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In 1978, a time when communal leaders believed that intermarriage threatened the future of American Jewry, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, boldly urged the Reform movement to embrace intermarried families and “draw [them] even closer to our hearts.”
Reform congregations heeded Schindler’s call, and their outreach to intermarried families reshaped American Judaism. In its 2013 Portrait of American Jewry, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60% of millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jews.
To learn more about millennials raised by intermarried parents – who represent half of their generation of Jews – we recently completed a study of 2700 young adults. Half of them were children of intermarriage who had applied to Birthright Israel, a 10-day educational experience in Israel.
We found that children of intermarriage raised in Reform Judaism take part in Jewish education at rates identical to those of children of in-marriage. However, they are less likely than other Reform-raised children to participate in intensive Jewish education such as day school or overnight summer camp. Compared to children of intermarriage who were not raised in the Reform Jewish community, those raised Reform are more than twice as likely as to receive formal Jewish education.
Perhaps our most important finding is that being raised Reform, particularly for children of intermarriage, is only part of the story of their Jewish identity development. The key is what happens when they leave home for college.
Transition to college represents their entrance into “emerging adulthood,” characterized by exploration of personal identity, values, and lifestyles. Emerging adulthood has become an essential period for exploring and shaping one’s religious-ethnic identity.
Today’s college campuses offer a panoply of opportunities for engaging in Jewish life that were not available a generation ago. Birthright Israel, which combines an emotionally powerful and intellectually rich opportunity to engage with other Jews, is paradigmatic of the possibilities available to current students.
But there other opportunities, as well. Hillel and Chabad have renewed and expanded efforts to engage Jewish students and are complemented by Jewish and Israel studies courses, which have proliferated over the last decade.
These campus experiences are important for all young Jews, but particularly so for those from intermarried families. The opportunity to engage – heart, mind, and body – with Jewish life and to experience being part of a Jewish group brings home what it means to be Jewish and be part of a community. It makes Jewish young adult Jews likely to see a connection with other Jews and to claim Judaism as their religious identity. It levels the playing field and erases differences in young adult engagement between those from intermarried and endogamous families.
Reform Judaism opened the gates to Jewish engagement for intermarried families, but the task is far from complete. For too many, Jewish education ends in early adolescence. Continuity, and engagement during college seems particularly important for these emerging adults. It is even more important for children of intermarriage who haven’t had opportunities to be part of Reform congregations and education.
The most important implication of our study is that college should become a focus of engagement efforts. That will, among other strategies, require placing more Reform Jewish clergy and educators on campuses. Congregations also have a role to play in ensuring that their b’nai mitzvah students find their way into campus Jewish life and participate in Birthright Israel trips.
Rabbi Schindler urged outreach and education so that the next generation would see themselves as “… part of our community and share the destiny of our people.” For emerging adults, whatever their background, providing them with the opportunities to learn about and engage with Jewish life during the college year appears essential to their developing a meaningful adult Jewish identity.
Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, where he directs the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Fern Chertok is a research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.