Flying Couch, Millennials, the Holocaust, and Intermarriage


I had a very interesting experience recently when Amy Kurzweil, author of Flying Couch, A Graphic Memoir, spoke at my synagogue, Temple Shalom of Newton, where Amy grew up. The book tells the story of three women: Amy; her mother, a psychologist; and her Bubbe, a Holocaust survivor, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto at age 13 disguised as a Christian.

Other than reading Maus many years ago, I hadn’t read any graphic novels or memoirs before. Bubbe had been extensively interviewed for a project that aimed to capture the stories of Holocaust survivors, and, as I understand it, Amy was able to base her re-telling in part on that interview. But there is something about the way her character and her story are drawn and spelled out in the book that is gripping and captivating. I don’t know how many people access written and recorded interviews of Holocaust survivors, but speaking to Amy after her presentation, I said that her book had made her grandmother’s story accessible and unforgettable.

Not surprisingly, I particularly noted references to intermarriage in the book. In telling the story of her bat mitzvah, Amy includes a drawing of her dancing with a boy, and her Bubbe’s off-stage voice saying, “is he Jewish?” Later when Amy depicts herself in college, in a phone call Bubbe asks if she still has the Catholic boyfriend.

It’s completely understandable where Bubbe is coming from in asking those questions. The book relates how Bubbe first met Dave, the young man she would eventually marry. She was hiding on a farm and was asked to give a boy some bread. Later when the war ended she ran into the boy, who brought her to a group of people who were celebrating Shabbat, including Dave. She asks him if he is Jewish, and they were together from that point on.

I also asked Amy whether she still had the Catholic boyfriend; she does have a boyfriend, but he is Jewish. She told me she understood the pressures coming from her grandmother to have a Jewish partner, but she hadn’t felt strongly about it herself – or hadn’t thought it swayed her decisions who to date. But now, she said, she is not surprised she’s with a Jewish partner. She said something to the effect that she wanted to have a partner who could understand, or relate to, or share in, or “get,” her family’s story. She doesn’t think that only a Jewish partner would understand her and her “particular cultural inheritances and habits, religious and psychological, but … it seems more likely.”

Remembering the Holocaust is something that continues to be extremely important to Jews; the Pew Report found that 73% of respondents said that remembering the Holocaust was an essential part of what being Jewish means. I don’t know if there is data available as to how many Millennial Jews have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors, or how many of those young adults are inmarried, or intermarried. I’m sure there is a wide range of attitudes and experiences among both the Holocaust survivor grandparents and the young adult Jews who are in those situations. Bubbe and Amy represent one set; just as Bubbe’s “pressures” make sense, Amy’s not being surprised that she’s with a Jewish partner also makes sense.

But Amy herself says that she doesn’t see a moral value in Jews limiting themselves to Jewish partners; and given the high rates of intermarriage, I expect that many Millennial Jews with Holocaust survivor grandparents have partners from different faith traditions.

In one of my favorite personal narratives written for InterfaithFamily, a young Jewish woman tells about introducing her boyfriend who was not Jewish to her Holocaust survivor grandfather. She wants to tell her grandfather that being with her boyfriend has made her more interested in her Judaism and less able to take if for granted. And her grandfather ends his first meeting with the boyfriend by “giving him the same good-bye kiss he usually reserves for his grandchildren.”

I would encourage everyone to read The Flying Couch. The stories of Amy, her mother and her Bubbe are compelling, and the graphic medium tells them in an especially interesting way. Intermarriage is hardly a focus of the book. But the book and my exchange with Amy Kurzweil raise important questions about how the Holocaust will be remembered in a time of widespread intermarriage.

Language Shapes Reality


My friend Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily / Philadelphia, wrote a wonderful Torah portion column titled “Language Helps to Shape Reality.” She notes that Jews too often use language that is insensitive to people in interfaith relationships, describing intermarriage as a problem, or suggesting people don’t “look Jewish,” or qualifying how they describe their child’s partner (“but they aren’t Jewish”).

