NEW YORK – Are they more likely to eat sufganiyot jelly doughnuts on Hanukkah or to hang stockings by the chimney with care on Christmas?
With 48 percent of America’s Jewish young adults the product of intermarriage, this question takes on a deeper resonance when viewed through the lens of a new Brandeis University study, “Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement.”
According to the 58-page study, most children of intermarriage don’t observe Jewish practices, don’t feel connected to Israel, or feel particularly religious.
“My parents have a living room and a family room, and one was like the Hanukkah room, like crazy Hanukkah decorations, and the other one was a Christmas room. And even though my mom was emphatic that it was for my dad, it was for all of us. We loved it,” said an unnamed 31-year-old respondent to the study, published by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
With the right tools, it’s possible to influence the way children of intermarriage feel about Judaism, said Professor Theodore Sasson, Senior Research Scientist at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
“Intermarriage is indeed reshaping American Jewry and while Jewish experiences in childhood matter, college Jewish experiences are critical,” Sasson said to about 50 people at the UJA-Federation of New York recently. “They help to level the playing field and narrow the gap between children of interfaith couples and children of inmarried couples [a marriage where both parents are Jewish].”
It’s the first comprehensive study to examine the religious upbringing, college experiences, and current attitudes toward Judaism of millennial children of intermarriage. The authors surveyed nearly 2,700 respondents ages 19 – 32, culled from the database of Birthright Israel applicants.
Most millennials identify as Jewish only from a cultural standpoint, Sasson said, and this is mainly because they were less likely to have attended a Jewish day school, observed Jewish holidays, or participated in informal Jewish social and education activities during their childhood or teen years.
For example, of those surveyed, 17% of children of intermarried households attended Jewish overnight camp, and 18% attended Jewish day camp, compared with 46% and 43%, respectively, of children whose parents are both Jewish.
‘The research underscores the power of inmarriage in strengthening Jewish identity. It also shows the power of Jewish education’
“Why does this matter? It matters because Jews who say they have no religion are less likely to donate to Jewish causes, feel a connection to Israel, or have a network of Jewish friends,” Sasson said.
While none of the findings surprised the researchers, it was somewhat of a revelation to learn the effect college years had on the respondents.
There was a pronounced shift in attitudes for those who joined in on Jewish activities during college, including Hillel or Chabad, or went on a Birthright Israel trip. These respondents felt more closely connected to Israel and the Jewish people, have Jewish friends and partners, and believe that it is important to raise children Jewish.
“The research underscores the power of inmarriage in strengthening Jewish identity. It also shows the power of Jewish education: the classes, the youth groups, camp. The community needs to understand that if you invest in education, in various ways, it works,” said Dr. Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion.
Cohen said the report is overdue.
‘It’s an important policy conversation that has to happen in a respectful and meaningful way’
Researchers have long tiptoed around the issue, Cohen said, “because there has been a longstanding fear of offending intermarried couples. But it’s an important policy conversation that has to happen in a respectful and meaningful way.”
Regarding holidays, the study revealed that of all the Jewish holidays Hanukkah was the most universally celebrated among children of both intermarriage and inmarriage. Sitting down to a Passover Seder was also quite common.
Interviewees said holiday celebrations, whether Jewish or Christian, were typically marked without religious content. The occasions focused on gathering family rather than on religious meaning or significance.
Another notable finding was the role Jewish mothers played in intermarried homes. According to the study, 53% of respondents had a Jewish mother. Those with a Jewish mother had more Jewish experiences during childhood. For example, 51% of those with a Jewish mother had some formal Jewish education compared to 37% of those with non-Jewish mothers.
Additionally Jewish grandparents played an important role in how children of intermarried couples viewed Judaism.
“Call it the grandparent bump,” Sasson said. “Being close to Jewish grandparents is associated with many Jewish attitudes and behaviors later in life.”