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A new report tries to understand the demographic shift facing Jewish leadership

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A meeting of the United Jewish Appeal in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1949.(Steinfeldt Photography Collection, the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, via Flickr)

The stalwart institutions of American Jewish life, like the UJA, Hadassah, and even local synagogues, are facing increased competition for members as younger Jews turn to less traditional avenues of cultural and religious identification, from Stand With Us, a group that focuses on Israel advocacy on campus, to small, independent minyanim, or prayer groups. Concern that the movement toward non-establishment Jewish enterprises could sap the strength of American Jewish life drives the research in “Generation of Change: How Leaders in Their Twenties and Thirties are Reshaping American Jewish Life,” a new report commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation, a non-profit devoted to Jewish continuity and inter-denominational understanding. (Avi Chai’s funders also support Tablet Magazine.)

Ari Y. Kelman, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, is one of the study’s authors. He joined Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss his findings, including the fact that the Internet is weakening denominational differences among Jews, that “non-establishment” young Jewish leaders come from surprisingly “establishment” backgrounds, and that the economics of Jewish life deserve a closer look. [Running time: 16:40] 

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I tuned in, eager to hear about how interfaith marriage is part of the “demographic shift.” I found the conversation interesting, but was surprised when it ended with no mention of interfaith marriage, since so many of these young leaders are intermarried (or the children of intermarriage). I presume this is covered in the report…if it’s available online, please post a link. Thanks.

Susan Katz Miller

Dear Susan:

If you are interested in seeing a copy of the report, if you Google “Avi Chai” and “Generation of Change” you will be directed to a link to the report.

I’m afraid that you will be as disappointed as I am with the report. As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I was hoping that it would show evidence of younger intermarried and half-Jewish communal leaders appearing.

Instead, the report says that the new generation of young Jewish leaders are being groomed by Jewish foundations instead of the Jewish federations, but they will be the same as the older leaders. They are largely Conservative Jews with two Jewish parents, who had extensive Jewish educations and are in-married.

They test as more tolerant of intermarriage than their elders, and differ substantially from them on Israel — their views are mostly liberal-left. And they have dated non-Jews and have non-Jewish friends. But they are not intermarried themselves or half-Jewish.

The younger Jewish leaders are not interested in outreach to interfaith families or unaffiliated Jews — they will accept them if these families join their groups — but they appear to be mostly interested in creating small groups of likeminded Jews for minyanim and social justice work, and the attitude is that if interfaith family members want to join fine, but they will not seek them out.

Susan, I believe that the Jewish communal leadership — older and younger — has opted for a “leaner, meaner” Judaim, in which members of interfaith families — intermarried and adult children of intermarriage — will continue to be shut out — and if Jewish numbers are halved by the year 2040, too bad.

If you Google “Inclusivist Judaism Coalition,” you’ll see that I have decided that if the Jewish mainstream will not include us, we will have to create our own welcoming denomination and our own Jewish institutions.

Susan, one more thought.

If you want to see the types of young Jews that the Jewish establishment wants to recruit, Google: Empowered Judaism.

You will see that the Jewish establishment is lavishly funding independent minyanim almost solely for young Jews with two Jewish parents who were raised Conservative and/or who want to do text study, even if they were not raised Conservative.

The children and grandchildren of intermarriage; biracial Jews; GLBT Jews; intermarried — they don’t show up much on the websites of the Empowered Judaism movement, which appears to be overwhelmingly white Ashkenazi Jews with extensive Jewish educations, Hebrew fluency, and inmarried.

The Empowered Judaism movement appears to be very nice people, but the only mention I’ve seen of half-Jewish people on any of their websites was a debate as to whether patrilineals were really Jewish. I’m sure Empowered Judaism minyanim would accept minority Jews on an individual basis, but they are clearly not reaching out to Jews who are “different.”

Sure, half-Jewish people and other Jewish minorities are still welcome in some liberal shuls — but there is still no real, concerted outreach for us such as is routinely given to young Jews with two Jewish parents.

If we want a Judaism that truly welcomes us, I’m afraid that we are going to have to do it ourselves.


Your interview’s postscript mentions that you’ll be adding to this article. As one of the features, will you please include this list of the 150 most popular Jewish websites?


