Jewish Americans (and Interfaith Families) in 2020

Trying to survey the Jewish community is an important, and thankless, task.

Today, Pew Research released their first national study of the Jewish American landscape since 2013. Every assumption, every question, every result, will be scrutinized and debated for years to come.

For interfaith families, there is not really a whole lot that is new to report. In fact, more intriguing and detailed data and analysis has been released elsewhere recently. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

From the point of view of interfaith families, it is important to remember that virtually all studies of interfaith families and the Jewish community, including this Pew report, are funded by Jewish foundations or institutions. So the framework is built on the concerns and questions of institutional Judaism in America. As a result, there are a lot of questions that will feel archaic or beside-the-point to a lot of young American Jews, and to a lot of interfaith families. There’s a lot about relationships to Israel. There’s a lot about participating in traditional Jewish ritual and membership. There are gendered analyses about the role of the mother and the father.

Some two dozen rabbis are thanked in the Pew report acknowledgements, including those notorious for opposing interfaith marriage. It all feels fraught, and weighed down, with traditional Jewish continuity narratives, given how mixed a multitude we are now.

What does this mean for interfaith families? Many of us were excluded from the study. Pew classified people as Jewish, Jewish background, or Jewish affinity, with the bulk of the study focused only on those deemed “Jewish.” Pew created a complex set of rules based on parentage, upbringing, and current identity, for deciding which category to put each person.

  • Regardless of their Jewish parentage or Jewish upbringing, anyone who claimed to be both Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian-Universalist, or Jewish and Pagan, or Jewish and any other religion, was excluded from counting as Jewish, and from the body of this study.
  • Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, was counted as Jewish if they were raised Jewish.
  • Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, but was not raised Jewish, was counted only as having Jewish affinity.

Pew did include in their overall Jewish population what they estimate are 200,000 children being raised in Judaism and another religion. However, they excluded an estimated 200,000 adults who identify as Jewish and another religion. Pew’s explanation: “This accounts for the uncertainty inherent in projecting how children will identify when they grow up; some children who are raised as Jewish and another religion go on to identify, in adulthood, solely as Jewish.”

Pew cautions us not to compare this year’s study directly with their last study of Jews in America in 2013. In part this is because they have shifted their sampling from phone calls, to written and online responses. It is not immediately clear to me why the percentage of interfaith couples raising children with more than one religion would have gone down from 25% in 2013 to 12% in 2020. I suspect this has something to do with the increasing number of multi-generational interfaith families being excluded from the “Jewish” category.

What I do know is that the 12% figure does not align with my experience as someone who works full-time supporting interfaith families, nor does it align with recent individual community studies. Anecdotally, one group of Reform rabbis told me that about 50% of the interfaith couples they are now marrying want to “do both.” And recently, I was contacted by two Reform rabbis to speak to a group of interfaith couples, after the rabbis discovered that all of the couples in their group were intending to “do both.”

Even though they are funded by Jewish communities, some recent studies of specific regions align more closely than today’s Pew study with my experience of the growing awareness that you can, indeed, give interfaith children an interfaith education.

In Toronto, 44% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “with two religious heritages” (as opposed to 39% raising kids exclusively Jewish), according to a 2020 report. This detailed report on interfaith families in Toronto appears to have drawn heavily on my work, revealing texture and nuance, and I will return to it in another post.

Another survey done last year in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts (including Amherst and Northampton), found 46% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “Jewish and another religion,” (as opposed to 33% raising them exclusively Jewish by religion).  And in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul), a 2019 study found 34% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent raising children with two religions, while 16% were raising them exclusively Jewish by religion. Not surprisingly, studies (many older) of the big cities in the East with many deep-rooted Jewish institutions found smaller percentages (many of them 11-18%) of interfaith families “doing both.”

Later this week, the new Pew report will be analyzed by Jewish interfaith family professionals in an online briefing. I intend to listen to that session, and hope to report back here on anything new or noteworthy. Stay tuned.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Families, Jewish Communities: Spring Thaw

Frozen Branch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Do you hear a rumbling, creaking, sighing noise, like an iceberg melting? That’s the sound of policies designed to freeze out interfaith families, shifting and groaning as they thaw. Since the release of the 2013 Pew Research report on the Jewish American landscape (and the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family), I have been predicting a warming trend in engaging with interfaith families. Just in recent weeks, I note at least four new efforts by the Jewish community to include or acknowledge interfaith families:

1. A Conservative Jewish rabbi considered officiating at interfaith weddings, but then decided not to. Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, emailed his congregants in the Boston surburbs to say he was considering performing interfaith marriages, but only if the couple signed a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Interfaith families quickly pointed out that you cannot really extract such a promise about hypothetical children. A few days later, the rabbi backed off his proposal, noting that the “Covenant is not workable.”

