Interfaith Families

Recent research on the formation of religious identity in interfaith families.

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Intermarriage has long been a focus of those concerned with continuity in the Jewish community. But what about the next generation(s)? The children and grandchildren of the intermarried? Do they practice Judaism? And, if so, what form does their practice take? Interfaith families were the focus of two 2001 surveys on the formation of religious identity; the following article outlines the results. It is reprinted with permission from  The Jewish Week.

Two new surveys are shedding light on the religious lives of interfaith families and their children, but what kind of light depends on which side of the intermarriage debate you're on. 

Dueling Surveys

An American Jewish Committee­-sponsored survey found that the great majority of mixed‑married households that identify as Jewish incorporate substantial Christian celebrations into their family lives, compared to only a tiny proportion of inmarried families.

interfaith familiesA Jewish Outreach Institute informal, self‑selecting poll of college students who are the products of interfaith marriages found that 64 percent of respondents were raised Jewish (23 percent Christian); that 81 percent now identify as Jewish (3 percent Christian); and that 69 percent attend Jewish religious services on campus, while 6 percent attend Christian services. The poll was conducted in partnership with the student group Lights in Action.

The AJCommittee champions the "inreach" approach, which promotes inmarriage, while the JOI supports the all‑inclusive "outreach" philosophy.

The surveys--the first in nearly two decades--expand on the last look at religious identity formation in mixed‑married homes, which found that 25 percent of children from interfaith homes had an exclusively Jewish identity. That study was carried out for the AJCommittee by Egon Mayer, now the director of research for the JOI.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that one‑third of children in mixed‑married households were being brought up as Jews. In the last decade, however, outreach programs run by the Jewish community have been a growth industry.

The new surveys reveal that a majority of children from interfaith homes identify as Jewish by the time they reach college, but that what that Judaism looks like may be different from anything ever seen.

The AJCommittee's Department of Contemporary Jewish Life, headed by Steve Bayme, and the JOI are engaged in a quiet battle over which approach will hold sway at communal organizations and among philanthropists. The leaders of both groups believe that theirs is the only approach that will assure Jewish continuity.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.