Even though the person using the language may not intend for it to be hurtful, the impact is still the same. It’s hurtful to the person about whom it’s spoken, and it’s hurtful to the reality that we continue to shape.

Robyn prays that “may we, God’s partner’s in creation, use our words to shape a reality that is welcoming and inclusive to all those who choose to align themselves with the Jewish community.” I say a hearty “Amen” to that. But since the dust-up about Michael Chabon last month, on the score of shaping an inclusive reality with words, there have been some steps forward, some staying in place, and some steps backward.

In the steps forward column, in “Is non-Jew an insult?JTA editor Andy Silow-Carrol relates how he scoffed at first when a friend suggested he stop using the terms “non-Jew” and “gentile.” Then he appeared on a panel with Lindsey Silken, InterfaithFamily’s editorial director, who explained that leading with the negative can make the people it is referring to feel excluded and on the outside of the Jewish community. Now Andy is “not scoffing anymore… [I]f it avoids insulting someone, why not refer to individuals as the ‘partner from another faith’ or a ‘person from a different background’?”

In the staying in place column – by which I mean the absence of explicit language about interfaith families – Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote an interesting opinion piece about the Reform movement’s efforts to create a network of Reform congregations that power millennial communities. He writes that “many previously unconnected young people” are looking for these communities “because they seek a sense of purpose to anchor their lives” in our very uncertain times. He notes that this is a  “deeply questioning generation, one that doesn’t easily join synagogues or institutions in general, … fluid in their identities.” “Traditional forms of institutions don’t necessarily work for them. We need to help them find the place and the freedom to shape their own Judaism.”

This is a very positive development and I hope it grows. I couldn’t help but note that the first millennial whose personal story is described was raised by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. But it struck me that there was no other explicit reference to any particular effort to attract or provide community for  millennials who are either the children of intermarried parents, or millennials who are in interfaith relationships. I think that was a lost opportunity.

In an interesting juxtaposition, there was also an article about a trend in emerging spiritual communities, who were previously differentiated from synagogues because they didn’t have buildings, to starting to build buildings. Again, I couldn’t help but note that one of the four community founders quoted in the article did mention interfaith couples – she said that there wasn’t a space where Conservative Jews, “Jews by choice, Reform Jews, interfaith couples, where people could come in and be able to really witness and feel a Judaism that was closer to something that they would practice.” But again, there wasn’t a mention in the article of any particular effort or focus on engaging interfaith families in emerging spiritual communities. I think that was a lost opportunity.

In the steps backward column is a statement by Issac Herzog, the new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who reportedly said about a trip to the US: “I encountered something that I called an actual plague [magefa]. I saw my friends’ children married or coupled with non-Jewish partners … And we are talking about millions. And then I said there must be a campaign, a solution.”

Referring to intermarriage as a “plague” is about as diametrically opposed to using welcoming and inclusive language as one could get. In an interview with Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, Herzog said reactions to his statement “‘distorted the meaning and intention of what I said’… The discourse on interfaith relations is different in Israel, he said. He was using magefa as a slang word: ‘I didn’t mean it in any negative terms.’”

After noting that Herzog was educated in the US, Eisner says she is “willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here — as long as takes this early stumble as a warning sign that many American Jews are becoming increasingly unwilling to let anyone, from Israel or their own communal organizations, tell them what to think and how to behave and who to love.” In contrast, Israeli blogger and writer Jonathan Ofir, writing on Mondoweiss, says:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, I know the inside and outside of the Hebrew language and its colloquial usage. You understood it fully in English. It means exactly what you think it means. It is of purely negative connotation. For Herzog to suggest that he “didn’t mean it in any negative terms” is just an insult to the intelligence.

In “Letter to an Israeli-Jewish Friend,” Eisner also wrote a letter to an Israeli friend in which she appears to equate intermarriage and assimilation:

Americans, for the most part, love us. They love us so much that it’s perfectly okay to marry us — which accounts for growing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, and therefore a very mixed blessing.

