Why I Started The Half-Jewish Network
I started the Half-Jewish Network on Sept. 22, 2005, because the adult children and other descendants of intermarriage need the same resources that are available for interfaith couples: advocacy organizations, literature and Jewish outreach.
We don’t know exactly how many adult children of interfaith marriage there are, but Dr. Pearl Beck estimates, based on the National Jewish Population Survey, that the number is well over 350,000 in the United States alone. In some European countries, the numbers may be as high or higher. In Israel, the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families estimates that there are at least 300,000 people who have entered the country under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish because they come from interfaith families. According to a 2005 survey by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, children of interfaith marriage are 48% of all Jewish-identified American college students.
Why doesn’t the Jewish community reach out to us in the same way that it reaches out to interfaith couples? My story–and the story of the Half-Jewish Network–may hold some clues.
I am the child of an Orthodox Jewish mother and an Episcopalian WASP father. I was raised as an Episcopalian, and not told that my mother was a Jew. I learned the truth in 1984, shortly after my mother’s funeral, when I was a very young woman. I had long ago lost my faith in Christianity. I had an intense spiritual experience, and resolved to live as a Jew and take my Jewish mother’s surname.
My Christian father and three Christian-identified brothers were horrified by my decision, causing a family breach that took years to heal. My Christian grandmother never spoke to me again.
In the 40 years since my mother had left her Orthodox Jewish family, they had become “Conservadox,” but the cousin who led the family made it clear that I was not welcome. Only my Jewish grandmother was willing to establish a relationship with me, and we remained very close until she died five years later.
I soon learned–mostly through negative comments by other Jews–that some Jewish movements–Orthodox, parts of the Conservative movement, Humanistic Judaism, Jewish Renewal, and some religious leaders in Israel–considered me to be a Jew, because my mother was Jewish. Other Jewish movements–Reform and Reconstructionism, parts of the Conservative movement, and other religious leaders in Israel–viewed me as a non-Jew, because I had been raised as a Christian.
I learned that most of the other adult children of intermarriage experienced the same poor treatment that I had. So I started an organization for us in 1985.
But the Jewish community of the 1980s didn’t even want interfaith couples, never mind adult children of intermarriage. I was young, and did not know how to withstand communal opposition, nor did I have the knowledge necessary to manage an international organization. I disbanded the group in the early 1990s, and focused instead on co-leading a women’s havurah (prayer and study group) and teaching Kabbalah classes at an adult education center.
With the arrival of the internet, I began hearing again from adult children of intermarriage. They report that many Jewish organizations have adopted a crazy making approach. These organizations welcome interfaith couples on institutional web pages, offering them social groups and outreach literature. Some of the very same organizations have treated adult children and other descendants of intermarriage coolly. They have not developed resources for us and have asked adult children of intermarriage to “prove” that they are Jewish or told them they must convert.
Other adult children of intermarriage report trying to enter Jewish organizations that have adopted welcoming policies that deliberately–according to the organizations themselves–do not mention adult children of intermarriage. These groups justify these policies by claiming that the majority of children of intermarriage “don’t want to be singled out,” and encourage half-Jewish members to keep quiet about their parentage.
These policies are not good for Jewish population growth.
The heart of the problem is that Jewish communal neglect and coldness towards adult children of intermarriage are still socially acceptable behaviors, in ways that unpleasant behavior towards other sub-groups–including interfaith couples–are increasingly not acceptable.
I have been trying several ways of assisting the adult children of intermarriage, starting with creating the Half-Jewish Network. I named it the “Half-Jewish Network,” because an internet survey showed that “half-Jewish” was the term that most adult children and other descendants of intermarriage identify with.
Second, I am writing a book on adult children of intermarriage, as most outreach literature still addresses only interfaith couples, their parents, and young (under age 18) children of intermarriage.
Third, I have entered a rabbinical program, in response to pleas for help from adult children and other descendants of intermarriage who are denied pastoral care and membership by many Jewish institutions. I chose a rabbinical program that has a strong outreach to interfaith families.
Fourth, I am planning to start an independent outreach project, which I have named “Inclusivist Judaism,” which will provide targeted spiritual and cultural outreach for adult descendants of intermarriage and other disaffiliated Jews.
The Half-Jewish Network (www.half-jewish.net) is doing well. Our message board is jammed with postings from all over the world. We have more than 500 members, and are growing steadily. We will likely have over 1,000 members by 2011. I estimate that perhaps one-sixth of our members are adult grandchildren and great-grandchildren of intermarriage.
Other organizations specifically focusing on outreach to adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage include: the newly-created Open Dor (Generation) Foundation, led by Avis Miller, rabbi emerita of congregation Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. Another organization, www.half-jewish.org, founded in 2006, has a rich focus on Sephardic and Israeli Jewish culture, though descendants of intermarriage from all backgrounds are welcomed.
In Israel, organizations that reach out to the Israeli adult children and other descendants of intermarriage and fight for their civil rights include the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
But a handful of organizations can’t reach all of the adult children and descendants of intermarriage. When will Jewish organizations start outreach efforts directed specifically towards us?