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New Surveys Put Intermarriage on Agenda of Many Jewish Groups

A new American Jewish Committee study is part of a flurry of research coming out on intermarried Jews. The National Jewish Population Survey, a comprehensive survey of more than 3,000 Jews slated for release this fall, has “significantly” increased questioning about intermarriage since the 1990 version of the study.

In addition to asking how important it is to Jews to marry within the faith, the new version of the population survey also asks about specific Jewish educational experiences of Jews who intermarry and asks for details about how children of intermarriages are raised.

The Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies recently began work on a five-year longitudinal study of interfaith couples and their children in Boston, St. Louis, North Carolina and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We’re looking to assess how these families relate to the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Zachary Heller, the institute’s associate director.

“Are they turned on, are they turned off and by what?” he continued. “What in their experience as they go on either draws them nearer to Judaism and the Jewish community and what is it that may put them off?”

In the coming months, the Jewish Outreach Institute will be issuing a series of studies measuring the impact of various efforts — including many that it has funded — to welcome intermarried families into the Jewish community.

The first such study, on an outreach program in San Francisco, found the program had doubled synagogue affiliation rates among participants.

Together with Lights in Action — a Jewish student organization — the Jewish Outreach Institute recently surveyed college students whose parents are intermarried.

While participation was voluntary — and therefore some participants may have been more likely to respond positively to a Jewish survey — the survey found that all but 10 of the 205 respondents identified unambiguously as Jews.

About half the students said they were reared in both their Jewish and non-Jewish heritages, and more than 75 percent said personal family relationships with parents, grandparents and siblings were not adversely affected by growing up in an interfaith family. Between a quarter to a third of the students said their family relationships were actually enriched by growing up interfaith.

The Jewish Outreach Institute/Lights in Action survey also found that more than half the students were currently participating in synagogue life and planned to take, or had taken, Jewish studies classes.

Kent Kleiman, a recent college graduate and program director of Lights in Action, which wants to increase outreach to students from interfaith families, called the survey “very encouraging.”

The biggest problem respondents complained of, he said, was feeling excluded from the Jewish community when encountering “a rabbi critical of intermarriage or being labeled half-Jew,” for example.

Himself the product of an intermarriage, Kleiman said he was primarily raised Jewish, but explored various religions when he was in high school.

“I read a lot — from Buddhism to Islam to Protestantism — and when I dated people with different backgrounds I’d experience the personal side of it,” he said. “In the end, nothing felt right and I wanted to explore my Jewish background by the time I got to college.”

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