Overall, I have to say that I think the steps backward and the staying in place outweigh the steps forward on inclusivity – wouldn’t you agree? In the end, the language people use when they talk about intermarriage reflects their underlying attitudes about the issue. Andy Silow-Carroll’s piece starts out by saying that the term “non-Jew” is useful “[u]nless you want to pretend there are no distinctions between people who identify as Jews and people who identify as something else — and making such distinctions strikes me as about 85 percent of the entire Jewish enterprise, starting at Sinai.” The main point of my forthcoming book is that in order to engage interfaith families, we need to treat partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews. If we really adopted that radically inclusive attitudes, language choices would be very clear. But we have a long way to go to get to that point.

Finally, my friend Rabbi Brian Field, in his take on the Chabon debate, suggests that a good place to start in determining those attitudes is the Torah:

How one reads Torah will determine how one approaches any question about Judaism, including intermarriage. If one reads Torah with an emphasis on the parts that promote exclusion of people of different backgrounds, one can see intermarriage as an affront to Torah.  But if one reads Torah with an emphasis on the voices that promote inclusion of people of different backgrounds, one can see intermarriage as an authentic and necessary part of the mitzvah of Jewish marriage.

Positive News from the Millennial Children of Intermarriage Study


Theodore Sasson and his colleagues at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis released this week an important new study, Millennial Children of Intermarriage, funded by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation.

The study reports that millennial children of intermarriage – born between 1981 and 1995 – are less likely than children of inmarriage to have had a range of Jewish experiences in childhood; as a result, they are less likely to engage in Jewish experiences (Birthright, Hillel, etc.) in college; and currently they are less likely to exhibit Jewish behaviors and attitudes as young adults.

The study reports that for the most part, the fact that their parents are intermarried does not have direct impact on their current behaviors and attitudes – but Jewish experiences in childhood do: If their parents expose them to Jewish experiences in childhood, then they are much more comparable to the children of intermarriage. This confirms previous research by Len Saxe that Jewish education, not parental intermarriage, is the key determinant of later Jewish engagement. It’s something we’ve also been saying for years in response to the studies that have found low Jewish engagement among interfaith families; if Jewishly-engaged interfaith families weren’t lumped in with all interfaith families, but evaluated separately, they would look much more like inmarried families, which makes the important policy question how to get interfaith families Jewishly engaged.

The main focus of the study is to show the positive impact of participation in Jewish activities in college on children of intermarriage. Indeed, college Jewish experiences “for the most part were more influential for children of intermarriage, nearly closing the gap on many measures of Jewish engagement.” We wholeheartedly support efforts to increase participation in Birthright, Hillel and other Jewish groups and experiences for children of intermarriage in college. This appears to be the trend. Since 1999, 300,000 North American young adults have gone on Birthright trips, of whom 75,000 are children of intermarriage; the percentage has increased from 20% in the early years to over 30% recently. Children of intermarriage are still underrepresented — half of all Millennial Jews are children of intermarriage, partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish. We’d like to see many more of them participate.

Some of the interesting statistical comparisons from the study are:

  • When asked what their parents told them about their religious identity, 41% said they were told they were Jewish only; 17% were told both; 18% were told it was their choice; 18% were not raised in any religion; 5% were raised in the other religion.
  • 44% of children of intermarriage had formal Jewish education, compared to 86% of children on inmarriage
  • 39% had a bar or bat mitzvah, compared to 84% of children of inmarriage, while 14% had Christian milestones
  • 89% celebrated Hanukkah, compared to 97%; 62% had a seder, compared to 86%; 25% went to Jewish religious services monthly, compared to 45%; 15% to 18% had a Shabbat meal or lit candles, compared to 42% to 46%
  • 86% celebrated Christmas with a meal or decorations, compared to 18%; 54% attended Christian religious services at least a few times a year, compared to 11%; 47% had a special Easter meal or observed Lent, compared to 6%.

