Survey: Big Majority of Birthright Applicants With a non-Jewish Parent Identify as Jews

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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The wedding of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan was a recent high-profile mixed marriage: but will their kids identify as Jews?Credit: Reuters
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Among Birthright applicants who are children of interfaith marriages, 77 percent identify as Jewish, according to a new survey. The survey found, however, that these children were less likely than applicants who are offspring of Jewish couples to consider it important to marry someone from their faith or raise their children in it.

These findings, published Monday by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, bear out trends revealed in the landmark Pew Research Center Study of American Jews, published in October 2013.

According to the report, titled “Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement,” 20 percent of children of intermarried couples who applied to the Birthright Israel program identified as Jews by religion, while 57 percent identified as Jews by ethnicity. Among those who were active in Jewish campus life and had actually participated in Birthright’s free 10-day trips to Israel (rather than merely applied), the likelihood of identifying as Jewish was much higher, the findings show.

The 2013 Pew survey had found that, among millennials born to interfaith couples, 61 percent identified as Jewish – 29 percent by religion and 32 percent by ethnicity. After decades of steady increase, the Pew survey found that the rate of intermarriage in the United States had stabilized at 58 percent.

To qualify for Birthright, all applicants must sign a form stating that they consider themselves Jewish. In their report, the authors acknowledge that basing their sample strictly on Birthright applicants could skew the results. “In light of this potential source of bias in the frame,” they note, “it is important to consider how well the sample represents the larger population of all children of intermarriage.”

The Cohen Center, which is affiliated with the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis, is involved in an ongoing project that monitors the impact of Birthright on its participants. Financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is one of the founders of Birthright, which helped fund this study.

According to the report, among Birthright applicants, 29 percent of children of Jewish couples considered it important to marry someone Jewish, compared with only 4 percent of children of intermarried couples. The rates were significantly higher across the board when the children had been active in Jewish campus life and had participated in Birthright. Among children of Jewish couples who had applied to Birthright, 64 percent considered it important to raise their children Jewish, as compared to only 21 percent of children of mixed couples who had applied to Birthright.  Here as well, the percentages were significantly higher among young adults who had been active in Jewish campus life and participated in Birthright.

As would be expected, the findings show that children of Jewish couples were more likely than children of interfaith couples to attend Jewish school and partake in informal Jewish educational and social activities. Among some of the other findings of the Cohen Center report:

More children of intermarried couples were told by their parents that they were Jewish than not.  Of the respondents, 41 percent said they were told by their parents that they were “Only Jewish,” while only 5 percent reported being told they were another religion only. Of the remainder, 18 percent were told that they had “no religion,” another 18 percent were told that the choice was theirs to make, 17 percent were told that they were both Jewish and another religion, and 2 percent reported that their parents disagreed on the matter.

For both children of Jewish couples and intermarried couples, the mother was considered to be the person with greatest influence on religious identity, followed by the father and then the grandparents. Among children of Jewish couples, 30 percent named their mother as the most influential, and among children of intermarried couples, it was 36 percent.

Children of Jewish couples were much more likely than children of intermarried couples to feel connected to Israel. But among children of intermarried couples who had become involved in Jewish campus life and participated in Birthright, this gap narrowed considerably. 

Correction: This article was corrected on 21/10/15. The original version may have given the impression that the findings were based on a broad population sample; they were not.