This mixed, outward-looking body of unorthodox Jews is good news
TV host Jon Stewart, L, and Rahm Emanuel: they identify as Jewish but is that enough?
Population Is Growing and Jews Aren’t Hiding From Heritage
By Bethamie Horowitz
October 14, 2013
Initial reactions to the recent Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews have been almost knee-jerk in their pessimism. One commentator called the portrait a “grim” one. Another viewed the study’s results as “devastating,” with its evidence of “so much assimilation.” This rush to gloom brings to mind the old sendoff about the definition of a Jewish telegram: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
The actual facts that evoked these reactions needn’t be viewed as unequivocally problematic. Another reading is possible.
Consider these findings: The American Jewish population turns out to be larger than expected: 6.8 million rather than previous estimates of 6 million or less. Intermarriage rates have held more or less steady since 1990. And most (61%) of Jews who intermarry are raising their children as “Jewish or partly Jewish,” rather than in another religion.
So the Jewish population isn’t shrinking, and even though many Jews intermarry, among those who do, the impulse to evade being seen as Jewish and to avoid “burdening” the identity of one’s children with a Jewish connection seems to have faded.
Today, intermarriage is more aptly a marker of integration and acceptance of Jews into America than a sign of Jews abandoning their origins or turning their backs on Judaism. I’m thinking of people like Jon Stewart, Natalie Portman and Rahm Emanuel, who have intermarried yet strongly identify as Jews.
It’s likely that they would be among the overwhelming proportion of Jews (94%) in the study who say that they are proud to be Jewish. While rabbis and the most religiously devout may not be impressed by this, sociologically these changes are striking and worth appreciating.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1937, Jews were held in such low esteem that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan described the troubling psychological burden of being Jewish: “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.”
At midcentury there was a slew of jokes about Jews who attempted to “pass” as WASPs but were stymied by telltale signs of their otherwise hidden Jewishness.
Now the situation is remarkably different. A cartoon from the October 1, 2012, issue of The New Yorker depicted a couple and a wedding planner with the following caption: “No, we’re not Jewish. But we think it would be fun for our reception’s theme to be ‘A Jewish wedding.’”
What’s changed over the course of the past century is that being Jewish is no longer viewed as a stigmatized condition. In other words, the “credit rating” of Jews as a group in American society has improved radically in comparison with its valuation half a century ago.
That positive shift is a result of the successful incorporation — assimilation! — of Jews (among other former stigmatized “Others”) who were once seen as beyond the pale but have now become part of the widened American mainstream. A formerly “bright boundary” separating Jews and gentiles blurred and became traversable (to use the language of sociologist Richard Alba).
Jewishness is now more widely distributed and much more positively viewed within the broader society than in the past. For instance, more than half of Americans (58%) reported personally knowing a Jewish person, according to the General Social Survey 2000. And nearly two-fifths of Americans say they would favor a close relative marrying a Jew. In 1905, intermarriage between a Jewish woman — “the flower of the ghetto” —and the scion of a prominent Protestant family was so unthinkable that it made the front page of The New York Times!
In this new environment, Jewishness in its many modes is no longer limited to traditional Jewish outlets. The Pew survey doesn’t tell us much about the expanding array of materials a person can use that relate to Jews, Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish concerns — the sheer number of books and films on Jewish subject matter, the opportunities for Jewish learning, even various cartoons that contain Jewish characters.
In addition, Jewish content is increasingly available in places that never provided it before: on university campuses, on TV, even in the form of the Pew study itself. The other national studies of Jews from 1970, 1990 and 2001 were funded and conducted by and for the Jewish community — and with the Pew study, the research operation has moved out of a cloistered Jewish-only setting and onto a broader stage.
All in all, the experience of Jews in America is a complex story. Summarizing this as a “grim portrait” misses a significant counter-narrative: the surprising persistence and durability of Jewishness in America.
Bethamie Horowitz is a research professor at New York University. She directed the 1991 New York Jewish Population Study.
Establishment Fades Because It Sticks to Knee-Jerk Support
By Rebecca Vilkomerson
October 14, 2013.
The new Pew Center study on Jewish American life has been the subject of much handwringing since it came out last week, as the results show a weakening of connection to Jewish life among the non-Orthodox, as well as a weakening connection to Israel.
For many years now, the lament of the organized Jewish community has been that it is not retaining the younger generations. Yet Pew’s results seem to show that one reason big institutions are losing their grip is precisely because a small group of older privileged Jews are trying to dictate the range of beliefs acceptable in the Jewish community.
According to Pew, 48% of Jewish Americans don’t think Israel is making a sincere attempt to make peace. A quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, while only 5% of those over 50 think the same.
