16 April 2007

My 15 minutes of fame last Shabbat/final days of Pesach: "Hey, I saw you in the Washington Jewish Week!" The print version even had my smiling face on the final jump page (a photo Mike had taken!), but the online article about adult children of intermarriage can be found there, without the photos. Also, alas, without the list of resources that were in the print edition that I thought were interesting & valuable. Ah well!

For those of you who don't want to hunt it up, here it is! (With some MiriyaB editorial comments...)

4/4/2007 8:59:00 PM
Making 'halves' whole
Adult children of intermarrieds carve out their own niche

by Sue Fishkoff and Richard Greenberg

Aaron Hirsch considers himself "half-Jewish." He grew up in a secular household in Chevy Chase, the son of a Catholic mother and a German Jewish father. Hirsch, 39, is engaged to marry a woman he describes as "part Muslim" in a nonreligious ceremony.

Rebecca Boggs' mother is Jewish. Her father was raised as a Protestant by his Cuban Catholic mother and his Protestant Scotch Irish father. [Neatly eliding the question of what religious tag to put on my father today: not Jewish, but not a practicing Christian; someone who believes there is one God...doubtless it's easier to stick to relating family religious streams than to affix theological labels [deist? universalist?]) Boggs, 33, grew up in Arlington, was raised as a Jew [and bat mitzvahed at Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation, now called Etz Chayim], married a convert to Judaism, and they now live as committed Conservative Jews in Washington, D.C., members of Adas Israel Congregation. [I was always a Conservative Jew, and intellectually "committed" to it--much more observant & involved now, but my basic community and ideology have changed very little -- which is why I don't see myself as any kind of ba'alat tshuvah abandoning my old bad ways...]

Robin Margolis had a devout Christian upbringing. Her father was an Episcopalian naval officer from an aristocratic Midwestern banking family. Her mother? She, too, was proudly Christian and had the lineage to prove it. Or so it seemed.

Margolis was in her 30s when she found out her late mother was Jewish. It was 1984 and she was cleaning out her mother's closet when she found a bag of old documents. The woman she knew as Phyllis Miles was born Phyllis Margolis, and had spent decades running away from her religious and ethnic background.

"It was pretty staggering," says Margolis, now 56, who wholeheartedly embraced her Jewishness once she made that startling discovery about her mother. In fact, the Takoma Park resident is now studying for admission to a rabbinic program.

The tales told by Margolis, Hirsch and Boggs exemplify the complexity and diversity of a growing, but sometimes overlooked, subgroup the adult children of intermarried parents whom Margolis calls a collective "mystery wrapped in an enigma." [Nice nod to Churchill on Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma"--a quote I'd known, but not its conclusion: "--but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." So I would ask: what is the key for us as adult children of intermarriage? Jewish interest? A sense that we are free and welcome to engage in Jewish communal life without disowning other parts of our families or ourselves?]

In many instances, their lives are emotionally complex, the result of growing up with parents from vastly different backgrounds. Even those raised unequivocally as Jews have an entire side of their family that is not Jewish. Although communal outreach to intermarried couples is burgeoning, some of their adult offspring have struggled to find their place in the Jewish community.

Hence, in September 2005, Margolis founded The Half-Jewish Network (www.half-jewish.net), an online support group for anyone with a Jewish parent, whether they identify as Jewish, Christian or something else. "I don't push anything," she says. "All I can do is offer them warmth and welcome."

According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 360,000 Americans aged 18 to 29 have intermarried parents. Drawing from that rapidly expanding pool, Margolis' organization now has about 150 members, and that number is growing at a rate of about three per week. She figures she'll have 1,000 to 2,000 members in two years.

Although communal outreach tends to focus on intermarried couples rather than their adult children, "there is a light at the end of the tunnel" for the second generation, Margolis says. "Many Jewish organizations are showing an extreme interest in unwrapping the mystery, which makes me very happy." Unfortunately, few of them are in the Washington area, according to Margolis.

