The Pew Trust recently released a huge survey of the American Jewish population. The Pew study is important because a major Jewish population study hasn't been done in ten years. While the survey is far from perfect, it's an important wake up call to an ever more delusional American Jewish institutional leadership. Or, maybe it's a message to us, the so-called constituents, that our leaders not only have no interest in who we really are, but are in active denial about it. (Much more on this soon.)
I've been shocked and dismayed to see the reactions of Jewish communal leaders to this latest report. For example, Jane Eisner, editor in chief of the Forward, was quoted in the New York Times saying she
"...found the results “devastating” because, she said in an interview, “I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion.”
“This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews,” she said, “to think about what kind of community we’re going to be able to sustain if we have so much assimilation.”
Jane Eisner is a smart woman and a formidable journalist. So why would she be devastated by the state of American Jews when sociologists have been saying the exact same things about American Jews for at least fifty years: American Jews have no use for the Jewish religion. Even more than the statistics, the leadership's reaction tells us that something has gone very wrong in the official American Jewish narrative.
However! Before we get to the polemic, let's go to the numbers. One of the points I want to make is that the demographic findings of today are predicted in the sociological literature of 50 years ago. Synagogue attendance, observance of kashrus, Hebrew literacy, attitudes toward intermarriage: these were all on the downward trend decades ago and it warn't no secret.
For example, in the mid-50s, the American Jewish Committee sponsored a study of a fairly new Chicago suburb; it was known as 'Lakeville' in the literature. The findings of the Lakeville study didn't come out in full until the mid-60s. Its authors were the cream of the crop of American Jewish sociology: Marshall Sklare, Benjamin Ringer, Joseph Greenblum. Though Lakeville was wealthier, better educated and had a smaller percentage of the foreign born than the greater American Jewish population, the study's authors felt Lakeville was a predictor of general trends among American Jews. And boy, were they right.
I'm going to focus on just one 'metric' at the moment, as it has a good one to one correspondence between the Lakeville study and today's Pew report, and it highlights the true state of American Jewry.
Jews in Lakeville were asked to list what they considered to be the most important criteria for being a 'Good Jew.' The responses are here listed in order of frequency:
- Lead an ethical and moral life
- Accept his being a Jew and try not to hide it
- Support all humanitarian causes
- Promote civic betterment and improvement in the community
- Gain respect of Christian neighbors
- Help the underprivileged improve their lot
- Know the fundamentals of Judaism
- Work for equality for Negroes
Obviously, there have been some tremendous cultural shifts in American Jewish life since the Lakeville study. Decades of Holocaust education, for example, have placed the Holocaust at the center of American Jewish life in a way that was unimaginable when the Lakeville material was published. And that 19% who answered 'Observing Jewish law' in 2013 can perhaps be attributed to another trend that was only dimly perceived in the 50s and 60s, the resurgence of traditional Judaism. And yet, the American Jew of 2013 isn't that different from that of the 50s and 60s. He's less embarrassed of Jewish humor, maybe, but his Jewishness is sentimental, intellectual, and only vaguely nationalistic. He may belong to a synagogue, but he has no interest in going there.
The numbers are all there, and have been there for decades. Our most pressing problem today isn't intermarriage, (as many would have it) but an American Jewish ideal at odds with traditional Jewishness and Jewish continuity. To act as if this is a surprise, in the face of decades of research, shows a tragic failure of leadership in the American Jewish institutional world.