Barry Shrage
Barry Shrage
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Data is not destiny

Assimilation numbers alone can not determine our course toward building lives of meaning, purpose and community for the next generation of Jews

“Sociological descriptions are helpful in expanding awareness of the facts. They should not be expected to unlock resources of creative imagination by which to modify the facts.
In contrast to those who call for amor fati (acceptance of fate) we call for ahavath Israel, for joy in being what we are, love for those who share our commitments.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Yogi Berra

I’ve been working for the Jewish Community, in New York, Cleveland, and, for the past three decades, Boston since 1969. Throughout that time, I’ve been interested and concerned – some might say obsessed – with issues of Jewish identity, how it changes over time, and how it can be strengthened. Jewish community studies of every kind have, naturally, always fascinated me as one important way of understanding issues of identity.

The first studies that attracted my attention were those published in the early and mid-1970s. The studies generated a great deal of commentary, some might say concern, revealing higher than expected rates of intermarriage. This led to something of a panic in the American Jewish community, with some analysts predicting the virtual end of American Jewry by 2025, echoing the predictions in Look Magazine’s notorious and alarming 1965 cover story, “The Vanishing American Jew.”

At the same time, these studies and others fostered a wave of research and writing suggesting effective ways of meeting the challenge, starting with a collection of research, essays, and a symposium sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (which made a convincing case for “beyond the classroom” immersive experiences and day schools). It also led to the creation of the short-lived “Institute for Jewish Life,” formed in 1972 after the student uprising at the Boston GA in 1969, which was triggered, in part, by the fears generated by the Look Magazine article and other earlier studies.

The American Jewish community, however, was still focused on Israel and its struggle for survival amid a series of wars and conflicts with neighboring Arab states. As a result, few of these efforts received serious attention from Federations or the broader community.

Sidney Vincent, executive director of the Jewish Federation in Cleveland at the time, called for a shift from Federation’s focus on Jewish survival, saving Jewish lives, to an additional focus on the survival of Judaism, our culture and faith. But, apart from a few leaders and scattered Jewish Federations, few heeded his cri de coeur. Research and data have limited impact unless it finds its way into the hearts and minds of community leaders with enough power to trigger a paradigm shift among those deeply committed to the old “sacred survival” (described in Jonathan Woocher’s seminal study, Sacred Survival ) model that powered the glory days of Jewish federations from 1967 through the 1970s.

When I worked for the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland in the early 1980s, I was fortunate to coordinate several local studies as well as studies conducted in several other communities under the leadership of Ann Schorr, the Federation’s director of research. This was a time of acute interest in issues around intermarriage. Attitudes were quickly changing with greater acceptance of intermarriage and greater concern for the future of American Jewry.

It was around this time that I learned my first important lesson about studies and community planning: the rate of intermarriage was increasing, and along with it, acceptance of intermarried Jewish families. But something else was occurring.

Ann called me one day to point out that the comments of those surveyed, noted by interviewers, suggested rather different conclusions. She noted growing interest on the part of intermarried households in raising their children as Jews and real soul searching around issues of identity generated by their intermarriage.

Wedded as I was to my own deeply held – but wrong – ideas about intermarriage, I didn’t pay attention at first. But the lesson became clearer over time; that numbers matter and that quantitative research can provide information, but that narratives generated through qualitative research supported by instinct and stories can also yield real and important truths when examined together with data.

Perhaps more importantly, we learned that in order for research to give us actionable, accurate findings, staff and volunteers at Federations must take an active role in planning the study. A study that doesn’t begin with clear testable hypotheses focused on real community concerns will never yield usable results. In addition, community planning must be “vision driven” and not exclusively “data driven.” In the words of the late great business consultant Michael Hammer, quoting from “Alice in Wonderland,” “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there!”

Every 10 years since 1965, CJP has commissioned the Greater Boston Community Study, an in-depth look at the perspectives, needs, and challenges of the region’s increasingly diverse Jewish community. Despite their breadth and depth, CJP has always viewed these studies not as final documents but as the starting point for an ongoing community dialogue. The organization continues to analyze the data long after the study is completed, conducting additional research and, more importantly, engaging the broadest possible cross-section of our community in the conversations so that we continue to build a community of meaning and purpose (the vision and the road!)

