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Jewish Identity in America: Parents Matter - 2003-01-27

Religious identity is a pretty flexible thing here in America. You don't actually have to have one, and if you do have one, there's nothing that says it has to be the same as your parents. That being said, mothers and fathers do play an important role when it comes to the formation of one's religious identity, and a recently released survey of more than 230,000 first-year college students reveals that when it comes to Jewish religious identity, both parents matter quite a bit.

More than half of all Jews married in this country since 1990 have wed people who aren't Jewish. Nearly 480,000 American children under the age of ten have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. And, if a survey compiled by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles is any indication, it's almost certain that most of these children will not identify themselves as "Jewish" when they get older.

That survey asked college freshmen, who are usually around age 18, about their own and their parents' religious identities. Ninety-three percent of those with two Jewish parents said they thought of themselves as Jewish. But when the father wasn't Jewish, the number dropped to 38 percent, and when the mother wasn't Jewish, just 15 percent of the students said they were Jewish, too.

"I think what was surprising was just how low the Jewish identification was in these mixed marriage families," says Linda Sax, a professor of education at UCLA. She directed the survey, which was conducted over the course of more than a decade and wasn't actually about religious identity specifically. Students were asked a whole host of questions, ranging from "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" to "Did your parents go to college?"

But Professor Sax says the answers to questions about religion were particularly striking, and deserve a more detailed study. She says it's obvious that interfaith marriage works against the development of Jewish identity among children, but says it's not clear at this point why that's the case. "This new study is necessary to get more in-depth about their feelings about their religion. That's something that the study that I completed was not able to do. We didn't have information on how they feel about their religion, whether they have any concern about their issues of identification, how comfortable they feel, their lifelong goals. I think the new study's going to cover some of that," she says.

For instance, Professor Sax says the current survey tells us nothing about the extent to which the students in mixed-marriage families were exposed to Judaism while they were growing up. Forty percent of those who said they didn't think of themselves as Jewish also said they didn't identify with any other religion. Linda Sax says it's unclear if this is because the students were rejecting a tradition they were brought up in, or if it's simply because their parents didn't make religion, Jewish or otherwise, a priority.

Experts agree that most people who aren't exposed to a religious tradition as children will not identify with any particular faith group as adults. Jay Rubin is executive director of Hillel, a national organization that works with Jewish college students. He says as more and more American Jews have married outside their faith and had children, Hillel's objectives have had to change. "Our role on a college campus, which at one time, many years ago, was designed simply to reinforce what was transmitted in the family, and to be a bridge between youth and adulthood in terms of reinforcing Jewish identity, increasingly, on many university campuses, also now is an opportunity to expose young people to their Jewish heritage for the first time," he says.

Mr. Rubin says in some respects, out-marriage among American Jews has been a good thing, since it has helped Jews assimilate into mainstream American culture. But he stresses that this assimilation hasn't made America's predominantly Christian culture "more Jewish," so much as it's made American Jews "less Jewish" as evidenced by the UCLA survey.

And Mr. Rubin says this is a source of great concern for many Jewish leaders like himself. "We sense the fragile nature of the Jewish people. The fact that Jews over centuries have faced persecution and genocide. And so we're very cognizant of the value of every individual," he says. "You know, those of use who are Jewish certainly feel a sense of responsibility to share the joy of Judaism and the message of Judaism with other Jews. We're certainly not interested in proselytizing and converting people of other religious faiths. But if there are people that have Jewish background and have never really been exposed to Jewish life, it's like discovering a long-lost relative."

Mr. Rubin says Judaism is more than a religion, it's an experience. And with that in mind, Hillel has commissioned a study of Jewish attitudes towards Judaism. Researchers will concentrate primarily on young adults - those with two Jewish parents and those with just one, those who see themselves as Jewish and those who do not. Jay Rubin says Hillel will then use this study to formulate a strategy for making Judaism more relevant to the next generation of American Jews.