Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish (Outside The Bubble Of The American Jewish Institutional World) Part 1

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

Sorry for the poor photo quality. This is a snapshot of the Lakeville study published in 1969 but based on research from a decade earlier.

Those are the essentials. What about that which is merely 'desirable' to being a good Jew?

In contrast, many virtues directly connected with traditional Judaism and Jewish identity tended to be considered merely 'desirable,' not 'essential.' Some of the most widely named 'desirable' attributes (again in the order of frequency with which named) were these:
  • Be well versed in Jewish history and culture
  • Marry within the Jewish faith (emphasis mine)
  • Contribute to Jewish philanthropies
  • Belong to Jewish organizations
  • Support Israel (emphasis mine)
  • Attend weekly services
  • Attend services on High Holy Days
  • Belong to a synagogue of temple 

Many interesting observations to be drawn here. One of which is obviously that a new, American, Jewish ideal had come to maturity by the 1950s. This ideal called for being a good person (with some sort of mushy, liberal values), and a proud Jew. And, most pertinent to our discussions today, endogamy and support for Israel didn't even make it into the 'essentials' column. The traditional notions of Torah Jewishness: kashrus, shabes, taharas mishpokhe are certainly nowhere to be found. As the authors of Lakeville write about this new American Jewish ideal: "Virtually all the traditional religious, nationalistic and cultural values were missing." 

You don't have to look too hard to know that the parents of the 1950s gave birth to the Jew of 2013. To wit: what it means to be Jewish, from the Pew report of 2013: 

  • Remembering Holocaust 73%
  • Leading ethical/moral life 69%
  • Working for justice/equality 56%
  • Being intellectually curious 49%
  • Caring about Israel  43%
  • Having good sense of humor  42%
  • Being part of a Jewish community 28%
  • Observing Jewish law   19%
  • Eating traditional Jewish food 14%
(screen cap of the Pew report below)

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.

(Part Two here)
(Part Three here)
(Part Four here)


  1. Great points. And quite ironic that it takes a Rootless Cosmopolitan to deliver them :)

  2. Very informative post. Thank you for providing the historical perspective.

  3. Hey, Rokhl, good post. I especially appreciate the perspective from the Sklare study, of which I was unaware. A few impressionistic thoughts:
    1) It's possible that the American Jewish ideal you describe is less "at odds" with "traditional Judaism" than you say. If we don't take the terms "essential" and "desirable" too literally, then the 1950's ideals may well translate pretty well to a translation -- albeit a non-authoritaran one -- of a coherent version of "traditional Judaism". The Prophets and Rabbis throughout their literature excoriate Jews who emphasize what our sociologists would call particularism if it's at the expense of or priority to what our sociologists would call universalism. Put differently, the expressions of particularism are essential but only are what they are if they are an unfolding of the humanitarianism that is basic to life. Sacrifices aren't sacrifices if they are achieved in the context of corruption; one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of lulav if it was stolen (interesting question for today, when many "Israeli" lulavs are grown in Ofra). So, the translation of that prioritization to "essential" and "desirable" might be a little imprecise, but strikes me as a pretty decent rendering of the tradition, or at least of one strong strain of it. That doesn't mean we should be satisfied with what we see. I would like to see more people -- Jews among them -- promoting humanitarian values as essential and more people doing more to actualize them. Against that backdrop, I would like to see many more Jews translating those values through the particular idioms that the world will not receive from anyone else. And I would like to see more Jews doing culturally-specific things that strengthen Jewish bonds and intimacy toward richer collective memory and organization through which those essential and very desirable values can be maximally played out. Point is, even for one with goals as "religious" as mine, the data may indicate a population not in conflict, but consistent with the goals, just not motivated to play them out any more particularly than they do at the moment. Good news for entreprenurial educators who like to listen to people and not judge them. Alan Brill makes similar or complementary points about Brit Avot and Brit Sinai in his post.
    2) Could you say more about the so-called leaders "not only have no interest in who we really are, but are in active denial about it"? I haven't been reading much of the fall-out; is your impression that Jane Eisner's comments are typical and therefore your point is that people as smart as Eisner and her ilk could only be so surprised if they've been living with their eyes closed, b/c actually, there's nothing so surprising in these data to anyone who pays attention?