Sisterhood Blog

Why I Want My Children To Marry Jews

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Thanks to Caroline Rothstein for her Sisterhood post “Why I Date Only Jewish Guys.” I read in it that yes, she dates only Jewish guys — but not a clear articulation of why.

I’m the mom of 3 adolescents, ranging in age from 12 to 19. Since they were little, I have made it clear (not in a finger-wagging way, hopefully, but in a conversational way) that I want them to marry Jews.

And I know that it is important to understand and articulate why. The part of my writing career focusing on the Jewish community and Jewish issues began just when the 1990 National Jewish Population Study came out. It was a watershed moment for the organized Jewish community. Newly aware that a high percentage of American Jews were marrying non-Jews (at that time said to be 51 percent of the youngest Jews getting married, which meant that for every Jewish couple being created, two interfaith couples were being created) and that there is a high correlation between intermarriage and a loss of Jewish identity among their children, funders and organizational leaders did an about-face.

They severely curtailed their historic focus on things like intergroup and U.N. relations and began focusing resources on keeping Jews engaged in Jewish life and on building identity with the hope that more Jews would choose endogamy, or in-marriage, over exogamy. In the years that followed, commissions were formed and programs including Birthright Israel and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education were begun. Recent statistics comparing in-married and intermarried Jewish couples on a basic measure of Jewish identity, synagogue membership, can be seen here.

I got to write about all of it — the NJPS and the many breakout reports and sub-studies that followed. I got to travel from one end of the American Jewish community to the other — from the Jewish secular humanists to the right-wing Orthodox and go to the conferences of every group in between.

What I learned from all of it was that bagels and lox Judaism is no longer enough to transmit Jewish identity. Saying “I’m proud to be Jewish” is simply insufficient for inculcating children with anything meaningful.

As it happens, I also got married in 1990 and my husband and I were creating our household in the context of what I was learning and bringing home. He and I come from vastly different Jewish backgrounds — he left Lubavitch as a young adult, though his extended family remains Haredi. I came from a family that emphasized the American part of American Jew and knew so little Hebrew at my bat mitzvah, despite years of Hebrew school at our Reform temple, that I had to have the blessings over the Torah transliterated into English. I later attended a more-than-nominally Presbyterian boarding school, where we had chapel and Vespers each week. I had dated and considered marrying a non-Jew. So I know what it means not to have much by way of a Jewish identity or engagement. And I know how rich the alternative is.

We decided to create a positively Jewishly-engaged home, and knew we had to do it totally differently than the ways we had both been raised.

We worked out how we would observe Shabbat. (As might be expected, I wanted more observance and he wanted less. We met somewhere in the middle.) We celebrated Shabbat dinner with friends. I learned how to chant Kiddush at our Friday night table by stumbling through it over and over again until I had it down. We built community, joining a local vibrant Conservative synagogue where there were many refugees from Orthodoxy and people knew enough to make the community’s practices and vibe rooted in tradition though cultivated in modernity. When our children were born, we gave them one set of names – Hebrew (not English and then different Hebrew ones). I began taking adult ed classes to try and fill in all that I did not know. We filled our home with Jewish music of every type — from kiddie stuff to Debbie Friedman to David Broza. They went to Jewish preschools. There were hundreds of choices made along the way. One of the biggest was to send our children to a Jewish day school, though we could hardly afford it. I wanted my children to be Jewishly literate. I wanted my children to be able to walk in to just about any synagogue and know where they were in the service. I wanted them to know more than I did. (I still have a hard time finding my place in a siddur).

And I want my children to marry Jews.

We have educated them in the full breadth of what it can mean to be an American Jew. They have loved spending time with our fully Haredi family members on their dad’s side. Until he died, not long ago, they loved spending time with my cheeseburger-eating, Friday night Broadway show-going Holocaust survivor father. They see me constantly engaged in Jewish learning, from when I left writing for a year to study full-time at Drisha to my current involvement with a biweekly Torah study group. My children witnessed me struggle mightily through my first leining last year, at our middle child’s bat mitzvah. I listened to a recording of my aliyah at least 100 times and still I stumbled through it on the big day. As I stopped and started again a dozen times at the rehearsal, trembling before the open sefer Torah, fretting that I wouldn’t be able to get through it, my daughters said, “But mom, it’s easy!” That it is for them is gratifying to my very core. It is also important that they see me engaged in growing Jewishly, even when it’s a huge struggle.

None of my kids are married yet, of course. Time will tell if they choose Jewish partners. But we have put the tools in their hands, and I trust that they will choose well, in terms of religion as well as in other respects.

American culture emphasizes universalism and it feels almost counter-cultural to focus on the particularism of being Jewish, especially outside of the Orthodox community. And of course we value tolerance and embrace the richness of the many cultures among which we live. But you can’t really embrace “the other” until you know who you are. And for my family, that means being modern Jews.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute said, at Limmud NY last February “Your children’s Judaism will not be your Judaism.” With my 19-year-old college-student son, I already see how true that is, as he explores how he wants to express his Jewish identity in his own ways, some of which are distinct from the commitments we have made. There is a lot of learning to let go involved in having a 19-year-old child, and I know that I will have many opportunities to practice in the years to come. He, like his younger sisters, has the tools with which to make good choices, even if they aren’t my own.

I have raised my children to know what a gift it is to be Jewish. We are rooted in a great, rich, multi-faceted tradition and live Jewish lives that are dynamic, not static. With Judaism’s focus on family and community, on learning, on values and ethics, on justice and doing good in the world, they know that Judaism gives them a framework for responding to just about any moment in life. The Judaism we have tomorrow, next year, in two decades — they know what it means to be one of its creators. And why.

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