Most millennials with interfaith parents identify as Jews, Brandeis study finds

By Alexandra Lapkin
Advocate staff

Interfaith family Mark Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton with their daughter Charlotte. Interfaith family Mark Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton with their daughter Charlotte. Children of intermarriage in the millennial generation are far more likely to identify as Jewish compared to the children of intermarriages in previous generations, according to a report released by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The study also found that children of intermarriage are still less likely than children of two Jewish parents to identify as Jewish by religion, observe Jewish practices, or feel connected to Israel.

Millennials, young people born between the early 1980s through the early 2000s, belong to the first generation of Jews born after the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in America crossed the 50 percent threshold. As a result, about half of millennial American Jews are the children of intermarriage, a number which is likely go up in the following generation.

For children of both intermarriage and in-marriage, their mother had the most influence on their religious identity. Those with a Jewish mother had more Jewish experiences during childhood—more formal Jewish education, informal Jewish social opportunities, and Jewish ritual practices.

Citing research conducted by Karen McGinity, also at Brandeis, on the experience of intermarried Jewish fathers suggests that they, as compared with intermarried Jewish mothers, experience a greater sense of offense that their families are not fully accepted by the larger Jewish community, and this sentiment may result in their children being more estranged from communal institutions.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center, Theodore Sasson, Fern Chertok, and three other researchers worked on this study. They administered the survey in early 2015 to a large sample drawn from applicants to Birthright Israel during the period 2009-14. They then conducted interviews with 27 children of intermarriage, who are between the ages of 22-33.

The following are the other key findings of the study:

When it comes to Christmas, 86 percent of children of intermarriage said they have a meal and put up decorations for the Christian holiday. Interestingly enough, 18 percent of children of in-marriage participate in those activities as well.

Having close ties to Jewish grandparents had a direct effect on a variety of outcomes, including identifying as Jewish by religion, celebrating Jewish holidays, feeling a connection to Israel and the Jewish people, and wanting to marry someone Jewish. Children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish reject the idea that their Jewish identity is diluted or inferior and view their multicultural background as enriching and enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices.

Children of intermarriage were less likely than children of in-marriage during their college years to participate in a Jewish group (e.g., Hillel or Chabad), take a Jewish or Israel-related course, or go on Birthright.

The children of intermarriage who did participate in Jewish activities during college were much more likely in their post-college lives to observe Jewish holidays and practices, feel connected to Israel and the Jewish people, have Jewish friends and partners, and believe that it is important to raise children Jewish.

Forty percent of children of intermarriage celebrated their bar or bat mitzvah, while 84 percent of children of in-married parents did so.

Forty-one percent of children of intermarriage were told by their parents that their identity was Jewish only; 18 percent were raised with no religion; 18 percent were told religion was their choice; 17 percent were raised with both Judaism and the non-Jewish parent’s religion; 5 percent were raised with the non- Jewish parent’s religion; and 2 percent said their parents disagreed.

Eighty-two percent of children of intermarriage received no Christian education; nine percent went to Sunday school; and eight percent went to parochial school.

By contrast, 89 percent of children of intermarriage celebrate Chanukah; 62 percent attend a Passover seder; 25 percent attend Jewish religious services once a month; and 18 percent light Shabbat candles.


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