Religion & Beliefs

What Do Half-Jewish People Want from the Jewish Establishment?

Many Jewish groups are tired of listening to me badger them — by email, listserv, message board, phone, and carrier pigeon — for specific outreach to adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage. Some of them wish I and the Half-Jewish … Read More

By / November 18, 2009

Many Jewish groups are tired of listening to me badger them — by email, listserv, message board, phone, and carrier pigeon — for specific outreach to adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage. Some of them wish I and the Half-Jewish Network would just (expletive deleted) off.

Others have asked me, with the exasperation of an adult who has been relentlessly nagged by a three year old for an entire Shabbat weekend, "So what do half-Jewish people really want, anyway?" That’s an easy question for me to answer — we want the same resources and help that are given to interfaith couples and Jews by Choice (converts). Now. Yesterday would have been nice, too. So why don’t these programs exist? Ghosts In The Communal Attic Once of my biggest problems in advocating for adult children and other descendants of intermarriage is convincing Jewish outreach organizations and Jewish communal groups to admit that we actually exist.  Now, you’d think the documented existence of over 300,000 of us in the United States, and thousands more elsewhere in the Diaspora and Israel would be proof that we exist. We are estimated to be 48% of all Jewish-identified college students in the United States. But officially, for many Jewish organizations, we don’t exist. Over twenty years ago, in the late 1980s, American Jewish outreach professionals — at that time a tiny network of a few rabbis, Jewish social workers, sociologists, and interfaith couples — adopted a "raising Jewish children" strategy for interfaith family outreach. Ironically, this outreach strategy helped continue our exclusion from many Jewish communities. This requires some explanation. The Origins Of The "Raising Jewish Children" Policy The "raising Jewish children" advocates saw only two outcomes for us: either our interfaith parents must raise us as a "real Jews," in a very draconian manner — no Christmas trees or Rastafari posters! Every trace of our "non-Jewish" parent’s heritage to be banished from the house! — or if we were not raised as Jews in a very strict manner, we were to be treated as "non-Jews" who must convert as adults through the "Jews by Choice" programs. And whether we were raised as "real Jews," or became adult "non-Jews" to be placed in "Jews by Choice" programs as adults, we would never need any special outreach programs, unlike interfaith couples and Jews by Choice.  At least that’s what the tiny outreach network of the late 1980s thought.  Children of intermarriage who were already teens and adults in the late 1980s were to be written off as a "lost generation," in the words of one rabbi. No resources were to be provided for outreaching them. This decision meant that thousands of potential adult Jews were simply abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s, and many could not find ways into the hostile Jewish community of that era. As a much younger adult in that era, and often the only adult child of intermarriage present at these outreach policy discussions, I vigorously protested the policy of abandoning the Baby Boomer and early Gen X teen and adult children of intermarriage as a "lost generation" and the harsh "raising Jewish children" policies that scrubbed every vestige of the other parent’s culture out of the house. I was frequently told that Jewish outreach needn’t concern itself with people like me — because interfaith family programs would ramp up so quickly that most young children of intermarriage then existing in the late 1980s — the late Gen X and the early Gen Y Millenials — would be raised as "real Jews." People like myself — already teens and adults — were to be regarded as expendable. But how has this worked in actual practice? Raising "Jewish Children" It must be understood that the great "ramp up" of interfaith family outreach programs has never taken place. Despite all of the Jewish communal complaints about intermarriage, they’ve never been willing to put their money where their mouths were. Pennies out of every federation budget were allotted to a few overworked outreach professionals, who could contact only a small number of interfaith couples. So most of the adult children of intermarriage around today were raised outside of Judaism.  How did the "raising Jewish children" policy work for the minority of children of intermarriage who were "raised Jewish"? Under the draconian "raising Jewish children" of twenty years ago, all vestiges of our non-Jewish parent’s heritage were to be banished from the house. The policy intended that we would grow up to be "real Jews" — clones of the middle class Ashkenazi Jews of today — with no input from our "non-Jewish" parent — you know, the Swedish Lutheran or Afro-Jamaican who gave birth to us or sired us? Made our school lunches? Drove to us to Hebrew school? Who bequeathed us her blonde hair and that miserable asthma or his Jamaican dreadlocks and sense of humor? This policy hasn’t worked well. Even the children raised as "real Jews" are aware that the other parent is, well — Swedish, or African-American or Korean — and, if they forget it, some other Jews with more curiosity than tact are plenty willing to remind them: "You look kinda Swedish. Are you black? Hey, are you an Asian convert?" The "raising Jewish children" policy of twenty years ago has left some young adult half-Jewish people ashamed of their other heritage, which they then try to play down, referring to their other heritage as "my non-Jewish relatives." Sometimes the ethnicity and religion of their "other" relatives are never discussed, as if their other heritage was a sordid family secret involving criminal activity.  