My Response: This brave rabbi realized what many Reform rabbis (and the Catholic Church) have already realized. Requiring an interfaith couple to raise children in a particular religion as a condition for marriage is neither wise nor enforceable when both partners are on dynamic spiritual journeys. I deeply appreciate this rabbi’s attempt to address the hypocrisy of welcoming interfaith families into Conservative congregations, while refusing to attend or officiate at their weddings. But it really isn’t going to be possible to change this Conservative policy, without also accepting the children of Jewish fathers as Jews (“patrilineal descent”). Which needs to happen.

2. A Conservative Jewish youth movement relaxed their policy on interfaith dating (sort of). The leadership of the United Synagogue Youth (USY), a national teen group, voted to remove the phrase calling for national and regional board members to “refrain” from interfaith dating, though they did include language on “recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community.” After a fierce community backlash, teen leaders explained that the intent was not so much to endorse interfaith dating, but to show respect for the many teen leaders from interfaith families.

My response: More than any change, or lack of change, in policy, this story is fascinating because young Jews from interfaith families are making their voices heard. Among teens now, more come from interfaith families than from families with two Jewish parents. Going forward, as this generation comes into leadership roles in the adult Jewish community, I look forward to the inevitable acceptance and inclusion for interfaith families.

3. A prize sponsored by Russian Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government was awarded to actor Michael Douglas, who was born to a Jewish father and Protestant mother and now identifies as a Reform Jew. Douglas is married to Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who grew up Catholic. Douglas and Jones recently traveled to Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of their son Dylan (who, like my children, has only one Jewish grandparent, a grandfather). Immediately, bloggers and columnists questioned rewarding a wealthy movie star who has not been particularly active in the Jewish community, simply for maintaining some connection to his Jewish identity (and Israel). And this week, the CEO of the prize foundation suddenly quit. In awarding the prize, the Genesis Foundation explained that the Douglas family embraces their Jewish heritage “on their own terms” and that this “embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.”

My response: Douglas was chosen because of his interfaith background, not in spite of it. In the Russian Jewish community in Israel, the exclusion of people who are “patrilineal Jews”, or do not have “kosher enough” conversions has been a huge issue. In a particularly cutting response entitled “Genesis Prize Goes to Michael Douglas. Really?” Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner stated baldly that “Douglas isn’t Jewish according to Jewish law,” ignoring the fact that he identifies as a Reform Jew. Note that even the more progressive American Jewish media sources are still filled with language excluding the growing number of “patrilineal” Reform Jews.

4. Interfaith Israel launches new tours designed specifically for people from interfaith families. Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) is co-sponsoring these programs, starting this summer, for interfaith teens, young interfaith professionals, and interfaith families to visit Israel. The teen trip promises exploration of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i cultures in Israel.

My response: Israel remains an uncomfortable topic for many interfaith families. In part this is because Orthodox control of religious identity in Israel excludes Reform Jews from interfaith families with Jewish fathers, and Jews who converted under the auspices of Reform rabbis, from being married or buried in Israel as Jews. Also, those of us from interfaith families are wary when we feel we are only hearing one side of any story story (for instance, the Israeli narrative but not the Palestinian narrative). Nonetheless, when compared with the Birthright trips to Israel–which only accept those who identify as exclusively Jewish–these new trips are radically accepting of the fact that people (especially young people) from interfaith families have fluid and complex religious identities. In the application, interfaith teens are not asked to check religious identity boxes, and the trip is open to any teen with at least one Jewish grandparent. Program founder Michael Dorfman emailed me that “this trip is designed to embrace the duality of a teen’s interfaith identity and provide them with an experience that will speak to their needs.” As with any sponsored trip, it’s important to think about the goals of the sponsors. But I wish we had more US-based programs for interfaith teens using this kind of inclusive language.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.