Religion & Beliefs

Why Many Jewish Outreach Workers Ignore Half-Jewish People

Jewish outreach professionals complain constantly that younger Jews with two Jewish parents are bored with Judaism and are constantly wandering off to join Buddhist zendos and Hindu ashrams, conjuring up an image of disobedient and insolent young lambs scattering defiantly … Read More

By / January 21, 2010

Jewish outreach professionals complain constantly that younger Jews with two Jewish parents are bored with Judaism and are constantly wandering off to join Buddhist zendos and Hindu ashrams, conjuring up an image of disobedient and insolent young lambs scattering defiantly in all directions, proudly wearing nose rings, tattoos, and baaing defiantly at very expensive programs designed to lure them back into the Jewish communal sheep fold.

I have assured Jewish outreach workers that many adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage would be "cheap dates." We could be coaxed into the communal fold.  Many half-Jewish people would like to join the Jewish community. I have suggested that the Jewish outreach workers do simple brochures for us and start small monthly discussion groups, just as they currently do for interfaith couples and Jews By Choice (converts). But both I and other half-Jewish people have noticed that these modest suggestions are largely ignored.  At the present time I do not know of a single Jewish institution that has created a pamphlet for us or is currently holding a discussion group for us that directly addresses our needs.  Most Jewish outreach workers have even been unwilling to include the words "adult children of intermarriage" in website welcoming statements that comprehensively welcome every other Jewish minority on the planet, including interfaith couples and Jewish gay frogs (just kidding about the rainbow-colored, Star of David-bespangled frogs, OK?). Now, in a previous post, I discussed how some of this rejection and neglect is partially rooted in a disastrous "lost generation" policy instituted by the tiny Jewish outreach networks of the 1980s, in which a tacit policy decision was made to abandon all teen and adult children of intermarriage raised outside of Judaism and focus on the much smaller group of half-Jewish people "raised" as Jews by interfaith couples who were able to find welcoming Jewish groups. But it is 2010 – can’t we drop the failed policies of the past? Short answer: apparently not yet. The members of the Half-Jewish Network (www.half-jewish.net) complain to me in large numbers that they are repeatedly rebuffed or ignored by Jewish outreach workers. Why? We brush our teeth regularly and are often employed. We don’t even bite!

