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Half of College-Age Jews Have One Non-Jewish Parent — Underscoring Need for Outreach

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2004

Among the findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, according to Washington Jewish Week (Dec. 18, 2003) is that, “College-age Jews today are almost evenly divided between those with two Jewish parents and those with only one ... The latest NJPS found that 48 percent of students aged 18-29 have two Jewish parents, 45 percent have only one Jewish parent and 7 percent said neither parent was Jewish, although they identified themselves as Jews. Furthermore, the study found that children with only one Jewish parent socialize with Jews far less frequently, participate in fewer Jewish activities and don’t feel as connected to the Jewish people as those with two Jewish parents.”  

Discussing the study, Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor and author of an upcoming book about interfaith couples called Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage, says, “It points to the creation of the intermarriage momentum. The large proportion of kids from interfaith homes generally reinforces the American norm of crosscultural relationships. College-age Jews are living in an America where it’s not cool to say you’ll date only Jews.”  

Avram Infeld, interim executive director of Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, called the findings “a pretty astounding number” that underscores how far the organization still has to go. “That presents for us a very, very serious challenge,” he said. “How do we begin to work with those with only one Jewish parent in a more intensive manner?”  

Prof. Barack Fishman urges that all college-age Jewish students be approached with a single strategy: “The more we can create environments where they can forge connections to the Jewish calendar, to Jewish intellectual tradition, to Jewish behaviors, to the Jewish community and to Jewish friendship groups, that will help kids with two Jewish parents and one Jewish parent draw closer to Judaism.”  

Steven M. Cohen, a Hebrew University sociologist and senior consultant to the population survey, said he was surprised not only by how many students have only one Jewish parent, but also by how many call themselves Jewish. “There’s a mixed message there: more intermarriage, but possibly more Jewish identification,” he said.  

The study “underscores what we’ve been saying all along,” said Paul Golan, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, which urges efforts to promote ties among less active Jews. In a 2002 report called “The Coming Majority,” the Jewish Outreach Institute predicted that current intermarriage rates mean there are more intermarried households than households with only Jews. According to Golan, there are at least four interfaith households for every three all-Jewish households.  

Many college students have not yet fully formed their identities, said Golan, and even those with tenuous Jewish ties would benefit from Jewish programs.  

Comparing all college-age Jews to the Jewish population generally, the survey found that college students “are less likely to have been to Israel or volunteer for a Jewish organization, but more likely to have used the Internet for Jewish purposes and feel less intensely about Jewish peoplehood than do other Jews.”

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