Is Peter Beinart The New Steven M. Cohen?
04/05/2012 - 12:18

Forgot those 50 rabbis Newsweek has been fussing over.

Journalist/author Peter Beinart may well be the most famous American Jew these days, at least among the New York Times-New York Review of Books-New Yorker-reading intelligentsia.

Lost in all the debate about his views on Israel and Zionism, including his calls for a targeted boycott of West Bank settlements and his assertion that American Jewish leaders are out of touch with the rank and file, is serious discussion of his other cause: government vouchers for Jewish day schools.

Last week Beinart pushed the idea in a column in The Wall Street Journal. And I was struck how someone who is so critical of the American Jewish establishment when it comes to Israel, is himself so, well, establishment and out of touch when it comes to talking about intermarriage.

Beinart’s main argument is that American Jews intermarry more than Jews elsewhere in the diaspora because the United States government doesn’t subsidize religious education, thus rendering day schools — the cure, of course, for intermarriage — financially inaccessible. As a result, he argues, American Jews should give up their “excessive concern” with separation of church and state and get with the voucher program.

Setting aside my question as to whether significantly more non-Orthodox American Jews would really opt for day school if only they were cheaper (I’m not convinced they would), is my “In The Mix-y” concern: why is Beinart, normally a critical thinker, accepting wholesale the Steven M. Cohen philosophy that intermarriage in and of itself is a problem and that day schools are valuable not for the education they provide or the values they embody, but because they instill in their graduates a “commitment” not to intermarry?

Indeed, if intermarriage prevention is the primary function of Jewish day schools, why on earth should we ask non-Jewish taxpayers to subsidize these schools? It seems an odd argument to make, particularly in a mainstream publication like The Wall Street Journal.

As someone who has been covering Jewish education for more than 15 years, I’m certainly familiar with the issues of vouchers and day school affordability that Beinart raises; I was actually surprised he didn’t bring up the Hebrew charter school movement, as well, since it is rapidly growing and slightly less polarizing than vouchers, yet confronts some of the same church-state objections.

I can certainly understand Beinart’s desire to address the embarrassing rate of Jewish illiteracy among our otherwise highly educated population. But why must preventing intermarriage — rather than enriching lives, building a more vibrant, knowledgeable and interesting community — be the raison d’etre?

I would argue that it is intermarriage-obsessed rhetoric like Beinart’s (which, I hope, are not representative of the sentiment at most day schools), as much as tuition, that discourage many non-Orthodox parents from enrolling their children in Jewish day school. Liberal Jewish parents want their children exposed to diversity and want them in a positive (rather than a kvetching-about-intermarriage) environment where interfaith families don’t feel like they’re an illness in need of a cure. (There’s also the added challenge that huge numbers of American Jews identify as atheist and, while they may want their children exposed to Jewish history, culture and texts, are uncomfortable with the amount of time that Jewish day schools devote to prayer.)

Whether their perception is accurate or not, for many American Jews, Jewish day schools seem too, well, parochial.

In calling for vouchers for day schools, and justifying it with an intermarriage argument, Beinart is making the same mistake when it comes to Jewish education that he thinks the “establishment” makes when it comes to Israel: asking people to check their liberalism at the door.

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Treating Hebrew day schools as a cure for a disease is self-defeating. A Hebrew day school graduate myself, now employed in the Jewish world, I intermarried, with predictable rejection by high-school friends and some synagogues. My daughter, raised and educated in the Jewish community, rejects any notion that she is a mischlinge, which unfortunately too many in the community communicate.
Additionally, those same Hebrew day schools usually communicate a view of Israel that Beinart would wholeheartedly reject. From maps of Israel with no Green Line to "human rights days" that never consider human rights issues in Israel, most Hebrew day schools voice the Israel-is-always-right trope, and are thus even less attractive to parents with progressive values.

Why doesn't Beinart mention the Hebrew Charter school movement? Because Judaism is a religion, and Jewish education must include actual religious content, and in America, educating one's self about one's religion is not the same thing as being anti-cosmopolitan.

there is only one valid form of "Jewish engagement".... service in the Hebrew Army. Anything else, is only a flavor of narcissism.

To sherut keva be-khayil-Ha-Yam,

I agree that army service is extremely important. My kids all served, or are serving in Tzahal. But it's not the only form of engagement. Even army service requires context.

My kids met soldiers in the army with no Jewish background. Some of them had no sense of Jewish history at all. Some visited Jerusalem for the first time for their swearing-in. Don't you think that having enough background to understand our connection to the Land is a worthwhile form of "engagement"?

That aside... thank you for your service in keva.

Intermarriage is the single biggest problem facing the Jewish community today.

The best way to combat intermarriage is Jewish Education -- not once a week, but a Yeshiva / Day School education. These schools not only provide the education and the basis for a student to understand why NOT to intermarry, but they also provide the social framework that enables someone to date and marry fellow Jews.

Additionally, Jewish Camps (even Jewish sports camps) and youth groups (such as NCSY and USY) help to further that social network, as well as provide additional educational resources.

Unfortunately, these cost a lot of money. Vouchers can help, UJA can help, but its still an expensive proposition.

In Israel, a day school education is practically free. The Jewish social network is easy to find. Hmmmmmm........

Julie omits the fact that Steven Cohen's research found lower levels of Jewish "engagement" among intermarried families vs. in-married families based on every metric reported.

Report available here:

Why does the Jewish Week which is heavily supported by the UJA - committed to supporting the Jewish people and Jewish peoplehood - have an associate editor who publicly promotes the lifestyle which she herself chose - intermarriage? One can support the desirability of bringing mixed families into the Jewish tradition and also take a strong position opposing intermarriage with its inevitable march toward assimilation and disappearance of the Jewish people.

The last time there was a rennaisance of Hebrew kindergardens, it resulted in massive social change and the re-birth of a nation. In only 60 years.

Those who imagine Jewish Day Schools are the answer to any actual problem, are the same ones who preached to us that establishing a Sanhedrin would freeze things in place....

The above commentator is absolutely right. Intermarriage is a serious problem for the Jewish community. That is of no concern to Julie and her pro-intermarriage comrades, just look at the last sentence of this article.
They want to push a pro-intermarriage, radical, secular, liberal, and anti-Orthodox agenda on the Jewish community. It's all about having Jews assimilatie and marry non-Jews to make Orthodox Judaism obsolete.

Dear Julie - why do you keep insisting that intermarriage is NOT a serious problem for Jewish continuity? In the absence of the conversion of the non-Jewish partner, it is! There is no lack of studies (from Steven M. Cohen, Sylvia Barack Fishman et al) proving that it is the case.

There is a strong (and obvious) link between deep Jewish literacy and a commitment not to marry a non-Jew. Not that it holds in every single case, but by and large, it does. Why does that seem so odd and difficult to accept for you?

You may have made the personal decision to marry a non-Jew, but that doesn't mean what is true isn't.

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