Why Are Jewish Outreach Workers Ignoring Half-Jewish People? Last year, I realized that I was operating from logic — Judaism needs more Jews, therefore, we should welcome half-Jewish people — but Jewish opposition to reaching out to half-Jewish people is tenacious, deeply-rooted, and emotional — even among some Jewish outreach professionals! These feelings that many Jewish outreach workers have about us are deeply buried and often confided to me privately.   Jewish outreach workers are frequently overworked and underpaid, charged with outreaching not only to interfaith families, but all kinds of Jewish groups that need special outreach, including disaffiliated Jews with two Jewish parents. Jewish outreach workers are generally very nice people — they care about interfaith couples and Jews by Choice — they often go an extra mile to help an interfaith couple find a rabbi to marry them — or locate a conversion class for a potential Jew by Choice. Here is what is preventing some of them from showing the same kindnesses to half-Jewish people, in a list of reasons confided to me over the last two decades: 1. Some Jewish outreach workers are Jewish communal professionals drawn from segments of the Jewish community composed of very committed Jews. They have little or no intermarriage in their families. They don’t like intermarriage! Some of them resent having to outreach interfaith couples and Jews by Choice, and are @#$% if they are going to outreach half-Jewish people. 2. Other Jewish outreach workers refuse to outreach any demographic for which they cannot find a Jewish philanthropist to fund the staff worker or website. They state that they are unable to find funding for outreach to us. Jewish philanthropists do not want to fund outreach to half-Jewish people at the present time. They are mostly older men, and grew up in the cohesive Jewish communities of decades ago, with little or no intermarriage.  They aren’t always happy with the idea of thousands of adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage moving into Judaism. 3.  Some Jewish outreach workers were assigned to outreach without requesting it and have also been assigned other unrelated duties. They view half-Jewish people as just another burden to be added to their inbox and naturally avoid us. 4.  Many Jewish outreach workers have a visceral discomfort with us. Some of us don’t "look Jewish." Some of us don’t "talk Jewish." Many of us object to Jewish communal policies. We may have non-Jewish standard careers — carpenters, artists. We don’t fit in. We make them very uncomfortable. With interfaith couples, they feel that they have at least one other Jew in the room who they can communicate with. They have scripts worked out for dealing with the Christian spouses in intermarriages, and scripts for communicating with converts to Judaism. Half-Jewish people baffle and frighten them. They do not understand our psychology, and are bewildered and alarmed by our confusions and our identity choices. They have no easy answers for our questions. They don’t like hearing about how unwelcoming the Jewish community has been to us. Our very presence raises all kinds of "who is a Jew?" issues about which they are very anxious. 5.  Some Jewish outreach workers have seen the statistics, and know that half-Jewish people will likely replace most American Jews by the year 2040. They don’t like that! No human being wants to be replaced in their own group niche. It’s a natural reaction and one that I sympathize with. I have listened to some Jewish outreach groups saying that outreach efforts should focus only on Jews with two Jewish parents married to other Jews with two Jewish parents. They are willing to risk Jewish numbers in America halving by year 2040. This point of view, derisively called a "leaner, meaner Judaism" by outreach workers who disagree with it, is conveyed in "code" phrases, such as: "focusing on our core constituency" and "a smaller, but more cohesive Jewish community." 6. Many outreach workers secretly believe that if half-Jewish people were not raised as Jews, we will never make good Jews because of our alien background (you know, reared by rabid wolves in a wilderness). They prefer to concentrate their efforts and the tiny amounts of money they receive on interfaith couples with young children and converts. It is much easier for them to tell interfaith couples how to raise their five year old as a "real Jew" — conversion procedures, gan (kindergarten), etc. — than to deal with a 35-year old adult grandchild of intermarriage who was raised Presbyterian, had a half-Jewish mother, and until recently was primarily Buddhist. Our stories don’t make them feel good. They don’t like hearing about our upbringings. They are very committed Jews and our stories about going to church on Sunday, and attending our aunt’s Passover seder upset them. And often they have no frame of reference from which to understand the stories — they have never been to church, and don’t have intermarried parents. 7. Jewish outreach workers who are intermarried have (sometimes) even more problems "hearing" us. They don’t mind us becoming the majority of American Jews in the future, but they don’t like hearing that we have sometimes had tough identity struggles or been rejected in Jewish settings. So we can’t depend on the intermarried Jewish outreach workers to fix this situation. They are worried that other Jewish people will be mean to their kids when their half-Jewish children grow up. 8. And the rabbis and the cantors in the outreach ranks? Well, most of them come from the fiercely committed segments of the Jewish community — so they generally — with only a few exceptions — have the least grasp of interfaith families and their dynamics, far less understanding than, say, most Jewish social workers. Rabbis and cantors usually have to learn everything about interfaith families as "outsiders." They may have an intermarried sibling, and usually not even that. Because most rabbinical programs will not admit an intermarried rabbinical student and forbid rabbis to intermarry, they have few or no first-hand experiences with interfaith families. Many of them work hard to grasp the needs of interfaith families and care for them in a very warm manner, but often, in their hearts, they frequently wish that the Jewish community of the 1980s would come back. 9.  Many outreach professionals feel that outreaching half-Jewish people in a big way has the potential to cause their organizations serious problems within the Jewish community, at least in their minds. Once you get a group of adult children together for discussions, we might not always remain cooperative. We might want to know why organizations X, Y and Z in the local community haven’t welcomed us. We might want to know why Israel has such negative "who is a Jew" policies. I think these are unrealistic fears — I have never heard of a half-Jewish discussion group rioting, not even one led by me. 10. Our very existence contradicts the cherished "raising Jewish children" policies for interfaith couples. After all, many of us were raised as "real Christians" — yet, here we are on the Jewish community’s doorstep. This scares some Jewish outreach workers and interfaith couples groups — what if their interfaith couples’ "raised Jewish" children grow up — and desert to the Catholic Church? Jewish groups get donations from philanthropists by guaranteeing "solutions" to interfaith families and their children’s identity. Our arrival on their doorsteps suggests that spirituality and ethnicity are more fluid than are generally thought by the Jewish outreach community. Well, they really don’t want to hear that. They are hand-feeding dozens of interfaith couples groups and Jews by Choice programs — half-Jewish people could be a disruption of the zeitgeist (the vibe). What if we tell their constituencies our stories? They tell these constituents one thing, but we might tell them another. Can’t have that! 11. Israel. Since many of us adult half-Jewish people weren’t raised Jewish — we aren’t all comfy with the Jewish state and how poorly it treats our half-Jewish peers who live there.  Since Jewish communal leaders and professionals don’t deal very well with dissenters in their midst on Israel who are born Jews with two Jewish parents, woe betide the half-Jewish person who is discovered to be making regular donations to — the New Israel Fund! J Street! and other peace-loving malefactors. 12. Finally, many outreach workers grew up in cohesive Jewish communities in the 1950s through the 1980s. The intermarriage rate was 30% or less. Jews tended to live in the same neighborhoods, clustered around the same stores and shuls. Everyone knew everyone else. They feel great emotional pain because their Jewish communities are dissolving. Outreach to half-Jewish people is salt in their psychological wounds. So What Can Half-Jewish People Do? What are the options for half-Jewish people in this situation?  I continue to nag and badger the outreach groups and their professionals to do more for us. Bit by bit, some of them are implementing tiny initiatives for half-Jewish people.   Other half-Jewish people should consider gently pestering Jewish outreach workers that they know and encouraging them to reach out to half-Jewish people.  Here are other recommendations for half-Jewish people seeking to affiliate with Judaism: 1. Obviously, join a half-Jewish group and get support from your peers. The Half-Jewish Network website not only describes our group, but lists other half-Jewish groups as well.  Slowly, we are creating groups for ourselves all over the world. 2. You can join the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition, which has a very different view of "who is a Jew" from most Jewish organizations.

3. Find at least one friendly Jewish institution in your area that you like, join, and "embed" yourself. Once you are embedded, begin pushing for outreach to other half-Jewish people. Be persistent. 4. If six Jewish institutions reject or ignore you, found your own havurah (prayer, study and social group). Remember, if you have been repeatedly ignored, it is likely that many Jews with two Jewish parents are dissatisfied with the Jewish community in your area as well.  A community which repeatedly turns away half-Jewish people often has serious outreach problems in dealing with other Jews. 5. If you cannot find any other Jews in your area to socialize or pray with, consider finding a rabbi or cantor online who will teach you about Judaism. There are also teleconference classes, available as free conference calls, and many other ways to find Jews in other areas who will welcome you as a "virtual" member. Take heart in this work from the example of Rabbi Akiva, illiterate until age 40, who was inspired to keep studying Torah by watching drops of water wear away a stone. B’ezrat Hashem (by the help of G-d), we will eventually become accepted members of our Jewish communities. We will replenish their numbers and bring about a more inclusive era in Judaism.