The irony here is that there is a sub-set of Jewish Americans who are in fact strongly connected by every measure to Jewish life, but are being actively pushed out of it. Let’s take my own story as a case study. I was raised in a Conservative synagogue, where I was bat mitzvah-ed and confirmed. I grew up to marry an Israeli, lived in Israel for three years, and visit at least yearly. I belong to a synagogue, the wonderful Kolot Chayenu, and am actively raising my children Jewish-ly.
So far, so good. It would be hard to argue that I am not the very model of Jewish continuity and involvement that the institutional community is desperately trying to figure out how to replicate.
And you certainly don’t have to have these multiple points of Jewish connection to be identified as part of the community, which includes every stream including the entirely secular.
Part of my Jewish identity-both through the Jewish values I was taught and the social history of Jews in America that I cherish—has been political activism that has ranged from economic justice to fighting for an Israel that would value the equality, dignity, freedom, and security of all people in the region, Israeli and Palestinian.
Because of these views, I, and others like me, are being shut out by the self-appointed leaders of the Jewish community — solely because our political perspective on Israel and Palestine falls outside the acceptable parameters they have unilaterally decided upon.
Last month, Jeremy Burton, the head of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Panel (JCRC), said at a panel that, “we all recognize that when we set boundaries, including boundaries around the conversation about Israel, we run the risk of some people being left out who might have been let in. That’s a risk we understand, yet we set those boundaries.”
He then went on to explain that any organization that supports Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a Palestinian-led, non-violent movement to pressure Israel to be accountable to international law, doesn’t belong at the communal table. In fact, he was referring specifically to Jewish Voice for Peace. He went on to argue that opening the public conversation to BDS is akin to welcoming the KKK.
This week the new director of Hillel, which claims over 500 chapters dedicated to Jewish life on campuses in North America, noted his delight in enforcing guidelines that exclude Jewish students that “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel”—without explaining how that is defined.
This voluntary jettisoning of politically engaged Jews is creating a huge loss to the Jewish community that Pew shows it can ill afford.
Ironically, those being excluded by these policies are often the very same committed, passionate people who are engaged with Jewish life that Jewish institutions claim to want. People like the almost fifty rabbis and rabbinical students on JVP’s Rabbinical Council, or the many people in our youth wing who have a rich Jewish practice and deep connections to multiple Jewish institutions. Over and over again, I have seen how betrayed they feel when the Jewish community, which has nurtured them and taught them values such as justice and tikkun olam, reject them when they apply those principles to Israel and the Palestinians.
The pinnacle of this our-way-or-the-highway modus operandi in the Jewish world was expressed last week by the inimitable Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who responded to the Pew results with this gem: “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care…This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care. I think it’s interesting, we need to be aware. But I’m not going to follow this.”
In other words: Jewish leaders are claiming to speak for a community that doesn’t agree with them. This is not just rhetoric. Millions of dollars of Jewish communal money are being used to fight BDS in the U.S.
Any organization that cares about Jewish continuity needs to understand that for a growing number of us, holding Israel to a standard of equality, justice, and security for everyone — whether Jewish or Palestinian — is one of the most important ways of expressing our Jewish values. As the Forward has suggested, for the sake of the Jewish community in the U.S — and I would add, even more importantly, for the sake of the future of Israelis and Palestinians, it is time for the litmus test on Israel to be over.
Rebecca Vilkomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace
Chelsea Clinton marries Jewish investment banker Marc Mezvinsky July 31, 2010. A rabbi and Methodist minister officiated. Photo by Genevieve de Manio via Getty Images.
Intermarried Jews are far less likely to be involved in the [Jewish] community. Taking steps to address that is one glaring message of the landmark Pew study on Jewish America. Jewish Forward caption.
Editorial, Jewish Forward
October 03, 2013
The U.S. Census Bureau asks many questions in its decennial survey of Americans, but never about their religion. The bureau considered doing it once, for the 1960 census, and actually put out a test question in March 1957. To the query “What is your religion?” 3.4% of Americans 14 years and older answered “Jewish.”
After a hail of criticism, the idea of probing religious identity was dropped, and experts could only take educated guesses, especially about a segment of the population as small and complex as the Jews.
The guessing is over. Thanks to the Pew Research Center with support from the Neubauer Family Foundation, we can answer that question and many more with the first national, comprehensive and independent survey of American Jews to be conducted outside the organized Jewish community. To the extent that numbers don’t lie or prevaricate, this survey’s conclusions are as definitive as can be.
(Full disclosure: Jane Eisner, the Forward’s editor in chief, first suggested that Pew undertake the survey and served on its advisory panel.)
