Marriage Equality

06.19.13

Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage

As the founders and funders of Taglit-Birthright happily embrace the findings of a new study that claims Birthright alumni are more likely to marry other Jews, we’re reminded of the deficient rhetoric that surrounds the Jewish intermarriage conversation.

“It is still surprising to us how effective [Birthright] has been in promoting in-marriage,” said lead researcher Leonard Saxe, the Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.       

I recognize that Jewish adults believe they are exerting responsible leadership when discussing the rise of intermarriage, despite whatever awkwardness others might feel as a result. They see themselves as brave enough to talk about the hard issues that perhaps weaker or misguided Jews, who are afraid to fight assimilation, shy away from.

But this is wrong. It’s not just the creepy, micro-managing factor that has young people bothered by efforts to “fight intermarriage.” Their discomfort also stems from those same liberal, egalitarian values that lead my generation to support same-sex marriage by a margin of 81 percent. We want to live in a society where people can and should marry whomever they love. Consequently, we want those partnerships to be welcomed with open arms by our government, and by our communities.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reported an intermarriage rate of 52 percent among American Jews. They later retracted their statements to say a more accurate intermarriage rate would be 38 percent from 1980 to 1984, and 43 percent for 1985 to 1990. The rate remained the same until 1995, then rose to 47 percent by 2001. While the rate of intermarriage has since decreased, the fact is unless you live within a very insular traditional Jewish community, you know, or are close to, or are a Jewish individual living in an intermarried family.

Telling intermarried couples that they are in a less-preferred familial situation than someone with two Jewish parents is offensive. It implies that their lifestyle is inadequate, or insufficient, to raise a proper family. Instead of growing up feeling proud of their pluralistic, American, interfaith situation, children of intermarried couples go on Birthright trips and hear leaders speak about disturbing rates of Jewish intermarriage. That was one of the first things I heard on my Birthright trip. We’re pushing communal messages that on some level, parents in intermarriage relationships have made a mistake.

I understand that the Jewish bias against intermarriage is often rooted more deeply in fear than prejudice. Especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, a concern about Jewish survival is understandable. It's when this concern manifests itself in counting Jewish spouses—and inevitably counting Jewish mothers—that it slips into pathology and alienates more than it embraces.

I’m proud that the Jewish community has been one of the most ardent political proponents of same-sex marriage. But that same compassionate support and vocal understanding is withheld from the thousands and thousands of Jews who have fallen in love and married non-Jews. It’s not even the flawed separate-but-equal rhetoric that plagues the same-sex marriage debate. It’s: we’ll accept you, but one is definitely preferred.

One example that was really disheartening for me earlier this year was when Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner published an editorial exemplifying this type of discourse:

Judging by the amount of money spent, and organizations created, and words expressed, you would think that the most serious problem facing the American Jewish community is the waning attachment to Israel among young adults. But that’s not what keeps me up at night.

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

Jewish communal life is valuable, and it’s something I care about. But perhaps revisiting the way we talk about its future would help keep more young adults interested in staying connected. Ethnocentric marriage rhetoric is not just problematic because it sounds borderline-racist to those who value diversity and free choice. It also misses the point that at the end of the day, we hope to marry somebody who shares the same values as we do. But as anyone who is Jewish knows, not all Jews share the same values and priorities. Different things are inevitably important to different people. This is why I wish we heard more encouragements to marry people who we love, not simply if they’re Jewish.

Eisner acknowledges this problem at the conclusion of her editorial when she writes, “We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.” She hints at the values issue, but only remedies it with the same tribal response.

I’m 21 years old and still in college, which means that I’m young enough for marriage to not be quite yet on my radar, but old enough for my Jewish community leaders to have inundated me with unsubtle marriage messages for years now. Both of my parents are Jewish, and I have been involved with both Jewish and non-Jewish guys in my lifetime. I don’t know who I’ll eventually end up with. But I am well aware of what some people expect of me and it’s saddening that my community feels “haunted” by just the thought of me marrying a non-Jew.

We’re living in the age of marriage equality. I hope that as I grow older, my community will genuinely support me, along with whomever I love and choose to marry. I also hope that we can learn how to better support people who have already made that marital choice for themselves.