Once again the phenomenon of intermarriage is very much in the headlines. This old-new issue has been given renewed prominence in the post-Pew Report frenzy, which claims that interfaith marriages in the United States have now reached endemic proportions of 71%. Seven out of ten Jews intermarry. (It is important to note that the report does not take into account, “the Birthright generation.”)
This phenomenon is not a new one. One just needs to take a trip down history lane and examine how Ezra and Nehemiah dealt with this issue two and a half millennia ago in Persian ruled Judea. Following this historical analysis, which highlights both Ezra and Nehemiah’s ineffectiveness at tackling this recurrent problem, it is fascinating to read about the positive results that are achieved through the current Taglit-Birthright project.
For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands.”
“In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people.”
The issue of intermarriage was the bane of both Ezra and Nehemiah’s tenures. Intermarriage had reached widespread proportions and had become one of the most serious problems facing emerging second commonwealth. In order to protect the holiness of God’s chosen people; Nehemiah wanted the community to embrace endogamy, or marriage only within the group.
Given that considerable intermarriage had taken place both amongst the common folk and the priestly clan, the second commonwealth’s leadership hoped to learn from the mistakes of the first. With this platform, Nehemiah risked alienating large segments of the population, however he felt that intermarriage was a threat to the very survival of the Jewish people and could substantially weaken the community.
The strength of Nehemiah and Ezra’s conviction is cited as one of the driving forces behind the extreme measures taken to combat intermarriage. Both convened public assemblies with the express purpose of promulgating edicts to force those in mixed marriages to divorce their spouses. Ezra was mostly unsuccessful in his attempts. The community delayed the assemblies complaining of bad weather and the fact that the entire community could not attend. Nehemiah, who arrived many years after Ezra’s initial appeal, was faced with many cases of mixed marriages throughout society, a further testament Ezra’s failure. Though the mass divorce strategy was, by most measures, a failure, both Nehemiah and Ezra managed to extract a promise that the Jews would not to marry foreigners in the future.
At the close of the previous century the founders of Birthright tried to understand the causes of what many consider to be the biggest problem facing Jewish continuity. Namely, that Judaism is the only monotheistic faith in numerical decline. Rather than the “stick” method utilised by both Ezra and Nehemiah, the Birthright idea is to use the “carrot” of Israel to bring back Jews back from the abyss of assimilation.
Tuvia guiding an “Amazing Israel” Birthright group at Tel Gezer
When Birthright was founded, back in 1999, roughly seventy percent of American Jews had never visited the Jewish State and sixty percent were in interfaith marriages. The rationale of the founders was, “let’s get the cohort most likely have a serious relationship leading to marriage (ages 18-26) and let’s bring them to Israel.” Birthright is an apolitical, areligious organisation. There is no “agenda” other than to provide young Jews with a positive connection to their heritage and their homeland, their birthright.
Initially the cynics were cynical. What good is there in taking a bunch of non-connected, jaded and affluent American university students to Israel for only ten days. Are they going to come back and say, “I believe” they asked.
While past studies have found that (both long and short term) Israel trip participants return with a greater appreciation of their Jewish roots and Jewish identity, a longitudinal study released by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University researchers in 2009, and updated in 2012, was the first to suggest that the trips also affect marriage behavior. Its results, based on following 500 Reform or non-affiliated Birthright alumni, showed that a whopping 72% of those who went on the trip married within the faith, compared with 46% of people who applied for the trip but weren’t selected in a lottery!
Taglit (Birthright) participants are 45 percent more likely than nonparticipants to be married to someone Jewish. Taglit’s impact on inmarriage was constant across all levels of childhood Jewish education.”
- Jewish Futures Project, The Impact of Taglit-Birthright Israel: 2012 Update
One cannot replace or artificially create an experience. One has to be there to feel it. There is no better way for Israel trip participants to strengthen their Jewish identity then to walk through the places where key events that shaped the destiny of our people occurred! As Yonatan Netanyahu z”l so eloquently stated:
In this search through our past we come upon other periods-of tranquility and liberty, when we were the people of the land as well as the people of the book.”
In Jewish terms, we need to understand that we are all links in the chain of Jewish continuity, part of a bigger dramatic story of God, people and land. By walking through the land and feeling it, smelling it, seeing it, tasting it and hearing it, we begin to hear ourselves.
It is important to bear in mind that throughout the public debate about intermarriage from the Biblical period through the contemporary era, conversion to Judaism was, and still is, a viable option. Even Judaism’s most famous king, David, one of whose decedents it is traditionally believed will establish the messianic age, was descended from Ruth, the Moabite, who converted to Judaism.
Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
– Ruth 1:16