It has been a few weeks since the Pew Research Center released its report on the American Jewish community. The furor caused by the report is finally beginning to die down. As someone who has been an on-and-off participant in and observer of the American Jewish community for more decades than a like to admit (both as a Jewish professional and as a lay leader), I can verify that there was nothing new stated in this recent Pew Center report. This latest Pew report did not contain anything surprising; nothing we did not hear in 1990 and 2000. In fact, the latest results in Pew study outlined the same statistics we saw in the Jewish population survey from Denver in the 1970’s (the first place I remember reading that the intermarriage rate in a Jewish community exceeded 50%).
America has always been different than any other country where Jews have lived. While there has been anti-Semitism in America, it has never been as virulent as the anti-Semitism in Europe or in the Muslim world. Whatever overt anti-Semitism existed in the United States mostly disappeared after World War II. Three factors came together to end overt anti-Semitism in the U.S. First, the horrors of the Holocaust shocked Americans. Many who thought casual anti-Semitism was acceptable, recoiled when they saw where it could lead. Second, Jews served in the American forces in outsized numbers during World War II. They served proudly and bravely. Serving in the U.S. military provided many Americans their first one-on-one relationships with Jews. Finally, the State of Israel was founded soon after the war. The creation of a Jewish State normalized the Jew in America. As a result, Jews became like Italian-Americans, or Polish-Americans, or any other ethnic American with a homeland of their own.
1967 was a crucial turning point. Suddenly, it became “cool” to be Jewish after the Six Day War – when Israel went from a struggling country to a regional super power; and where Israeli (i.e. Jewish) pilots were suddenly proved to be the best in the world. Having grown up during that time period, and having studied it academically, I can definitively affirm that a profound change occurred to American Jews as a result of the Six Day War – a change that had long-term effects.
Furthermore, another change occurred slowly in America over the past twenty years. During the last score, Jews went from being a minority in America to being part of the American majority. This process began subtly. In order to be “politically correct”, politicians and religious leaders stopped referring to the “Christian heritage” of America. Instead they began referencing the “Judeo-Christian heritage” of the United States. At first, this semantic variation was imperceptible. However, before long, (after the phrase was uttered repeatedly, by enough people) the “Judeo-Christian” legacy became part of the American ethos. Suddenly, everyone accepted the notion of America as a society based on “Judeo-Christian values”. Once America became known as a “Judeo-Christian nation”, it was obvious that Jews were an integral part. However, now that Jews became an integral, and fully accepted part of American society, it came to be perfectly acceptable to any American parent to accept their children marrying a Jew. Children of two popular U.S. Presidents have done so. In the most recent case, that of Chelsea Clinton, the interfaith marriage was celebrated. On barrier to intermarriage has completely fallen. Another major barrier to intermarriage has been clearly gone for some time. Those who read the 2000 population survey know that 70% of the respondents did not oppose intermarriage. It should therefore have been clear that traditional Jewish impediment to “marrying out” (i.e. that “my mother would stick her head in an oven”) was also gone. So for the majority of American Jews it became and is now fully acceptable to intermarry.
Thirty years ago, a then young sociologist, Dr. Steven Cohen (nicknamed “The Happy Sociologist”) put forth a provocative theory. Dr. Cohen asserted that intermarriage was not bad for the Jewish people. He posited– if two Jews married each other, that would create one new Jewish family, one set of Jewish children. However, if two Jews each marry two non-Jews, there is a potential for two new Jewish families. If only half of the children of these intermarried couples would be brought up Jewish, we would end up with the same number of Jews. The Pew report is somewhat vague as to where we stand on this matter to date. The Pew report states: “Among Jews with a non-Jewish spouse 20% say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, and 25% are raising their children partly Jewish by religion. Roughly one-third (37%) of intermarried Jews who are raising children say they are not raising those children Jewish at all”. The biggest demographic challenge facing the American Jewish community is finding ways to maximize the percentage of these interfaith kids who will ultimately self-identify as Jews. The American Jewish community has always been very good at responding to political challenges. One can see evidence of that ability as far back as the Jewish community’s actions when General Grant removed Jews from his military territory. The Jewish community successfully intervened with President Lincoln. That tradition of activism has endured through the fight for the establishment of the State of Israel, continued political support for Israel, and of course, the struggle to free Jews from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, American Jewry has been much less successful at adapting to resolve the challenges it faces in the 21st century.
One would have thought that the past 60 years would have been years of great innovation and change in the Jewish community. After all, the fundamentals of Jewish life changed with the establishment of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years. During this same time, the changes in communication, technology and human interaction have been breathtaking. Still, the Jewish community has changed very little or none at all. It is not surprising that the American Jewish community has been unable to react to the great changes that the greater community has been undergoing. The two most prominent traits that characterize the organized community are: a) institutional conservativeness and b) a total lack of national leadership.
The institution that seems to have come out looking most weak in the Pew report is the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement’s motto is: “Tradition and Change”. Yet, during the past 40 years the Conservative movement has declared only two significant changes. They began allowing women, more recently gay and lesbian rabbinical school applicants to become Conservative rabbis. These are unquestioningly both important actions. However, in decades where the Jewish community has undergone such profound shifts, this is clearly not enough. As such, it is not a surprise that the Conservative movement is doing so poorly .
