Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 19, 2013.

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 thanprejudice. 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.

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Solitary Confinement and Jewish Organizations

Published originally in New Voices Magazine on January 24, 2012 and reprinted in Solitary Watch.

If community is a foundation of Jewish life, what does Judaism have to say about solitary confinement, the forcible separation of a person from the community? A few months ago I began an internship with Solitary Watch, an investigative news organization dedicated to reporting on solitary confinement. Once I got started, I became interested in learning more about the work the American Jewish community organizes around this issue.

It turns out there is a lot of work being done, though it started quite recently. Beginning in 2012,T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (recently renamed from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), a coalition of 1,800 rabbis, and Uri L’Tzedek, a prominent liberal Modern Orthodox social justice organization, have both made the issue of solitary confinement a prominent part of their advocacy efforts.

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment where individuals are subjected to approximately 22-24 hours per day of isolated lockdown in tiny cells. Many Americans mistakenly believe that solitary confinement is used sparingly, only for the most dangerous or threatening prisoners. However, according the American Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 80,000 men, women and children currently in some sort of solitary confinement in United States prisons. Many have a mental illness or cognitive disability, and the majority has been placed there for nonviolent violations of prison rules.

The costs of solitary confinement are much higher than housing inmates in the general prison population. Mississippi recently reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and closed down their high-security Supermax unit. According to the ACLU, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers approximately $8 million per year.

That economic perspective on solitary confinement is important, but there is a moral perspective to consider as well – and that is where the religious community can add a unique voice to the national conversation.

“We’re looking to provide some moral weight to the solitary confinement conversation by applying Jewish values,” said Shlomo Bolts, a prison consultant from Uri L’Tzedek.

“Sympathy for prisoners is not the most common sentiment amongst the American public. People do not want to be seen as weak or soft on crime,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “In the Torah however, it clearly says that if someone asks for forgiveness three times and you don’t forgive them, then the onus is on you. In Judaism we believe in repentance and that punishments don’t go on forever.”

While Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah approach the issue of solitary confinement from a distinctly Jewish perspective, the scope of both groups’ work on the issue extends well beyond the Jewish community.

“We don’t want to make this a Jewish issue. We want to make it an American issue. As Americans we’re allowing for it to happen, we’re paying for it with our tax dollars,” said Kahn-Troster.

“We want to apply the Jewish values we learn to help all people,” said Bolts.

The two groups are part of a growing movement against solitary confinement. A feeling that the status quo is simply untenable is circulating in religious communities and among the politically engaged in general; change, while it may not be imminent, feels inevitable.

“This is an exciting time. We really do see ourselves as being a force to help pass legislation to abolish or reduce solitary confinement,” said Bolts.

In June, Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) led a congressional hearing on solitary confinement, the first in American history. The hearing focused on the human rights issues associated with isolation, the economic implications of solitary confinement and the psychological impact on inmates during and after their imprisonment.

Both T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek contributed written testimony to the hearings. They also participated in the National Day of Fasting, an interfaith effort to raise awareness of the significance of the congressional hearing.

“Fasting serves as a way to repent and bear witness. For me to be at the congressional hearing, sitting with a group of religious leaders fasting was a very powerful experience,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Fasting also serves as an act of solidarity with prisoners in solitary confinement, for whom hunger strikes are often the only available form of protest.

“I think about the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay [a California Supermax facility]. They get poor food, and then they refuse to eat it in order to draw attention to their situation. When I fasted it really hit home what these people must be going through,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek are also working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Founded in 2006 and comprised of more than 300 religious organizations, the campaign organizes protests against different forms of torture employed by the U.S., including those used at sites like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Turning her organization’s focus toward solitary confinement now “seems like a natural outgrowth of our torture work,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah now face the task of motivating American Jews to get more involved with the issue. Despite a history of involvement in a wide variety of social justice causes, the American Jewish community has generally avoided issues of prison reform.

“There is this misconception that Jews are somehow not incarcerated, yet Jews go to prison for the same reasons as everyone else,” said Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, an organization that provides advocacy and spiritual services to Jewish prisoners and their families. Friedman estimates there are approximately 12,000-15,000 Jews in American prisons today, including some in solitary confinement.

Uri L’Tzedek’s approach to raising awareness is a mix of traditional advocacy combined with social science research led by the Tag Institute, a British-based think tank driven by Jewish social values. Among other things, Tag’s research seeks to generate quantitative survey data on the Jewish community’s perceptions of prisons and punitive punishment –and to find the most effective ways of organizing Jewish communities to advocate for humane alternatives to solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, T’ruah is mobilizing its network of 1,800 rabbis to raise the consciousness of members of their respective communities on the issue – and hopefully to inspire some activism about solitary confinement within their communities

As solitary confinement becomes an increasingly mainstream human rights issue, the work of the Jewish community is likely to grow and inspire further activism.

As it says in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), “Either companionship or death.”