Some "raised Jewish" young adults won’t date other half-Jewish people or make friends with them, focusing on filling up their social circles only with born Jews with two Jewish parents. They sometimes advocate for Jewish communal policies that discriminate against other half-Jewish people — a Stockholm Syndrome reaction. I have listened with dismay and incredulity to adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage defend and make excuses for many Jewish communal policies that harm us, such as our exclusion from a teen Jewish summer camp, Israel’s increasingly harsh "who is a Jew" policies directed against us, and the failure of Jewish institutions to set up outreach programs for us. Multicultural And Multiracial Jews Of Future Will Get Better Outreach "Raising Jewish children" policies are starting to relax a little. As Judaism grows more multicultural and multiracial, outreach workers have realized that the world will not end if children being raised as "real Jews" have an African-American father who celebrates Kwanzaa every year. Outreach workers have a lot more knowledge of interfaith family issues than they did twenty years ago, and do not advocate policies as rigid as those of the past. It is slowly being recognized in Jewish outreach circles that a child can be raised as a "real Jew" and still learn, in a respectful manner, enough about their other family and heritage so that they are comfortable with both heritages. The multicultural and multiracial Jews being raised today will have a better environment than the first wave of "raised Jewish" children. But a lot of harm has been done to the "raised Jewish" young adult children of intermarriage in the meantime. People concealing their "non-Jewish" family members from other Jews, or defending Jewish communal policies that discriminate against them, have been deprived of key aspects of themselves and their family histories that they will need in the future. We’re Not Jews By Choice So what about the majority of adult children of intermarriage, raised outside of Judaism? Weren’t the late Gen X and Gen Y half-Jewish folks raised outside of Judaism supposed to accept the "non-Jewish" status decreed for us by Jewish outreach two decades ago and be trooping into the Jews by Choice programs? Weren’t those of us who are Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers simply supposed to disappear? That policy hasn’t worked out either. Many of us weren’t willing to disappear or convert. We see Jews with two Jewish parents who were raised in other faiths or as "nothing" being welcomed back into Jewish communities with no demands for conversion or disappearance placed on them at all. There is no difference between them and us, except that we have one non-Jewish parent.  It also turned out that while Jews by Choice programs and other general outreach programs could teach us the basics of Judaism, they couldn’t address many of our identity issues. We have very different issues from people with no Jewish ancestry who are converting to Judaism. For example, Jews by Choice materials often talk about how grateful they are to be taken into the Jewish people. We admire and respect their position, and it’s a rational one for them, but that’s not the outlook of many half-Jewish people. Just so you know, we’re not grateful.  Why should we be grateful?  Many of us believe that we are born into the Jewish people, and are upset at being chronically rebuffed and snubbed by Jewish institutions. Why should we be appreciative for doors that are repeatedly slammed on our feet?  And since the majority of children of intermarriage are continuing to be raised outside of the Jewish community, a new "lost generation" of adult children of intermarriage  is being created — most Jewish outreach efforts still ignore us to this day. We Need Outreach That Is Directed Specifically Towards Us So here’s what we need — the same resources that are already available for interfaith couples and Jews by Choice. We’d like pamphlets welcoming us. How about some video documentaries on our issues? It wouldn’t hurt to see more books written for us. Podcasts would be nice.   We need one person, preferably the child or grandchild of intermarriage themselves, to be designated as our contact person in every Jewish institution. Jewish communal professionals need training on how to outreach us. We want discussion groups for us in synagogues, just like the interfaith couples  and Jews by Choice have. Most importantly, we need to be listed as a specific demographic in every discussion of Jewish outreach. It wouldn’t hurt if every Jewish institution in the world had a short welcoming message for us on their website and a link beneath it to a one page downloadable PDF pamphlet basically saying, "Adult Children and Grandchildren of Intermarriage: Welcome to Congregation Me’arah Shanda (Cave of Shame)! We eagerly seek your membership – someone has to help us finish paying off the expensive settlement on our previous rabbi’s sexual harassment lawsuit. (He’s been fired.) We’ve appointed our cantor, who is the grandchild of an intermarriage, to facilitate a once a month discussion group for you. So, do we have a deal?" That would work. Ask yourself — couldn’t your Jewish secular or spiritual organization use a few more members? Some extra volunteers? Be Honest With Us About Half-Jewish People and Israel We need you to be truthful with us about how poorly Israel treats members of interfaith families. With regard to Israel, we live in a different universe from you. We can read the stories, which appear frequently in the online, English language, Israeli press and Israel-focused organizations’ webpages, like the story below: Lilia Itzkovich, a volunteer with NIF grantee Association for the Protection of Mixed Family Rights, was born to a Jewish father and Russian mother. "I am typical of hundreds of thousands who are not halachically Jewish but came to Israel because we feel part of the Jewish people.  In Russia I felt like a Jew, a foreigner," she recalls. "At school they told me ‘Lilia you are a good girl, it’s just a shame that you are a Jew.’ For Russian anti-Semites it made no difference if you were a Jew halachically. So we came to Israel and here I am told ‘Lilia you are a good woman, it’s a shame that you are a goy."

