(JTA) — When Eric Woodward started rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he assumed he would be be the only student who grew up celebrating Christmas along with Hanukkah.
But midway through his training, when Woodward started a discussion group for students of interfaith families, more than 20 people showed up.
Not all were children of intermarriage like Woodward, who was raised in Los Angeles by a secular Jewish mother and non-practicing Catholic father. Some were Jews by choice. Others had parents who converted or families with a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish members.
“I don’t see a family being interfaith as a shame or a stigma,” said Woodward, 31, who was ordained in May and is now assistant rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. “It didn’t preclude me from having a Jewish journey, and it won’t preclude someone else.”
Fifty percent of Jewish millennials — a generation roughly defined as those born in the 1980s and ’90s — grew up in intermarried homes, according to a new analysis of data from last month’s Pew Research Center study of American Jews. And while most of them don’t end up becoming rabbis, it is no longer uncommon to see such Jews in the non-Orthodox rabbinate.
No precise statistics are available on the percentage of clergy or rabbinical students from interfaith families, but they are a noticeable minority at the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries. Informal estimates put the proportion of children of intermarriage at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Marley Weiner, a second-year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, reports that six of 12 students in her class were, like her, raised by a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.
“I think it’s great,” said Rabbi Renni Altman, who directs the rabbinical program at HUC’s New York campus. “They bring a richness to the community, and a sensitivity and awareness that’s also wonderful.”
Altman said such rabbis show the potential of a group many demographers write off — a point echoed by the author of the new Pew analysis, Theodore Sasson, a senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
“This is a population that feels itself a part of the Jewish world but typically knows little of it,” Sasson wrote this week in the online magazine Tablet. “How Jewish organizations address this challenge will determine — more than any inexorable laws of demography — the future character of American Jewry.”