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Welcoming the New Jews

The question is so obvious, you have to wonder why nobody thought of asking it before: If only one-quarter to one-third of children in interfaith families are raised “in the Jewish faith,” as repeated surveys have shown, what becomes of the others? Do they become Christians? Do they melt into the broader population, with never a thought for the world they’ve left behind? Or do they remain half-Jews, as they often call themselves? And if so, what could that mean — for them and for the broader Jewish community?

Now, an advocacy group, the Jewish Outreach Institute, has addressed these questions head-on. In an important new study, reported by Jennifer Siegel on Page 1, the institute conducted in-depth interviews with 90 adult children of intermarriage to probe their views of Jewish identity. What it found was striking: these supposedly “lost” children show surprisingly high levels of Jewish attachment. But they’re not sure what to make of it. And they’re not getting much help.

In a world where Judaism is promoted by its main spokesmen mainly as a religion, barely one-quarter of the children of intermarriage described their religion as Jewish. And yet, a full 70% said that “being Jewish” was either “somewhat” or “very” important to them. Two-thirds said they light Hanukkah candles, 56% said they seek out Jewish cultural events such as movies and book fairs, and half said they “frequently” stop to read news articles about Jewish topics. Perhaps most striking, more than three-fourths said they wanted to “transmit a Jewish identity” to their children. In short, they’re open to us. Do we want to embrace them?

To be sure, the study’s findings can’t be called definitive. Ninety respondents hardly make a scientific sample. Besides, the respondents were a self-selected rather than a random group, recruited by ads at a popular Web site that made clear what sort of study they were being asked to join. Some actually told the researchers they answered the ad because they wanted to explore their own Jewish identities.

The findings aren’t to be taken lightly, however. In constructing their questionnaires, the researchers chose wordings that would permit comparison to past studies such as the National Jewish Population Survey. Where they could be compared, the findings were similar, suggesting that the new study is well grounded. The sample appears representative, and the resulting numbers reflect reality.

More important than the numbers, though, are the interviews. Rather than simply ask respondents for yes-or-no answers on a range of approved Jewish behaviors, as in past studies, the researchers let them open up and discuss their own feelings about Jewish identity. What came back was a flood of feelings and perceptions, sometimes infuriating in their ignorance, sometimes deeply touching.

What’s most touching is their pride in and attachment to their Jewishness. “Other Jews are kindred spirits,” says Ben, whose father is Jewish. “I’m glad I’m Jewish — it feels familiar and comfortable.” And Melissa: “Being Jewish is like being female — something I am regardless of my involvement or lack of involvement with traditions.”

But the pride is mixed with equal doses of confusion, as respondents’ feelings of attachment bump up against alienating messages they receive from the broader community. “I want to feel close to the Jewish community,” says Michael. “I feel ashamed when I say I am Jewish, because my mother isn’t Jewish. It feels a little fraudulent, because people have told me I’m not really Jewish because my mom’s not Jewish.”

And Julia says, “People ask me if I’m Jewish and I say I’m Jewish because my mother is Jewish.” But she adds: “I don’t see Jewishness as a nationality. I see it as a religion, but to call yourself something you don’t practice is not truthful.”

Appended to the study is a raft of proposals by the Jewish Outreach Institute for responding to this growing new population and encouraging it to find a place in Judaism. Most of the ideas are sensible and overdue, such as helping non-Jewish mothers learn how to create a Jewish home, or offering opportunities for bar and bat mitzvah to families that didn’t go the Hebrew school route but want their children to share this crucial moment of public affirmation. If the community decides it wants to be welcoming, the resources can easily be found. What’s needed is the will.

But these proposals beg a larger question that’s implicit in the study. The Jewish community needs to come to terms with the fact that it’s living in a new world where barriers are nonexistent and ideas flow freely. In today’s world, every Jew is a Jew by choice. Most Jews know this; it’s only the leadership of the community’s institutions that hasn’t come to terms with it.

Judaism will continue to thrive only if individuals are encouraged to embrace it and made to feel welcome when they do. The question is no longer how to stop Jews from fleeing the community, whether by “marrying out” or simply assimilating. Those are yesterday’s problems. The burning question today is this: Can the Jewish community make room for the many types of Jews who want to join?




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