The number of young adults with one Jewish parent who self-identify as Jewish proves the success of efforts to welcome intermarried families into Jewish life, said Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson.
This positive trend is in part the result of the increasing role Jewish education plays in the broader community, said Ellenson, acting director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and visiting professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.
Ellenson, chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he also served as president from 2001 to 2013, will dissect this and other modern Jewish developments as the Syril and Dr. Norman Reitman Scholar-in-Residence Friday-Saturday, Nov. 20-22, at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
In four programs, Ellenson will outline his own approach to faith as a Reform rabbi and the many influences that have shaped his theology. He will focus on an Orthodox rabbi in 19th-century New Orleans who took a sympathetic view of children of intermarriage, and discuss two 19th-century Reform leaders. He will also discuss the Pew Research Center’s latest survey on American Judaism.
“The most recent survey that came out showed that with millennials” — those born after 1980 — “if positive steps are taken by the Jewish community and Jewish education is provided to both inmarried and intermarried families, the Jewish identification among the children is almost the same number, 77 percent,” said Ellenson in a phone interview.
He said the finding is particularly significant for the Reform movement, which has taken “proactive steps” to include interfaith families ever since the 1983 decision by its leaders to break with Jewish tradition and recognize as Jews children born to a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father. Other streams of Judaism recognize only matrilineal descent.
Ever since, Ellenson said, Reform Judaism has attempted to practice what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has termed “audacious hospitality.”
“Our community needs to work together to foster significant education opportunities for Jews of all types,” Ellenson said. “We have to adopt positive attitudes toward all our families and their offspring. What we need to do is put ‘audacious hospitality’ into practice.
“We are at that point in American-Jewish history,” he said, “where the Jewish community needs to look at issues of intermarriage as an opportunity as well as a significant challenge. At the same time, we need to provide significant Jewish content so that people affirm that both the modern world and its religious impulse will find a home within Judaism.”
In his Shabbat morning program, Ellenson will focus on the responsum written in 1864 by Orthodox German Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer concerning the Jewish status and identity of children born to non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers in New Orleans.
“Rabbi Kalischer took the position that such children were ‘holy seed,’” said Ellenson. “We see that even within the precincts of traditional Judaism there were positive attitudes in recognizing that these children shared in the fate and destiny of the Jewish community as far back as the 19th century.”