Study finds surprising facts about children of mixed marriages

How do young adult children of interfaith marriages feel about their Jewish identity? Do they identify as Jews, “half-Jews” or mixed? How do they feel about Israel? Do they care about finding a Jewish partner, or passing some kind of knowledge about Judaism on to their children?

These are questions that, until now, had been largely unanswered for Jewish demographers. But Ruth Decalo, senior director of programs and training at the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, who recently presented findings of an interfaith study to a small group of Jewish professionals at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. JOI has been a frequent presence in the Bay Area this past year, as it regularly consults with Jewish organizations to help make them more welcoming to the unaffiliated.

The news was both good and bad. While Decalo summarized the study by saying that most respondents did not have a sense of Jewish community and had a low sense of identification with Israel, they did identify with anti-Semitism, even if it was obtained through popular culture, such as viewing “Schindler’s List” or reading “The Diary of Anne Frank ” in high school.

A full 70 percent of those interviewed said their Jewish identity or dual identity was important to them, even if they didn’t know exactly how to define that. Some 76 percent said they wanted to transmit Jewish identity to their children, even though 64 percent said that being with a Jewish partner was not important to them.

Among other findings:

– Jewish grandparents are often key in transmitting Jewish culture to young people;

– 70 percent of those interviewed identified as spiritual while fewer than 25 percent considered themselves religious;

– Israel can prove to be a controversial topic, and only 26 percent strongly identified with it;

– Those with one Jewish parent can often feel like the “other” among Jews with two Jewish parents.

Fewer than 25 percent had had a bar or bat mitzvah, and of those who did, 90 percent considered themselves exclusively Jewish.

Just over half, about 56 percent, said they attended Jewish cultural events.

The study found that most children of interfaith parents knew that Jewish law goes by matrilineal descent, even if they do not know much about Judaism in general.

Decalo stressed that Jewish institutions need to create a more welcoming culture, because it takes a lot for new person to walk in the door, and if they are not properly welcomed, chances are they will not return.

The New York-based JOI interviewed a total of 90 men and women, ages 22 to 30, in San Francisco, Boston and Chicago (30 in each city). Participants were found by postings on Craigslist, and were compensated $100 for their time. The totals were divided 60 percent female, 40 percent male, with the numbers of those with Jewish mothers and those with Jewish fathers about equal.

The study also found that while only 33 percent of this population considered itself exclusively Jewish, 76 percent celebrated Chanukah. And while 63 percent of the respondents from Boston celebrate Easter, only 23 percent of those from San Francisco do.

Generally, not much is known about this segment of the population, and for a long time Jewish demographers thought the children of mixed marriages were automatically lost to the Jewish people. But those at the Jewish Outreach Institute are finding those assumptions are not necessarily true.

JOI plans more follow-up discussions in the coming months. Information about the study can be found at JOI’s Web site, www.joi.org .

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