Maayan says:

you keep saying that sure, many Jewish communities will accept “different” Jews, but there’s not enough concerted outreach to them. For this reason, you want to establish your own Jewish community – to reach out and cater to people without much Jewish education, Hebrew, family, and whatever. That’s commendable, but it seems to me like only a stepping stone into a deeper connection to Judaism – through education, worship, Hebrew, and connections to other Jews. Which established and nascent Jewish communities are constantly trying to provide. Your comment that young Jewish leaders are “the same” as the older generations because they aren’t intermarried (despite manifold political and social differences) is just weird. If you don’t see young Jewish leaders who are themselves intermarried or children of intemarriage, that teaches us something about the effects of intermarriage on Jewish continuity right now. It doesn’t point to a failure of those people who DO stay involved.
I think there’s something strange about the idea of creating a permanent “half-Jewish” community. Would it be mainly an outreach organization and stepping stone into Judaism? Or attempt to provide the full spectrum of spiritual, educational, and social services? If the latter, it would be better to join with fellow Jews and influence our many and varied communities to be open and welcoming, rather than create a new denomination which serves up Judaism-extra-lite.

Actually, many in the leadership of the most dynamic and popular Jewish websites have been interfaith children and/or intermarried. I know this because they have been my editors and/or they have written about intermarriage on these sites. I guess, then, I would have to wonder why this is not being recognized.


Dear Mayaan:

If you visit the Half-Jewish Network website — we’re easy to find through Google — you’ll see hundreds of posts on our messasge board from adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage from all over the world who are being shut out of Jewish communities.

In many cases our emails, phone calls, and snail mail letters are ignored by Jewish institutions. I worked with one woman who was ignored by six Jewish institutions in her area. These are very nice people, Mayaan, many of whom would like to live as Jews.

Your idea that “established and nascent Jewish communities are constantly trying to provide [outreach]” is, unfortunately, not true for half-Jewish people and many other Jewish minorities who have contacted me for help. I hear from all types of Jewish minorities, sadly, not only half-Jewish people.

You had stated: “If you don’t see young Jewish leaders who are themselves intermarried or children of intemarriage, that teaches us something about the effects of intermarriage on Jewish continuity right now. It doesn’t point to a failure of those people who DO stay involved.”

Robin replies: Mayaan, near 50 percent of all Jewish-identified college students have been adult children of intermarriage since the year 2000. Over 50% of all Jews who marry each year are intermarried.

But the “Generation of Change” report says that 89% of all younger Jewish leaders they interviewed have two Jewish parents and that few of the young Jewish leaders are intermarried. Something is very wrong.

I will tell you what is wrong. I have contacted Jewish institutions for many years now, offering to put them in touch with young half-Jewish adults to recruit for membership and leadership programs. I almost never receive any replies. What does that tell you?

So I’ve been been compelled to think about creating alternative Jewish institutions for us, such as the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition.

Dear Maayan:

One more thought — if you would like an analysis of why many Jewish outreach workers ignore adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, I have written an article for on the subject, called “Why Many Jewish Outreach Workers Ignore Half-Jewish People.”

It is based on two decades of meetings with Jewish outreach workers, in which they candidly shared with me why they don’t think half-Jewish people should receive any outreach.

Also, please excuse me spelling your name wrong in my first reply to you. Screen fatigue!

Dear Susan:

I am sure that you have had good experiences with half-Jewish people helping run websites, who wanted articles on intermarriage.

But in the parts of the Jewish communal establishment where power and money still reside, half-Jewish people like you and me are, I believe, believe systematically excluded, and the Avi Chai report accurately reflects that exclusion.

The Avi Chai report sought out young Jewish leaders being given funding by the Jewish establishment. The fact that so few of them are half-Jewish or intermarried is very telling.

Ann Simon says:

I haven’t listened to the program yet, but I’m surprised the article didn’t mention Elie Kaunfer, author of “Empowered Judaism”, I think the publisher is Jewish Lights. He is the one of founders of Mechon Hadar. If you haven’t read the book, it is a great read and I highly recommend it.

Hey – good blog, just looking round some blogs, appears a fairly good platform You Are using. I’m presently utilizing Drupal for a couple of of my websites but trying to change considered one of them over to a platform very much the identical to yours as a trial run. Anything in particular you’d suggest about it?

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