Margolis says she was often greeted with, at best, "chilly politeness" when she went synagogue shopping in the 1980s and early 1990s. "I felt like I was banging my head against the wall," she adds, explaining that she carved out her own institutional path by founding a Jewish Renewal women's chavurah in 1992 that served the entire Washington area. She disbanded it in 2006 in order to devote more time to helping children of the intermarried.

Jewish outreach to intermarried families, no matter the denomination, is predicated on the hope that the children will be raised as Jews. Experts stress the importance of giving such children a good Jewish education, as research shows that this makes them much likelier to become committed Jewish adults.

But it's no guarantee. Children ultimately choose their own path, despite their parents' carefully laid plans. Siblings from one family, raised the same way by intermarried parents, sometimes make different religious choices. [Or sometimes pretty same-y ones. I'd be astounded if my brothers and I ever diverged in paths as much as the other siblings described below.]

Margolis' three younger brothers are all "sincere, committed Christians" following the Protestant faith in which they were raised. One is even a minister. None chose their sister's Jewish path.

As for Boggs, her two brothers both had bar mitzvah ceremonies [Dad e-mailed me: "I note that it refers to your brothers' bar mitzvahs but not to your bat"], and one of them is engaged to marry a non-Jew. [Mom e-mailed me: "[your brother] told me that he and [his fiancee] plan to raise their kids Jewish"] Hirsch has a younger brother who identifies more as a Christian than a Jew.

As for Hirsch himself, Judaism has virtually no religious impact on him. But his Jewish cultural background bubbles up and insinuates itself into his life from time to time for example, when he encounters anti-Semitism. "Maybe there's a lot more going on inside me than I thought," he says after recounting two such incidents.

For many children of intermarried parents, choosing a religion can smack of favoring one parent over the other, with attendant feelings of guilt, anger and abandonment. That's particularly true, and hurtful, when parents divorce.

Marty Wasserman converted to Judaism after her divorce two decades ago in Santa Fe, N.M., and began raising her two children, Max and Meredith Murray, as Jews.

Max, now a 26-year-old officer in the Coast Guard stationed in Baltimore, dropped out of Hebrew school after a year, saying he didn't bond with the other kids. He ended up spending most of his teenage years with his Catholic father. He attended a Catholic high school, chose Catholic University and today considers himself Catholic.

Meredith Murray, now 24, stayed with her mother, had a bat mitzvah ceremony in Israel and flourished in Hebrew school, where she made her closest friends.

Like her brother, she went to Catholic high school, but unlike him, she always felt Jewish. She stood back when the other students took communion or intoned Christian prayers, even when it embarrassed her to be singled out.

A District resident, she, like her mother, identifies today as Jewish and goes to synagogue sporadically.

Her boyfriend, Dan, is not Jewish. She took him to a Passover seder last year at the home of a Conservative friend, who went on and on about the Jews as the chosen people. Murray was embarrassed.

"I remember apologizing to Dan when we left, saying not all Jews are that closed," she says. "I was so disgusted. I'm not sure they knew Dan isn't Jewish. It was this whole attitude of arrogance, that we are the chosen people. It was the first time I felt ashamed. It's not what I associate with Judaism. I don't believe a certain people are chosen, or superior."

She expects to marry her boyfriend, and they discuss how they'll raise their children. "Dan feels strongly about not forcing kids to go to one church or another," she says, "but he wants to expose them to all different religions. I think he's thinking academically."

He's very open, she adds, saying that "I'm sure if I said I want them to go to Hebrew school and temple, he wouldn't object. I really like the social aspect of religion, letting kids be part of something, giving them a structure. I also believe you can become a spiritual person outside the walls of a church or temple."

In contrast to some adult children of intermarrieds, Boggs says she has rarely felt stigmatized although she has received double-takes when her name and "Jewish" are mentioned in the same sentence.

"I tell them," she says, "that any name a Jew has is a Jewish name." [Dad wrote that he especially enjoyed this line.]

Intermarriage, she adds, "doesn't necessarily lead to assimilation. There is a place for the children of the intermarried. There is a place for you, even if not all of your relatives are Jewish."

Sue Fishkoff writes for JTA News and Features; Richard Greenberg is WJW associate editor.

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