Two years after the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans focused attention on a rapidly changing community, a group of 72 rabbis, academics and heads of philanthropic foundations has proposed a program of “Jewish public health education” along the lines of the anti-smoking movement to “teach concerned Jewish grandparents and parents how to improve the lives of their family members and make their progeny stronger, more engaged Jews.”
The proposal came in “A Statement on Jewish Vitality,” published Oct. 1 on eJewishphilanthropy.com, the wonkish online publication for Jewish professionals. In the article, the authors bemoaned the lack of “any sense of crisis” in the American Jewish community, “despite the evidence of deeply disturbing population trends.”
They pointed to five trends that they said the Pew study highlighted. They are: late marriage and non-marriage; frequent intermarriage; low birthrates; the disaffiliation of 2 million Jews; and diminished Jewish social connections, a weaker sense of meaningful and compelling Judaism, and fewer engaged Jews.
“If current trends continue unchecked, the American Jewish community will grow smaller and less vital,” according to the statement’s writers.
The article, and the responses it generated, point to two fault lines dividing the Jewish community: one over the meaning of intermarriage and another over the utility of Jewish anxiety about the community’s survival.
The authors proposed that the Jewish community “advance on multiple fronts” against prevailing trends, but stated that “the most promising approach focuses on adolescent Jewish education … day schools, supplementary schools, overnight Jewish camps, Israel trips and youth groups. These experiences, taking place in the crucial identity-forming high school years, work in synergy. They support one another, and recruit for one another.”
Among the authors’ prescriptions is to make day schools more affordable through Jewish community support for states to adopt tax policies “that offset day school tuition.”
The response to the statement on Jewish vitality, in the comments section and in follow-up articles, was immediate. Some expressed disappointment at what they called a lack of new ideas.
“I applaud the group who put this together for their effort and concern,” wrote Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz, of Temple B’nai Israel in Willimantic, Conn., “but am surprised how same-old and narrow the recommendations seem.”
Alan J. Weisbard, professor emeritus of law and Jewish studies at University of Wisconsin Law School, wrote that he found “too much committee-think. We need deeper, fresher, more original thinking about the challenges before us.”
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, criticized the way the statement came together.
“The failure lies not just in the prescriptions, which are hardly new, but in the closed process within a vertical hierarchy,” he wrote. “What’s missing is an inclusive process to achieve these lofty and somewhat obvious goals. Put simply, what’s missing is … vitality.”
Others noted that the statement had little to say about Jews older than 40, or about God and religiosity (or lack of it) and nothing about social justice, which is “a powerful means of engagement and a core expression of Jewish identity,” argued Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, which works for LGBT inclusion.
Intermarriage lightning rod
But it was the statement’s approach to intermarriage that drew the strongest criticism.
“Of those raised Reform — to take one example — 80 percent of those who married between 2000 and 2013 have non-Jewish spouses,” the statement said, referring to the Pew findings.
“But we must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion. Several existing conversion initiatives already produce a relatively large number of converts at relatively little cost. More conversion-oriented courses and institutes will raise the conversion rate further, producing more in-marriages with all the positive consequences for the Jewish future.”
Jon Levisohn, associate professor in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and a signatory of the statement, said its position on intermarriage is an example of the tendency in the Jewish community to focus on quantity at the expense of quality.
“Too much funding is driven by the desire for numbers — numbers of participants, or numbers of Jews — rather than the pursuit of cultural creativity and the aspiration for renewal,” he wrote.
Levisohn said he was concerned about the “instrumentalization of Jewish education” — that is, how education is used to further another end.
“Several years ago, at a conference about Taglit Birthright, Steven M. Cohen [a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute and an author of the statement] remarked that we used to send kids to Israel because we thought it was a good idea to send kids to Israel. Now we send kids to Israel because of evidence of the trips’ positive effects on in-marriage many years later,” he wrote.
“I find it deeply troubling that the statement uses the language of disease to refer to intermarriage and interfaith families,” wrote Rabbi Maurice Harris of InterfaithFamily.com. “The public health analogy is likely to be heard by many interfaith families in the Jewish community as highly insensitive and frankly offensive.”
The authors of the statement were “not sufficiently sensitive to people’s sensitivities,” Cohen said in an interview last week. “We did not mean nor anticipate personal offense. But the truth is, the married, the in-married and those raising Jewish children are the Jewish future.”
Is guilt good for the Jews?
The statement’s concern over numbers of Jews, in the view of some, is an obsession caused by the Holocaust, but which has become burdensome and maladaptive.
“These data give us two options,” wrote David Manchester, who is otherwise unidentified in the comments thread. “Continue to predict our demise and guilt individuals or use these data as a jumping-off point to envision the future we desire. If we are able to focus on the benefits that Jewish values can provide, a strengthened middle would be a likely outcome.”
Rabbi Aaron Potek, of the Washington-based Gather the Jews but expressing his own opinion, wrote that the problem is uninvolved Jews, not the total number of Jews.
“Addressing these trends [as the statement suggests] will not increase engagement with Judaism,” he wrote. “At best it will only increase the number of unengaged Jews.”
Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss of Congregation Shma Koleinu near Houston said in the view of the statement’s authors, it’s as if “the only things that have been successful at keeping us Jewish are xenophobia and paranoia.”
He said “some of the most interesting findings” from the Pew study have been ignored, “for example, that while 90 percent of Jews under 30 years old express little to no interest in synagogue affiliation, 90 percent also express ‘pride in being Jewish.’”
In an interview, Hausman-Weiss said that while he believes “passionately” in education, “I don’t think the answer to Jewish success in America is a return to a growing synagogue affiliation. We live in a different world.”
He said Jewish synagogues and movements are facing a “real estate problem,” in which too many and too large buildings stand empty for much of the week as membership shrinks.
In response to the statement’s concern about the future size and vitality of the Jewish community, the Akron-based Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, wrote: “We see American Jewish life today as diverse and dynamic, with cross-cutting trends and a richness and complexity that survey statistics simply cannot capture.”
The foundation criticized the statement’s “social engineering mindset” which “treats the people it hopes to impact as targets, individuals whose behavior needs to change, as the recipients of programmatic interventions that will induce them to do the things ‘we’ would like them to do.”
But Cohen, in the interview, said the authors achieved their short-term goals. “We wanted to get a point across — that the Jewish middle is declining. And if anything can stabilize the situation, it is most forms of Jewish education.”
Their long-term goal, he added, is for more money to be devoted to Jewish education.