Noah Leavitt ’91 Embarks on Study of Jewish-Asian Families in America
In the 13 years that Noah Leavitt ’91 has been with his wife, Helen Kim, he’s often wondered what to make of their unusual interracial pairing: Leavitt is Jewish, Kim Korean-American. “What does it mean that we see more families like this around the country?” he asks. “What happens to these couples’ religious and ethnic identities and value systems?” Then, as he and Kim prepared to welcome their now four-month-old-son, Aryeh, Leavitt became more curious about the children of these mixed couples. “How do they solve their complicated identity puzzles, and make sense of their world and their interesting families?”
To find answers to these questions, Leavitt and Kim, who live in Walla Walla, Wash., have embarked on an extensive study of intermarriage between Asian and Jewish Americans. They have teamed up with Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), the research and community-building arm of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a San Francisco-based nonprofit think tank that explores issues of Jewish racial diversity and global Judaism. Leavitt also credits ’91 classmates Julie Min Chayet and Tanya Lieberman with helping to design the project.
The first part of the study is a survey, to which Leavitt says they’ve received a variety of responses from couples who define themselves in more diverse terms than simply Jewish-Asian. “For example, there is one couple where one partner is a white Christian who converted to Judaism, and the other is a rabbi who’s Asian,” he explains. “This range of respondents is a testament to the diversity of America.”
Throughout 2009, Leavitt and Kim will use the survey responses as a springboard for conducting more in-depth interviews with selected couples. Eventually, they hope to publish their findings as an academic book. “It will be a sociological analysis of these types of households,” says Leavitt, who holds a law degree from the University of Michigan and lectures at Whitman College, where Kim is a sociology professor.
One question that particularly intrigues Leavitt is whether a mixed household helps or hinders observance of the Jewish faith. “There’s a national debate about Jews who are assimilating and losing their religious identities,” he says, “but we’re finding here that the reverse is true, that Jews in these households are highly affiliated with their local congregations and connected to their Judaism.” (Leavitt himself is president of Congregation Beth Israel in Walla Walla.)
Ultimately, Leavitt hopes that the project will lead to a greater understanding of the racial, ethnic and religious dynamics of Jewish-Asian couples, particularly for the children of these marriages. “It can help answer their question: ‘Who am I?'” he says.
To learn more about the study or participate, visit https://bechollashon.org/projects/asian_study.php.