WASHINGTON — Orwigsburg, in East-Central Pennsylvania, is a town of fewer than 3,000 people. Maggie Moss grew up there with her parents and two sisters. “We were one of the only Jewish families in the area,” she says.
Hebrew school, a two-hour drive away, was out of the question. Instead, “I went to Protestant Sunday school and church for years,” she says. “I could probably give a whole Lutheran speech if I had to.”
Moss’ mother is Christian, her father Jewish agnostic — “He’s a scientific person” — and the family “loosely followed Jewish tradition.”
But there was a price for being Jewish in Orwigsburg. Moss, 19, says she and her sisters were bullied because of it.
“I did my senior speech on the Palestine and Israel conflict,” she says. “I received death threats from people I’ve known all my life.”
She’s told that story to friends at George Washington University, where she’s a freshman, “and nobody can believe it.”
As she watches the foot traffic in a campus shop, the town where friends’ parents would pray for her father not to go to hell seems like a world away. When she came to Washington, Moss dove into Jewish activities.
“Because being Jewish was something I always had to fight for, it was important to me,” she explains.
Moss is in college at a time of new approaches to welcoming students into Jewish life. Increasingly, millennial students are, like Moss, children of mixed marriage and are exploring a range of identities. Many, regardless of background, have no Jewish experience, other than a feeling of being Jewish. But there are others who cling fiercely to Judaism, but whose profile doesn’t match the traditional one of who is a Jew.
“Who Jews are has changed,” says Sheila Katz, vice president of social entrepreneurship for Hillel International, the campus Jewish agency. “We can live as if that’s not the case, or we can live in the real world.”
Katz’s case for welcoming every student, regardless of background, into Jewish life was bolstered in October, when the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University released the study “Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement.” One of its conclusions was that the college years are so important to forming a Jewish identity that good programs can just about close the gap between those who came to college with a Jewish education and those who had little or no Jewish background.
“Millennial generation children of intermarriage comprise about half of the young adult American Jewish population,” according to the study. “They are the first cohort born after the intermarriage rate in America crossed the 50 percent threshold, and, unlike earlier generations, the majority identify as Jewish. They are, however, less likely than children of in-marriage to identify as Jewish by religion, observe Jewish practices and feel connected to Israel.”
Until she went to college, Melissa Sanchez, now 22, had no Jewish education. She grew up in “a very Catholic area” of New Jersey, with a Conservative Jewish mother and a Mexican father. “He was not very religious,” she says. “We had a menorah next to a Christmas tree.”
Once at George Washington University, her Jewish education began. “In sophomore year, a friend dragged me to Hillel,” she says.
She went to Israel on a Birthright trip “for the travel aspect.” Her participation in the Meor study program led to six months at the Neve Yerushalayim women’s college in Jerusalem.
“I was missing a whole part of my life,” she says now. “I keep Shabbat, kashrut. Israel is something I think about all the time. Being Jewish all the time and being Mexican all the time is not a contradiction to me.”
“We’re trying to get rid of the idea that anybody’s half anything,” Katz says. “Students can be fully Jewish and wholly something else.”
Bryan Pfeffer remembers taking the plunge and entering the Jewish community at the University of Maryland for the first time.
“It’s intimidating walking into the building at Hillel,” he says. “It’s easy to label yourself an outsider.”
Pfeffer, 21, grew up in Freehold, N.J. “If there was a Jewish community there, I wasn’t aware of it. I did the High Holidays with my dad’s side and the Christmas holidays with my mom’s side,” he says.
When he got to Maryland, he thought about entering Greek life. When it came time to decide on Zeta Beta Tau, the historically Jewish fraternity, he called his father. “I asked him about our past and how he was raised.” That conversation solidified his connection to his Jewish side.
He joined ZBT and is now its president. He’s also a member of the Tzedek social justice fellowship at Maryland Hillel.
Ross Diamond, executive director of Hillel at George Mason University, says understanding the children of intermarriage has been hampered by imagining them split down the middle into two mutually exclusive pieces.
“Interfaith doesn’t often mean two religions,” he explains. “It more often means no real formalized religion or one dominant religion with another minor cultural affiliation.”
And whereas in the past, intermarriage was seen as the death knell of Jewish identification, new data being compiled by the Pew Research Center indicates that children of such marriages today are more likely to identify as Jewish than in the past.
Sedona Rosenberg’s father was the first Jew her mother had met. They raised her and her brother in Columbus, Ohio, as Jews.
“My parents said, ‘We’re interfaith, but you’re not,’” says Rosenberg, 19, a freshman at George Washington University. “I was converted, I went to Sunday school every Sunday and Jewish summer camp. I had a bat mitzvah. I was president of my youth group.”
She believes parents need to make conscious decisions about the identity they will pass down to their children.
“And there’s some responsibility of the Jewish community to bring them in, to pay attention to those kids and make them feel welcome if they’re minimally connected,” says Rosenberg. “If any one part of them wants to be Jewish, they should be welcome.”
Katz says she’s been in conversations “where children of intermarriage are referred to as ‘those people’ as if they are a problem. Statistically speaking, half of the students are” children of intermarriage.
David Holzel writes for Washington Jewish Week.