Engagement Opportunities, Children of Interfaith Families
Hornstein Alumni Online Panel Discussion: Insights and Programs and Policies Recommendations
“It's been 50 years since [the now defunct] Look magazine had its cover story about the vanishing American Jew,” said Professor Leonard Saxe at a recent online panel discussion on the topic of millennial children of intermarriage organized by David Manchester MA/MBA’15 and Meredith Grabek MA/MBA’15.
After it came out, “the issue of intermarriage became one of the central foci of discussion, debate and concern in the American Jewish community. Much of that debate was informed by a few factoids, like the infamous 52% intermarriage rate reported by the 1990 Jewish population study, and by anecdotes and non-systematic information,” he said.
“Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Trajectories and Touchpoints in Jewish Engagement,” a new report published by Saxe and colleagues at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University sought to understand how being a child of interfaith parents affects their engagement with Jewish life. The study assessed “touchpoints” in their development that affect their Jewish identities. A particular focus was on their experiences after age 18, when most go off to college. The study focused on millennials, those born in 1981 and later.
The study results were described in terms of two statistically created persona: Jordan, a typical millennial child of inmarried parents, and Taylor, a typical millennial child of an intermarried couple. “This isn’t a policy piece,” said Len Saxe. “It includes policy recommendations but the study was designed to understand the impact of being part of different kinds of families and having different types of Jewish opportunities.”
Not unlike Look’s 1964 gloom-and-doom story of the vanishing American Jew, or the more recent October 1, 2015 statement, “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action” that was signed by a diverse group of American Jewish leaders, this report has engendered a lot of conversation among professionals working in the field of Jewish engagement, and in particular, Jewish engagement programs on college campuses.
The online panel discussion on this topic was suggested by Tslil Shtulsaft MA/MBA’13, executive director of Graduate Student Network at Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, and occurred on the last day of November at a time #8212; noon ET — when alumni living on the West Coast or Israel and everywhere in between could listen in and participate in the 50-minute online panel discussion.
On the panel with Len Saxe was Zac Kaye MA’82, interim director at Hillel Cornell, Ed Case MA’99, founder of InterfaithFamily, Jay Lewis MA’95, executive director of Kansas University Hillel, Yael Kletter Keller MA/MPP’12, director of operations at Yeshivat Maharat and Elisheva Massel MA/MBA’14, associate for Federations and Foundations Relations at Birthright Israel Foundation. David Manchester moderated the discussion.
The conversation that ensued stemmed from alumni’s professional experiences working with interfaith families and young people on college campuses towards greater engagement in Jewish life, and fleshed out the data about the ‘Jordans’ and ‘Taylors’ illustrated in the Cohen Center report.
Did the experiences of our Hornstein alumni working with millennial children of intermarried families conform with or contradict the study’s findings? And what policy or strategy recommendations do our alumni make to encourage and promote increased and meaningful participation in Jewish life?
“Intermarriage has its challenges,” agreed Zac Kaye, “and not just from an institutional perspective but from within the peer group.”
The types of programs the institution provides and how staff model themselves play a large role in how students of different backgrounds relate to one another.
Kaye continued: “Only a few weeks ago we had the most extraordinary email from the father of one of our students of an intermarried family. He told us he had in his possession his grandfather's tallit and tefillin, and could he send them to us to present to his daughter at her bat mitzvah because he didn't know if he could get to Cornell for the occasion. We'd organized this through Big Red Bar Mitzvah, our program catering especially for our unaffiliated students who've not had any experience with bar or bat mitzvahs.”
“We agreed of course, and in the end, the parents and the grandparents came to Cornell and we presented her with these precious gifts. For the student, this was a milestone, a most emotional and affirming event, a very public event.”
Jay Lewis agreed that Jewish engagement programs need to provide low-barrier entry points for students so “they don't walk into programs and go ‘Oh yeah. This is why I didn't come to these things when I was 10 or 12 or 14 or whatever… because they make me feel inadequate.’”
“We need programs that invest in staff, lots of staff, who will be there to develop relationships with students and help guide them through the student's exploration of their Jewish identity, or that Jewish part of their identity. The Boston Federation's IACT program is providing a great model for this kind of follow-up and continuing engagement with youth who’ve returned from Birthright,” he said. “I think these kinds of programs are very worthwhile.”
“What concerns me,” said Elisheva Massel, “is how often we sit around our decision-making tables and in groups, and on panels talking about ‘Taylors’ without actually giving Taylors a voice in our discussion.”
“I think there’s a responsibility on all of us to ensure that people in the room understand they may not be a homogenous group, that there may be differences and our comments should be sensitive to there being differences. Doing otherwise can be incredibly isolating,” she said.
Responding to Massel, Yael Keller said, “I feel like I am a ‘Jordan” and I work with students who are Jordans. After graduating from the Hornstein Program I worked for a few years for an organization called Uri L’tzedek. There we tried to create opportunities where students of different backgrounds could co-create and share meaningful experiences. We used our own and students’ passion for social justice as the foundation on which to create those common spaces where everyone could come together regardless of background or Jewish education.”
“The study makes it clear that childhood Jewish experiences are predictors of Jewish activities during college,” said Ed Case.
“I think the process for this starts way before they get to college age. I would say it starts when their prospective parents are dating [especially if they are of different faiths] and are having issues about what do we do about religious traditions. There are programs that help couples resolve those issues. I would say it starts when couples are looking for officiants at their weddings or other life cycle or baby naming ceremonies. And I think it continues when parents of preschool children are wondering ‘well how do I do this Jewish stuff?’ Can we help them along that path so that when their children get to school age there is a greater likelihood that their parents will send them for Jewish education and get them on the path to college and beyond?”
Start earlier, Case encouraged. Start before college.
From the online audience, Adam Kolett MA/MBA’09, director at the North Dade Branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, wanted to know “to what end” do we seek engagement and how do we know when to move "beyond engagement."
Engagement might yield conversion, or marriage within the Jewish community, or higher participation at synagogue or strengthened philanthropic giving to Jewish causes. Or engagement might simply result in a stronger connection to and participation in Jewish life.
“I don't think the organized Jewish community can come in with an agenda for engagement,” said Lewis. We have to trust that there is so much power and beauty in simply connecting and engaging our young people to the Jewish community so that they can make choices about how to be Jewish and live a Jewish life.”