The study includes important observations about the Christian experiences of children of intermarriage. The main point made is that Christian experiences in childhood were not indicators of participation in Jewish college activities. With respect to celebrating Christmas or Easter, “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage” – another point we have been making for over the years with our annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys. They recall holiday celebrations as “desacralized” – family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family. “Some indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.”

Another important observation concerns how children of intermarriage react when their Jewish identify and authenticity is questioned. The study reports that 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, enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices. “In interviews, children of intermarriage described being offended by reference to matrilineal heritage as necessary for Jewish identity. In many cases it was peers with two Jewish parents who challenged them. Even some with a Jewish mother reacted to this as an exclusionary boundary that has little to do with their experience of Jewish identity and living.” Interestingly, 40% of children of inmarriage described themselves as multicultural, compared to 52% of children of intermarriage.

Still another important observation is that for children of intermarriage, being very close to Jewish grandparents had a positive impact on many Jewish attitudes and behaviors in young adulthood. However, children of intermarriage by definition can have only one set of Jewish grandparents and as a result were less likely to have had a close relationship to Jewish grandparents; this was especially the case where their father was Jewish.

Finally, the study reports that Jewish experiences in childhood matter a great deal, and college experiences, especially Birthright, have a large impact on thinking it is important to raise children as Jews. In interviews, few children of intermarriage seemed to view being Jewish as a critical characteristic for their future spouse; the see themselves as proof that inmarriage is not a necessary ingredient for having a Jewish home or raising children as Jews. Many expressed a commitment to raising future children Jewish, or in some instance with exposure to Jewish traditions, regardless of whether they married someone who is Jewish. They often discussed the importance of giving children multicultural experiences and to sharing in cultural/religious tradition of their spouse.

The study includes a set of policy implications that for the most part emphasize the importance of increasing the exposure of children of intermarriage to Jewish college experiences. They also note that Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource, and programs should be designed to leverage their influence; that attention should be paid to providing alternative forms of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah; and that initiatives should reflect the sensibilities of contemporary children of intermarriage who view their mixed heritage as an asset and react negatively to ethnocentrism. “Jewish organizations can continue to adopt different approaches on patrilineality, but all Jewish organizations can encourage awareness of the strong feelings of Jewish identity and authenticity felt by many individuals who claim Jewish status by paternity alone.” We agree completely with all of these suggestions.

We believe that one key policy implication of the study fully supports InterfaithFamily’s work in particular with our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model providing services and programs in local communities. The study stresses that “reaching more intermarried families with formal and informal educational opportunities for their children should be a priority. Such experiences launch children on a pathway to Jewish involvement in college and beyond.” Our services and programs are designed to foster a process starting with helping couples find Jewish clergy officiants for their life cycle events, offering workshops for new couples and new parents on how to make decisions about religious traditions and then offering educational programs for parents on raising young children with Judaism in interfaith families, among other things. While this is happening, the Directors of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects, who are rabbis, are building relationships with couples and recommending that they get involved with synagogues and other Jewish groups. If this process works — and our efforts at program evaluation are starting to show that it does — by the time the children of interfaith families are ready for formal and informal education, their parents will be much more likely to choose Jewish education for them.

For reasons not clear to us, the study questions whether it is possible to dramatically alter the status quo regarding the childhood religious socialization of children of intermarriage. At InterfaithFamily, we are committed to working toward that end.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Birthright Israel and Intermarriage


[This piece, by Edmund Case and Jodi Bromberg, was published in eJewishPhilathropy on September 11, 2014.]

Taglit-Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed and implemented to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews. A just-released study confirms many positive impacts of Birthright Israel on marriage and family choices.

