The Fight Over Family Values

by James D. Besser
Washington Correspondent
When a major education authorization bill began working its way through Congress this year, conservative lawmakers introduced provisions making it easier for states to develop their own school voucher programs.
Jewish groups quickly staked out competing positions. And both sides quickly played their trump card: families, Capitol Hill’s favorite buzzword.
Vouchers will help families by opening doors to new educational opportunities, Orthodox groups argued. More liberal Jewish groups charged vouchers will hurt families by undercutting public schools.
Welcome to the Great Family Values Debate.
Mention “family values” to the average Jewish voter, and the reaction is likely to be a cringe. In the public arena, the phrase is most associated with the fulminating televangelists, the gay-bashers and social conservatives who want to use a government they despise to somehow
return us to the days of Father Knows Best.
The cringe is ironic: Jews, more than almost any other group in American society, care about strong families and about how public policy can support them. In fact, Jewish organizations are working actively on behalf of families in Washington and in state capitals around the country even as most shun a growing pro-family political movement they see as promoting a narrowly sectarian agenda.
“The Jewish community looks at a much wider range of issues that we see supporting families,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the central group for the denomination in this country.
“We haven’t narrowed it down in the same way that some on the Christian right have. And we are not organized in a monolithic way. The Christian right groups are much more cohesive in terms of their message.”
Different Jewish groups pursue different political goals in the name of families. Some Jewish groups – Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s “Toward Tradition” is the clearest example – line up squarely behind the most vocal Christian conservatives on an array of moral issues they say are critical to safeguarding American families, including opposition to feminism and gay rights.
Orthodox groups are more selective, agreeing with the Christian right on some family issues, parting company on others. Mainstream Jewish defense and women’s organizations actively oppose most elements of the conservative family agenda.
Christian right organizations tend to focus more on the values side of the equation – trying to use laws and government policies to reinforce a traditional view of family life.
Most Jewish groups fight on a different battlefield, working on practical measures aimed at helping families as they are today.
“We see family issues in a very broad sense, but also pragmatically,” said Tana Senn, director of American affairs and domestic policies for Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. “Our list of top domestic issues probably has very little in common with the Christian Coalition’s.”
She gives an example: at the top of Hadassah’s list is gun control. “We see this very much as a critical family issue,” Senn said. “It’s a matter of safety in the home, of protecting children in the schools. At the Million Mom March, it was the mothers of America speaking out because this is an issue critical to their families.”
Another top family issue for Hadassah that clashes with the agenda of the Christian right is church-state separation, especially in the schools. “The family should be the basis of religious education, not the schools,” she said. “Supporting church-state separation is a way of supporting families in an important function, and it’s a way of supporting the best possible education for our children.”
Hadassah, along with other Jewish women’s groups and defense organizations, also sees reproductive choice as a key family issue. “These are decisions that should be made within the family, not by the government,” she said. “Reproductive choice is important for protecting the health of the family.”
She lists other issues Hadassah regards as key to the family public policy agenda: equal pay for women, family medical leave, patients’ rights, organ donation and combating domestic violence.
“Protecting children and spouses from abuse, and having the appropriate treatment and resources available for all, is very important for families,” she said.
The Jewish community, she said, general has a “vary practical, direct” family agenda – the emphasis is on policies and legislation that can produce measurable results for today’s families, not on reshaping those families according to some traditional pattern.”
Orthodox Jewish groups share some family concerns with Christian conservatives, others with the more liberal Jewish organizations. Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, lists some of his group’s family priorities.
“We’re very interested in family-friendly fiscal policies,” he said. “Eliminating the ‘marriage penalty’ [in the income tax] is part of that. We want to ensure that if a family member decides one spouse will stay home, they will not be penalized economically.”
The OU, like most other Jewish groups, puts a strong emphasis on various elder care issues, including the “return to home” concept, which would make it easier for hospitalized patients to return to nursing homes in their own communities.
But the OU differs from other Jewish groups in its tough stand against “the media assault on the family through video games, movies and television,” Diament said.
Liberal Jewish groups, concerned about First Amendment rights and worried about the more sweeping agendas of the Christian leaders who are battling Hollywood, generally steer clear of the issue – even though many leaders of these organizations concede that gun control alone won’t solve the violence problem as long as children are inundated with images of mayhem.
And the OU, along with Agudath Israel of America, regards school choice as a critical family issue. David Zwiebel, director of public policy for Agudah, a fervently Orthodox umbrella group, agreed that Jews across the political and religious spectrum are involved in family issues.
But while there is common ground between groups on a number of practical issues such as the need for better health care for children, there is disagreement on issues centering on efforts to strengthen the traditional family structure.
“These are the straightforward morality issues: how do you define marriage? How do you define the family? Do you see the issue of abortion as part of the family agenda? These are the areas where you have splits in the Jewish community today.”
But even Orthodox groups don’t see the range of family issues in stark black-and-white terms, Zwiebel said. “This is something the Orthodox community struggles with. On one hand, there is a very strong sense of traditionalism in our community; the traditional family structure is one we’ve continued to embrace.”
At the same time, in many Orthodox families, wives continue to be primary breadwinners for years after marriage as husbands pursue their religious studies. So issues such as pay equity, shunned as anti-family by many on the Christian right, “have resonance in our community,” he said. “So even within the Orthodox community, life is complicated.”
Zwiebel said that too many political conservatives draw simplistic lines when it comes to family issues. “I would tell those on the political right: aside from scoring political points, using the phrase ‘family friendly’ to describe their positions and ‘anti-family’ to describe more liberal more liberal positions is really a misnomer.”
Jewish groups that emphasize different issues — and that take different positions on the same issues — are still doing their best to protect families in a complex, uncertain time, he said.