Yesterday, I published a first response from colleagues Sheila Gordon and Ben Arenstein to a survey of millennials from interfaith families who applied to Birthright (the free trip to Israel for young people with at least one Jewish parent). Today, having returned from the Parliament of the World’s Religions and read the report myself, I’m following up with some additional thoughts.
- The problem with the funding. As I mentioned yesterday, this study was funded by Birthright and a second Jewish foundation. I am puzzled when academics conduct studies with external funding and do not address this bias in the study. My own study of teens and young adults from interfaith families, the first study of children raised with formal interfaith education, received no external funding.
- The problem with the title. The survey at the heart of “Millennial Children of Intermarriage,” was drawn exclusively from people who applied to Birthright. So this was not a “comprehensive assessment” (as claimed). It did not include people who claim a “Jewish and…” identity rather than an exclusively Jewish identity and thus did not apply to Birthright because they assumed they would be rejected. (Read Being Both for an example of a millennial being rejected from Birthright because he refused to disavow his interfaith identity). The study also did not include millennials from interfaith families who are deeply engaged with Judaism but who are not interested in a trip designed to increase Jewish “in-marriage.” And it did not include millennials from interfaith families who are deeply engaged with Judaism but who are not interested in a trip that presents the Israeli but not the Palestinian perspective, or not interested in a trip that fails to address the challenges of being an interfaith family in Israel. (Another problem with the report title is that many millennials find the term intermarriage–as opposed to interfaith marriage–to be creepy. But that’s a sidebar conversation).
- Another problem with the respondents. In addition to the survey, the authors interviewed a smaller group of millennials from outside the Birthright applicant pool. But they recruited them through Jewish organizations (such as Moishe House), so again, this was a skewed sample, not at all representative of all “millennial children of intermarriage.”
- The problem with the desired outcomes. This study measured indicators of “Jewish engagement” including “wanting to marry someone Jewish.” As the report itself documents, many of us find this indicator offensive, as children of successful interfaith marriages. The growing numbers of rabbinical students from interfaith families or with interfaith partners should put this idea to rest–the idea that you have to be “in-married” to be of value to the Jewish community or raise children who will dedicate themselves to Judaism.
- Glad to be discovered. Despite the limits and biases inherent in the study, the growing presence of “my people” became clear in this study–people who want interfaith education for their interfaith children, and people who claim the benefits of complex religious identities. One respondent who claimed the adjective “multicultural” stated, “It makes me a little more open minded, but I think open-mindedness is not a value that’s always accepted or appreciated.” Overall, fully half of the adult children of interfaith families, even in this skewed sample, grew up attending Christian religious services at least a few times per year. And celebration of home-based Christmas was widespread. The authors note, “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage.” Some 17 percent of the interfaith children in this sample were told that they were both Jewish and another religion, and another 18 percent were told that their religious identity was their choice to make. (I have a hard time believing that these were not overlapping categories, but this is part of the problem with either/or binary thinking and surveys). If the researchers are interested in understanding our complexities more deeply, I assume they will read Being Both. We are also awaiting a forthcoming Pew study on complex religious identities.
- Results of the campaign against interfaith marriage. One respondent explains, “I think there’s an assumption that if you identify as Jewish you obviously want to marry a Jew. I’m going to marry whoever I marry!” The report documents the fact that those with “Jewish experiences” including Birthright are less likely to be married. I call this the “Uncle Leon” effect, named for one of my many beloved Jewish relatives who never married, and thus never had children, because of pressure to avoid marrying a Christian. I fail to see how dying single, as my Uncle Leon did, is good for Jewish continuity.
Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.