Multiracial Millennial Jewish Children of Intermarriage — Are We Meeting Them Where They Are At?

Last week the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University published a report titled, “Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement” Among a number of significant findings reported by Theodore Sasson and his colleagues, one of the main takeaways from this study is that Jewish activities and experiences in childhood and college help shape a positive an affirming sense of Jewish identity in adulthood. The fact that one’s parents are intermarried does not have a direct impact on a child’s behaviors and attitudes toward Judaism. In other words, it is how children experience Judaism in childhood and early adulthood that matters the most.

I was heartened to read this report because it is among a growing body of academic work that pays attention to the complexities of understanding Jewish identity for children of intermarriage. Moreover, Sasson and his colleagues stress that intermarriage in and of itself does not spell disaster for the Jewish people. Rather, it is Jewish engagement and education, not biological lineage that matter in terms of the transmission of maintenance of religious and cultural identity.

Refreshingly and importantly, this report also identified the following key finding: “Children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish reject the idea that their Jewish identity is diluted or inferior and view their multicultural background as enriching, enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices.” I along with my co-author, Noah Leavitt, discovered something similar with a twist in our interviews with adult children born to marriages between Asian Americans of any ethnic or religious background and Jewish Americans of any racial or ethnic background. As we detail in our own research, multiracial children of intermarriage are constantly challenged for having claim to Judaism and Jewish identity because their physical appearance does not match our antiquated phenotypic understandings of Jews in America. Like the participants in the Cohen Center study, our interviewees overwhelmingly rejected the idea that their Jewish identity was inauthentic at the same time that they saw themselves as multicultural AND multiracial. No – Moses was not from Poland and bagels and cream cheese are not the only thing that you can bring to an oneg.

What to do? Given that a multicultural, multiracial and Jewish identity are inseparable from one another and inform each other, Jewish experiences and education need to more accurately reflect how this population sees itself. In other words, multicultural, multiracial Jews need to see themselves reflected in Judaism – Jewish communal organizations, synagogues and schools included. However, it’s not enough to say that just because the face of American Jewry is changing that everything is well and good. Within a larger American Jewish community that has historically focused on insularity, ritual and bloodline, the racial and ethnic diversification of this population, whether through intermarriage or adoption, can feel threatening.

But rather than see these changes as threat, we need to meet individuals where they are and allow opportunities for them to bring their whole selves to the table for the betterment of the larger Jewish community and society as a whole. But for a lot of us, this is difficult, especially when confronting issues of race. Be’chol Lashon’s model is perhaps a good place to start – one that approaches these difficult conversations by encouraging curiosity about and celebration of difference amongst ourselves, allowing the space to ask honest questions knowing that it is okay not to know something and okay to make a mistake. Instead of practicing “cultural competence,” Melanie Tervalon suggests that we exercise “cultural humility” – a simultaneous process of self-reflection that is on-going with a commitment to a lifelong learning process.

Are we meeting an increasingly diverse Jewish population where it is at so that no matter what their heritage, background, or skin color they feel that who they are is never a barrier to feeling included? I am hopeful that one day the answer to this question will be a definitive “yes” but we still have a long way to go.