Over the years I have been involved in various initiatives to bring about change. I must say – with one major exception – little has come of them. In fact, over the years, things have continued to get worse.
Twenty-five year ago I authored the first significant study of Israel program returnees. That study successfully reached over 5,000 young people who had been on various long and short-term programs to Israel. It proved – for the first time – the considerable effect that trips to Israel had on American Jewish youth. There were two clear recommendations to come out of the report. The primary and most obvious suggestion was to get more Jewish kids to go to Israel. The second recommendation was to find a way to empower ands actively involve all those who had been to Israel. Realizing the first required a long-term plan, implementing the second was something we could start doing right away.
We immediately began trying to engage those youngsters who had been to Israel. For a short period, this project was a great success. When I moved to another project at the Jewish Agency the powers that be refused to give the newly created returnees organization the independence that they requested and deserved. I believed then – and believe today – that the only way to engage young people and for that matter anybody in Israel (and the Jewish work generally) is to get them personally involved and allow them to take responsibility. However, the American Jewish community is not structured that way. Over the past forty years the Jewish community in America has been engineered to emasculate its lay leadership, and ensure that professional are the only ones making decisions. Lay leaders are instructed they are present to write the checks and raise the money – but not to influence policy or make decisions. Much of the same professional leadership is in charge of most of the same organizations today as they were 25 years ago. If we want to engage the new generation, we must to allow them to lead and make their own decisions. Twenty-five years ago there was little enthusiasm for that plan of action– so the effort died.
Luckily for the Jewish people, the longer term goal of getting more kids to Israel was embraced by one of the few Jewish lay leaders who had both the money and the time to make a real difference Michael Steinhardt . Enter “Birthright”, the one really innovative program to develop in the Jewish community in the past few decades. But like everything else, it was two steps forward, and one back. While birthright has been a great success sending tens of thousands of kids to Israel, many of the longer high school and college programs that had been prevalent disappeared. The American Zionist Youth Foundation used to send 5,000 kids a summer to Israel on 6-7 week programs. Today, while many kids still come for the summer, the registration is nowhere near the same number of participants that there were in the past. Birthright, for all the good it has done, has had a perverse effect on longer Israel programs, by providing a disincentive to send HS student to Israel for the summer. After all, why spend $6,000 for a six-week program, when once your child goes to college they can go to Israel for free. Of course, the American Zionist Youth Foundation is no more (but that is a different story).
I could go on… however, I was taught long ago– it is easy to criticize, but much more difficult to come up with solutions. So here are a few ideas:
1) The American Jewish community must decide what battles it wants to fight. Intermarriage or the molding the Jewish identity of the next generation. It is impossible to fight both. I believe that fighting intermarriage is a lost cause (except in the Orthodox world). Furthermore, you cannot fight intermarriage, and then expect to be embraced by the children of intermarriage (the next generation) who hold the key to the Jewish demographic future outside of Israel.
2) Find ways to build on success. Studies have shown that the three keys to Jewish continuity seem to be: Jewish Day school education, trips to Israel, and Jewish camping. Each of these institutions are effective in different ways. However, we do not fully understand where and how they succeed. We also do not understand how to make them more effective. Finally, the Jewish community has no comprehensive plan as to how to engage the graduates of these program – or more importantly to empower them to engage in their own “creative destruction” to help reshape the future Jewish community to better reflect their own collective sense of Jewish identity.
3) Collect and analyze the data. We live in a data driven society. Our most successful companies (e.g. Google) are all data driven. Yet the Jewish community is bereft of any real data. Amazingly, even the data we have received from the Pew report we received after the Jewish community decided against funding a 2010 population study. Here are a few small suggestions for data: a) Do additional before and after studies of Birthright participants. b) Learn which programs are more successful and which are less so. c) Compare the results of Birthright program participants with other programs, including ones of longer lengths and for varying ages.
Look at Day school education. What programs and what courses of study positively effect Jewish identity? What regularly and categorically turns kids off. More Gemora or a course Jewish values? The same questions must be asked about summer camps. What are the most effective activities? What experiences have long-term effects and which activities do not? We may find that none of this data is significant– that the key is the Jewish friendships that are established in each of these institutions and programs. I, for one, do not know the answer to question (despite being an informed observer and active participant on the lay and professional level for my entire adult life).
4) Lastly, stop what is not working. We have known for two generations that afternoon Hebrew schools are a failure. It is time to find a new model of engagement for our youth. Maybe it’s time to redefine the Bar Mitzvah milestone and find additional ways to engage Jewish youth with their heritage(I will leave that topic for a separate article in the future).
The challenges posed by the Pew report are many. Finding solutions, first and foremost, will require understanding that Pew’s findings represent a long-term trend that has not changed in 30 years. The American Jewish community has failed (with a few exceptions) to counter these challenges to date. For those of us living in Israel these challenges are not the most acute problems we face. However, for everyone who cares about the long-term future of the Jewish people – those with whose fate Israel is inexorably tied – we can only hope that the next generation will produce a dynamic and innovate leadership who can bring about the changes that needed. The current generation has failed.