We need you to understand that the Birthright model of Jewish identity — carting us to Israel on "rah-rah" trips — may not work for all of us, and other types of trips may have to be designed for us — ones in which we meet with our Israeli Jewish peers, like Lilia, and the Israeli Jewish organizations fighting for our rights.  And please, for the love of G-d, please stop advertising Israel trips as a way to prevent intermarriages by half-Jewish people, as a Birthright report did several weeks ago. The statistics for children of intermarriage in the report were so tiny as to be statistically very questionable — apparently very few of us ever went on Birthright trips between 2001 and 2004. So claims that such trips discourage us from intermarrying are still unproven. And what’s the takeaway message here?  Go on these trips, and it will prevent more people like you from being born?

We also need you to help us oppose Israeli initiatives that actively harm us, such as the 2007 attempt to create a written Israeli constitution — Israel currently doesn’t have one — in which one of the primary goals was removal of patrilineal children and grandchildren of intermarriage from the Law of Return. Israel desperately needs a written constitution, but not at our expense. A Final Request I have a personal request. One adult child of intermarriage recently asked me what topics did the Jewish outreach listservs and message boards I’ve participated in discuss. I told her, "Mostly, they discuss whether we’re going to give interfaith couples Purim baskets next year."  One of my more modest goals for outreach to half-Jewish people is to get a Jewish outreach listserv or message board to discuss giving adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage Purim baskets. In fact, I’d like a Purim basket with chocolate and pears inside, if anyone is listening. Second thoughts — rather than sending me a Purim basket, if you know an adult child or grandchild of intermarriage — whether she or he was "raised Jewish," Christian, Muslim, "both," "nothing," "uncertain," or some other affiliation — consider giving them a Purim gift basket next year.  That’s a good way to reach out. Show them some Jewish heart. Do the Jewish thing — give them something to nosh on!