At InterfaithFamily we greatly appreciate that participation in Birthright Israel is open to young adult Jews whose parents are intermarried; the new study says that 17% of participants from 2001 to 2006 have one Jewish parent and that recent trip cohorts include a larger proportion of those individuals. We have published several articles by trip participants about their very positive trip experiences and hope they have had some effect in alleviating any concerns children of intermarried parents might have about whether they will be truly welcomed. Our staff have participated in training Birthright Israel tour operators to be sensitive to participants whose parents are intermarried and have advised Birthright Israel staff on sensitive questions to determine trip eligibility. We seek to promote Birthright Israel Next activities where we have local staff in our InterfaithFamily/Your Communities – currently Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, and coming in the fall of 2014 in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

We support Birthright Israel because it strengthens Jewish engagement among young Jews and in particular young Jews whose parents are intermarried. A 2009 evaluation study found that 52% of trip participants who were intermarried viewed raising children as Jews as very important, almost twice as many as 27% of non-participants. The new study again reports higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants having that view. The new study reports that the group of intermarried trip participants who have children at this time is too small to assess the impact of Birthright Israel on actual child raising; the authors do say it is possible that an impact will surface in the future, and that is what we fully expect to see. Higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants also have a special meal on Shabbat, attend religious services, and are otherwise engaged Jewishly.

The new study focuses on marriage choices and highlights that trip participants are more likely (72%) to marry other Jews than non-participants (55%). It finds that the impact of participation on marriage choices of participants whose parents are intermarried is “particularly striking;” for them, the likelihood of in-marriage is 55%, compared to 22% of non-participants whose parents are intermarried.

At InterfaithFamily we think it is wonderful when a young adult Jew falls in love and partners with or marries another Jew. That more participants on Birthright Israel trips marry Jews, and more participants whose parents are intermarried marry Jews, are very positive results. We also think Jewish communities need to genuinely welcome all newly-formed families, whether both partners are Jewish or not. Offering a sincere “mazel tov” is the first of many needed steps that can contribute to interfaith couples deciding to engage in Jewish life and community.

We don’t doubt the study’s conclusion that Birthright Israel has “the potential to alter broad demographic patterns of the American Jewish community” and change trends of in-marriage, intermarriage and raising Jewish children. We also don’t doubt that significant numbers and percentages of young adult Jews – whether they have the great good fortune to participate on a Birthright Israel trip or not – will continue to intermarry. In the new study, of all trip participants who are married, 28% are intermarried. Of participants who are married whose parents are intermarried, 45% are intermarried. The study’s authors note that some evidence suggests that the magnitude of the marriage choice effects may moderate over time – the likelihood of in-marriage decreases for participants as their age at marriage increases, and participants tend to marry later.

Further, large numbers of young adult Jews have not participated and sadly will not participate on a Birthright Israel trip. A large number of young adult Jews have already aged out of eligibility. It would be truly wonderful if resources could be raised and more young Jews attracted to participate on Birthright Israel trips, so that the annual number of participants would represent more than the current one-third of the eligible age cohort. Even if half or two thirds of those eligible could participate, a significant percentage still would not. At the study’s current rates, close to half of non-participants will intermarry.

The study’s authors note that discussion of the Pew Report “has, for the most part, ignored the contribution of improved and expanded Jewish education programs … to both the current contours of American Jewry and to its future trajectory.” The authors are referring in particular to Israel education programs, but they clearly believe that Jewish education programs work. At InterfaithFamily we believe it is imperative to offer Jewish education programs designed for and marketed explicitly to interfaith families – whether they participated in a Birthright Israel trip or not – like those offered as part of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. The study includes numerous quotes from its survey respondents about their memorable Jewish experiences including Shabbat and holidays; our Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family class elicits multiple examples of the same kinds of comments. The study also notes that intermarried survey participants who had a sole Jewish officiant at their wedding were far more likely to be raising their children Jewish than those who had another type of officiation at their weddings; that’s why our personalized officiation referral service is so important.

Again, Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews, and we wish it great continued success, especially in attracting and strengthening Jewish engagement among young Jews with intermarried parents. Services and programs designed explicitly for interfaith families are badly needed too, and can work together with and in mutual support of Israel engagement programs, all with a goal of greater engagement in Jewish life and community.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.