Jewish, Asian, American: Welcoming a New Demographic

July 25, 2016Helen K. Kim and Noah Leavitt
“I have to tell you, my daughter married a man who was Asian, and it was really hard for me. Because of the race thing. I told her that it was going to be tough, and she was so mad at me. I’ve been very worried about this, and I’m hoping things will be OK for her and her kids. It’s been terrible trying to work this out.”

This comment came from an audience member who attended a recent book event at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where we presented some of the findings from our new study, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America's Newest Jews.

As a married couple researching families like ours, we shared our findings about how households that combine Jewish and Asian traditions seem to have vibrant religious, cultural, and intellectual Judaism within them, even when both parents may not be Jewish. We also talked about how many of our couples had spent time locating a congregation where they felt comfortable and accepted as a multiracial family (and often different in appearance from most other worshippers).

We passed along insights from grown children from Jewish-Asian households who say their multiracialism is connected to their strong Jewish identity. This is in part because they experience frequent challenges to their Jewish identity because, as several of them told us, they don’t “look Jewish” – a challenge that leads them to increase rather than shy away from Jewish study and practice.

Our findings are based on extensive interviews with 34 couples and 39 individuals with a specific religious, racial, and ethnic composition, but it would not be appropriate for us to make any sweeping statements about mixed-race Jewish households. We do, however, find it intriguing that these kinds of families seem to produce extensive Jewish practice and identity that translates into a confidence among children who grow up in them.

During the question-and-answer period of the event, audience members asked about the racial dimensions of these households, particularly the way young people’s mixed-race identity relates to their Jewish identity. Much of this interest seemed be connected to deeper anxiety about recognizing this new – and perhaps more complex – racial dimension of their families. Audience members, including the gentlemen who bravely offered the earlier quote, described difficulties understanding and sometimes accepting family members who created mixed-race households. They wanted to know: “Will my kids be OK?” “Will my grandkids feel Jewish?” “Are they going to be OK?”

We told them the families we interviewed actually became more Jewish. In fact, frequently, there was more Judaism within Jewish-Asian households than the Jewish partner/spouse had in their home growing up. Yet it was clear to us that our listeners’ learning was still in the early stages.

American Jewish communities, congregations, and other pillars of institutional life must embrace mixed race families. They’re looking for communities that will welcome them, and they;re wary of communities that either don’t welcome them or that demonstrate that they do not recognize the multiracialism of their households. They will eventually leave if they feel they are being shunned or questioned.

When congregations demonstrate hospitality toward interracial families, they provide opportunities to discuss race in ways that are meaningful, real, and not just in response to crises that have a racial component (recent, and laudable, conversations in the Jewish community to try to understand #blacklivesmatter and police shootings of young men of color come to mind). Rather than only discussing race during moments of pain or confusion, congregations with multiracial families can offer ongoing conversations about inclusion, diversity, and equity. Worship, education, and social events offer opportunities to celebrate and not just grieve or problem-solve.

The demographic realities in America point to increased intermarriage in the coming years, including along racial and ethnic lines. We anticipate this trend also occurring in the Jewish community. It would be surprising (not to mention disappointing and hurtful) if Jewish institutions chose not to embrace families with high levels of Jewish practice and identification – the very families that can energize a congregation.

After this audience member shared his reflection about his personal journey, we thanked him for being so open about his story: learning what it meant to see his family in a new, racialized way, including how he tried to work to better understand and adjust. Other audience members nodded in agreement, as if to say, “This is hard for us, too.”

This kind of humble openness to the changing Jewish community in America can help us be responsive and welcoming to the diverse families that want to connect with Jewish life – and there are many ways to do that. Our book is one platform for opening up these discussions, and using our study of one type of multiracial Jewish household allows the questions about race to be raised in a safe way.

We have everything to gain by becoming more comfortable including race in our conversations.  Doing so will allow the Reform Movement to ride with, rather than behind, the changing national demographic landscape of the Jewish community in the upcoming years.

Helen K. Kim is associate professor of sociology and Noah Leavitt is an associate dean of students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. They co-authored JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America's Newest Jews and are members of Congregation Beth Israel.

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