Menu JTA Search

Study: Most Children of Intermarriage Enter College with No Jewish Connection

The majority of Jewish college freshmen whose parents are intermarried do not consider themselves Jews.

This is one of the more dramatic findings of a new study that examines religious, political and social trends of teens transitioning from high school to college.

Among the other finding of the study, “America’s Jewish Freshmen,” believed to be the largest survey ever undertaken of young Jews in America entering college:

The children of divorced intermarried couples whose mother is Jewish largely consider themselves to be Jews.

Jewish college freshmen attend fewer religious services and feel less spiritual than their non- Jewish peers.

Jewish students are more politically liberal and sexually permissive than their non-Jewish peers.

The study, conducted by Professor Linda Sax at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, was sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and funded with a $60,000 grant from North Carolina philanthropists Leonard and Tobee Kaplan.

The UCLA-Hillel project tracks trends among 235,000 Jewish freshmen from more than 5 million of their non-Jewish classmates who were surveyed at 1,200 colleges and universities nationally since 1971.

In 1999, the study split respondents into three main groups, including non-Jews, Jews and those with no religious preference but at least one Jewish parent.

Of that latter group, 79 percent were the children of intermarriage.

Hillel officials said the study’s focus gave them unprecedented insight into Jewish attitudes and behavior and validated the organization’s drive to be pluralistic and appeal to a wide range of Jews.

It comes as the Jewish community continues to grapple with how best to engage young Jews during their impressionable college years.

Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s director of communications, said the study showed that Hillel must appeal to Jews who lack a classic Jewish upbringing.

“The largest number of students we serve have not had a Jewish background in the way that was traditionally defined — through Jewish history, culture and commitment to Jewish observance,” he said.

Among the study’s most dramatic findings were those involving religious identity and activity.

Of students with two Jewish parents, 93 percent identified themselves as Jews, though that figure dropped to 91 percent if their parents divorced.

But only 38 percent of the teens identified as Jews if just their mother was Jewish, and only 15 percent if their father was Jewish.

Jewish identification strengthened among young people, however, if their mother was Jewish but divorced from a non-Jewish father. Of students from intermarriages whose mother was Jewish, 37 percent called themselves Jews, while 41 percent of those with Jewish mothers who had divorced from non-Jews considered themselves Jews.

“If you want to know in what intermarried families students will identify as Jewish, it’s most likely to be when the mother is Jewish and the parents are divorced,” said Sax, the study’s author.

The biggest gap between those labeling themselves as Jews and those who did not list any religious preference in the study’s survey centered on the extent and nature of their religious lives.

Among the key findings:

Seventy percent of freshmen who identify as Jewish said they attended religious services occasionally, 13 percent said they frequently attended religious services, and 17 percent said they never went.

Of those who claim no religious preference but have at least one Jewish parent, 62 percent said they never attended religious services; 37 percent said they did occasionally and 1.5 percent said they did so frequently.

Non-Jews said they were far more religiously active.

In the non-Jewish group, 47 percent frequently attended religious services; 37 percent occasionally did and only 16 percent never did.

Among students who identified as Jews, 57.5 percent said they never prayed or meditated and 27 percent said they spent less than one hour per week praying or meditating. And 29 percent said they intended to integrate “spirituality” into their lives.

Of those who did not align themselves with any religion, but who had at least one Jewish parent, 79 percent said they never prayed or meditated, and 13 percent said they spent less than one hour per week doing so. And 18 percent said they would ultimately integrate spirituality into their lives.

Religious behavior seemed to be most similar across the various groups when it came to discussion about the topic. Of students who identify as Jewish, 59 percent said they occasionally discussed religion, while 28 percent did so frequently. Among those with at least one Jewish parent but no religious affiliation, 55 percent discussed religion occasionally, and 26 percent frequently.

For the Hillel, the study reaffirms its stated goal of “maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews.”

Once run by B’nai B’rith as a collection of synagogue-like groups aimed at strongly identified Jews, by the 1980s the organization suffered deep budget cuts and dwindling enrollment. But in 1988 Hillel hired Richard Joel as chief executive officer, and he launched a campaign to rebuild Hillel.

The organization broke away from B’nai B’rith and secured funding from federations and mega- philanthropists.

Today Hillel’s 110 campus “foundations” are designed to be “big tents” offering activities with many Jewish themes meant to attract a plurality of Jews, said Jay Rubin, Hillel’s executive vice president.

Yet the study’s findings showing a distinct lack of Jewish experience among young Jews means Hillel may find it challenging to drag them into the tent.

Hillel has already redesigned itself to meet that challenge, Jay Rubin said.

For instance, if Jewish students are interested in talking about religion, he said, Hillel can engage them in such discussions through reading contemporary writing such as the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and finding its spiritual influences in the Talmud.

Among those who have scrutinized the study is Larry Sternberg, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Sternberg called the study’s finding about a big gap in religious identification between teens with two Jewish parents and a single Jewish parent “rather dramatic.”

However, Sternberg cautioned that the portion of the survey asking about “spirituality” is “difficult” to interpret, because “Jews don’t like that question. It may mean different things to different people.”

Sternberg felt the study also lacked certain data, thereby making it difficult to draw other conclusions.

For example, the study did not explain if there was any relationship between having a Jewish parent and being raised Jewish. The study asked students about their current religious preference, but not about what their religion was at birth.

That means students whose parents were Jews by birth or by conversion after intermarriage were treated the same, statistically speaking.

While there are no plans to conduct subsequent targeted Jewish studies at this point, Sax said the raw data she could extract from future UCLA studies about college students overall could prove revealing about Jewish behavior after college.

“The real question we can learn from a follow-up study is what happens to these students when they get to marrying age,” Sax said.

In addition to religious identity and involvement, the study queried incoming freshmen about family background, high school achievement and activities, personal values and self-image, education, career plans and social and political attitudes.

On the political and social attitudes, the study found:

Jewish students remain more liberal overall than their non-Jewish counterparts. Slightly more than half of Jewish students called themselves “far-left” or “liberal,” compared with 25 percent of non-Jews.

Forty percent of Jews called themselves “middle of the road,” while 9.5 percent considered themselves “conservative” or “far-right.”

Forty-four percent of Jewish students said it was “essential” or “very important” to keep up with political affairs, compared with 28 percent of non-Jewish students.

Jewish and non-Jewish students today feel that being wealthy is more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Seventy-three percent of Jewish students said being well-off financially was their top goal.

Jewish students were more supportive of individual rights than non-Jewish students.

Eighty-nine percent of Jews felt abortion should be legal, compared with 52 percent of non-Jews; 82 percent of Jews supported same-sex marriages, compared with 53 percent of non-Jews; 49 percent of Jews backed marijuana legalization, compared with 32 percent of non-Jews.

Sixty percent of Jews approved of couples having premarital sex if “they really like each other” even if they have dated a short time, compared with 38 percent of non-Jews who agreed with that notion.

NEXT STORY