question from the audience. Though she had maintained a steady composure throughout the conversation, as the questioning neared its end her voice began to crack. “What you have to realize is that I’m a whole person,” she said, wiping away tears as her fellow panelists, taken aback, scrambled to find a tissue. She pressed on, “I want both my parents to be proud of me.”
*Rebecca Levy's name has been changed to ensure privacy.