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Susan Katz Miller

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"Partially Jewish" and Proud: Interfaith Identity

Posted: 06/24/2012 6:28 pm

In a new study of the Jewish population of New York, researchers recently acknowledged the existence of the growing cohort of people with complex identities drawing on more than one religion. The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 found that

Rising numbers of people report unconventional identity configurations. They may consider themselves "partially Jewish," or may identify as Jews even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002). Of such people with unconventional configurations, 70 percent have a non-Jewish parent (or two).

As someone who was born into an interfaith family, and who embraces my interfaith identity, it is gratifying to finally receive recognition from demographers. To learn more about how those of us with interfaith identities think and behave, I hope these researchers will visit my blog On Being Both. Interfaith Parent, Interfaith Child: Notes from a Hybrid Universe.

The study notes,

... we also see more hybridity -- that is, the confluence of multiple traditions not only in households but even within individuals. Today, more and more individuals feel comfortable adopting elements from multiple religious traditions, and even identifying with several traditions at once. As one of our respondents declared, "I am two religions." In another case, our interviewer noted that the respondent derives from mixed upbringing and "identifies with both."

Not to seem ungrateful, but I do want to point out that I am not partial to the term "partial." I do not consider myself a "partial" anything. I have never heard anyone describe themselves as "partially Jewish." (The term has unfortunate associations, from partial mastectomy to partial abortion). I am a self-defined full Jew, who also insists on my right to celebrate my birth into an interfaith family. I revel in my hybridity, in my fluid and yet deeply satisfying spiritual practice, and in my participation in an intentional and independent interfaith families community. I raised my children within this community, where they learned about both of their ancestral religions and took pride in their interfaith background. Next year, my book on how and why parents are choosing to educate interfaith children in more than one religion, and how those children feel about it when they grow up, will be published by Beacon Press.

The authors of this new study asked themselves, "Should 'Jewish and something else' be seen as a somewhat qualified form of Jewish upbringing, or a functional equivalent of non-Jewish socialization, or an intermediate category?" They go on to infer that "the 'Jewish and something else' response signifies very weak levels of Jewish socialization."

It is true that in some cases, doing "both" actually amounts to doing very little, because families are unable to find clergy and religious institutions to support them in their desire to allow their children full access to knowledge of and familiarity with both religions.

But in a growing number of intentional interfaith communities, parents are raising children who are deeply engaged with religion. Let me describe our family's Jewish engagement, which strikes me as anything but "weak." We always host a Passover Seder, light Hanukkah candles, go to High Holy Day services. We also light Shabbat candles, and celebrate other holidays like Purim and Sukkot. My children learned Hebrew, recited the blessings over the Torah when they turned 13, and know and use essential Jewish prayers. They have a warm and personal relationship with more than one rabbi. They are quick to identify themselves as Jewish when they encounter anti-Semitism. Oh, and we have shlepped our children to Jewish Museums on more than one continent (visiting Jewish museums is one of the forms of Jewish engagement measured in the New York study).

But we also embrace our entire family tree. We celebrate Christian holidays, go to church with extended family. And we put our children through nine years of study about both Judaism and Christianity -- about the common ground and the essential differences and the points of historical connection.

It is true that my family feels alienated from the state of Israel, since none of us would be legally accepted as Jews there, and there is a troubling correlation between religious identity and civil rights in Israel. And Birthright will not take my children on a free trip to Israel unless they sign away their right to interfaith identity.

And it is true that our family would score low on connections to institutional Judaism. My children aren't accepted as Jews by many of those institutions, and that, frankly, decreases our desire to belong to them. Our insistence that our children be educated about Christianity, our openness to the possibility that our children will get spiritual sustenance from Christian traditions, and that they have the right to choose a Christian (or for that matter Buddhist or Hindu) identity someday, is wholly unacceptable to most Jewish institutions. Interfaith families that seek to educate their children in more than one religion are expressly barred, by policy, from most synagogue classrooms.

Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic that this new acknowledgement of our existence represents progress towards understanding that many interfaith children both want to stay connected to Judaism and also want access to learning about both of their ancestral religions. I am hopeful that researchers will now seek to understand all that is positive about interfaith education for interfaith families. We engage the whole child, the whole family, and embrace our bothness. We don't mind being called unconventional. We embrace that label, too.

 

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