The findings point to a dramatic generational shift in identity and practice in which young Jews are increasingly likely to have no religion, despite saying they are Jewish. In doing so, they are rewriting the norms of behavior that have long characterized Jewish life, abandoning the traditional support for Jewish families, Jewish institutions and Israel and opting instead for an individualized Jewish life filled with pride and possibility, but only loosely engaged in community.
There is no persuasive way to sugarcoat these devastating findings, though some religious and communal leaders are already trying to do so. Unlike previous surveys sponsored by Jewish organizations and therefore somewhat suspect, the Pew data are unassailable. We shouldn’t argue about the facts. What we should do is argue about what they mean and how to constructively respond.
Here are some ideas:
• Forget the litmus test on Israel. About seven-in-ten Jews say they feel either very or somewhat attached to Israel, and 43% have visited Israel at least once, so let’s stop worrying that somehow American Jews are morphing into anti-Zionists. But this survey shows a huge disconnect between the self-proclaimed “pro Israel” lobby that generally supports the Netanyahu government without question and the sentiments of the actual Jewish public they purport to represent.
Just 38% of American Jews say that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. Only 17% think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security, while 44% say that it’s harmful.
Clearly, the voices of these critical but still attached Jews must be included in the national conversation. It’s time to get past the silly debate about whether J Street or the New Israel Fund or other such organizations are kosher enough to speak in synagogues, at federation meetings and on college campuses. These venues should confidently welcome all knowledgeable, responsible voices — especially since those voices represent a sizeable segment of American Jews.
• Rescue the Conservative movement. Only 18% of American Jews identify with Conservative Judaism, half as many as Reform and only 8% more than Orthodox, a stunning decline for the denomination that once was most populous. And the future is even less promising: Only 11% of young Jews say they are Conservative, while the median age of Conservative Jews, 55, is the highest of any denomination.
The initial responses by Conservative leaders to these stark numbers — ranging from denial to defensiveness — can be excused for the moment, but it’s a self-defeating strategy going forward. Younger Jews, especially, eschew the formulaic, often passionless Jewish worship that characterizes too many Conservative synagogues, and the movement’s understandable reluctance to embrace intermarriage has sent droves of its members to less restrictive, less demanding Reform temples.
Further shrinkage would be a tragedy, and not just for the Jews who believe in the Conservative mission of placing tradition directly in conversation with modernity.
A weakened Conservative movement harms other denominations as well. Orthodoxy has benefited from the influx of Conservative Jews seeking a more observant lifestyle; already that flow has recessed as the numbers have shrunk. All Jews benefit from having multiple choices and outlets, and from the high level of scholarship and communal leadership that has emerged from Conservative institutions in the last century. Many of the creative rabbis now leading pioneering nondenominational congregations were educated in Conservative seminaries.
The constriction of Conservative Judaism is not just a Conservative problem — it’s everybody’s challenge. Without a strong middle core, Judaism will become weaker, more polarized and simply less viable.
• Confront intermarriage. Don’t be assuaged by the Pew finding that the rate of intermarriage hasn’t increased much in the last few years. It is still, at 58%, so common as to be unnoticed. And the revelation that since 2000, 72% of non-Orthodox Jews chose to marry outside the faith should be a dramatic wake-up call to anyone who hopes to see a thriving, egalitarian, pluralistic American Judaism in the future.
Individually, a mixed marriage may seen acceptable (who wouldn’t want Chelsea Clinton in the family?) But collectively and over time, this trend is devastating. Jews married to non-Jews are far less likely to belong to a synagogue, observe religious tradition, contribute to Jewish causes, raise their children as Jews, and engage in the Jewish world. There are examples to the contrary, but to quote a great sage, the plural of anecdote is not data. This data can’t be ignored.
This central conundrum for the modern Jew is impervious to a simple solution, but there is an immediate, modest step that could make a difference: Enthusiastically encourage conversion before or soon after marriage. For centuries, Jews have made it extremely onerous to join the club. Now it’s time to fling the doors wide open.
But to do so, we have to believe that Jewish life is worth embracing. Which brings us to a final point.
• Preserve and celebrate Jewish distinctiveness. After remembering the Holocaust, Jews told Pew that leading an ethical and moral life is the most essential part of being Jewish. But all faith traditions teach ethics and morality. We need to teach, emphasize, model and promote what is distinctive about Jewish tradition — its devotion to community, its belief in the here and now, its rich melding of faith and culture, its time-tested but often counter-cultural values. Divorcing Judaism, however it is practiced, from Jewish life invites more assimilation.
And we know where that leads. Pew found that Jewish adults now comprise 2.2% of the U.S. population, a sharp drop from that 3.4% figure. Knowing so much about ourselves is a gift. Now let’s respond.
See also American Jews losing the faith, October 2nd, 2013