At the same time, we have always sought to avoid the traps described by Heschel (and by Yogi Berra) about the predictive ability of data. During my time at CJP – and to this day – the organization has been deeply committed to placing the data into historical perspective and then converting statistical insight into creative action while at the same time remembering that the data exists in service to our vision and our values. We must never be satisfied with where we are today but must look toward where we must be tomorrow.

As a contemporary example, the critically important “next generation,” the millennials, are worth very special attention. Some have suggested that the next generation is radically different, rejecting all institutional affiliations, hostile to Israel, rejecting “tribal” or “particularistic” identification, and interested primarily in “universal” or “social justice” causes. A deeper analysis however reveals a far more nuanched picture of this critically important demographic group and it’s vital that we do not allow stereotypes to drive communal policy.

Jewish millennials are certainly different from previous generations, but they are complex and defy easy categorization. They are universal and particular; tribal and covenantal; interested in culture and art and music and rabid sports fans; deeply committed to volunteerism and deeply committed to success in their own careers and to material success; concerned about world hunger and aficionados of gourmet food; wary of institutions and also seeking community and interested in those institutions (including synagogues) that offer quality and meaning and purpose. On issues around Israel, some Jewish millennials may be deeply concerned about the plight of Palestinians, but others are far more concerned with Israel’s security and the world’s hypocrisy. I fear that some millennials barely know that Israel exists.

And of course, like each generation, the politics and priorities of millennials are subject to change over time. Significantly, Birthright Israel has already made a measurable impact on the next generation’s connection to Israel, with Birthright participants far more likely to feel “very close” to Israel than non-participants. The fact that nearly half a generation of Jewish young adults are or will be touched by a Birthright experience seems to be having far ranging impact even beyond love of Israel. It can amplify love of the Jewish people, and increase interest in Jewish life, Jewish involvement and raising Jewish children. It’s therefore important to consider the extensive national research on Birthright along with other factors in understanding the next generation and planning ways to engage them.

Even in instances where data supports the aforementioned stereotypes many have of the millennial generation, we must not allow the data alone to determine our communal strategy and destiny. The data provides clues to our tactics, but our strategy must also be values and vision driven.

If the next generation turns out to be insular and “tribal,” our community needs to cry out for justice for all humankind. If the next generation turns out to be largely “universal,” we need to teach love of the Jewish people. If the future belongs to the internet, we need to create space for face-to-face communities of caring and love. If the next generation is utterly uninterested in Jewish learning, we need to prioritize making Jewish learning compelling and meaningful and as viral as Birthright.

More importantly, I am not sure that communal strategy should be based solely on research data that purports to tell us what the next generation is looking for. If we believe that Israel’s survival or well-being depends on our political support or, for that matter, constructive criticism of Israel’s government, we are ethically bound to argue our position. In my experience, young adults respect organizations and leaders who actually believe in something and offer compelling beliefs. An older generation that crafts its beliefs based on research of next generation opinions is not worth following. Moreover, I don’t believe that young Jews are rejecting religion or community. They frequently describe themselves as “spiritual” and may be seeking religious institutions and communities that are alive and warm and that can add real meaning to their lives.

Finally, in interpreting data on the institutional engagement of young American Jews (and particularly on their synagogue engagement), our data must be placed in the context of an American Jewish community that exists within an increasingly diverse, integrated and secularized American society. People are living longer, marrying later (if at all), and are experiencing a significantly greater portion of their lives without children in their households at both ends of the lifecycle. Thanks to social networks, we are both more diffuse and polarized, yet more connected. And we are still feeling the aftershocks of the 2008 economic recession and entrenched economic disparity while trying to understand the massive impact of the pandemic and the political earthquake that has divided our country and changed the calculus of peace in the Middle East.

Most importantly, American Jews are the product of a century of assimilation. Sociologists have long predicted the weakening or disappearance of Jewish identification and ethnic connection in the fourth generation of living in free societies. Continuing rates of intermarriage can exacerbate the trend as can a growing belief in universalism and a rejection of “particular” or “tribal” identities. These trends affect our entire society and certainly underpin the changes we are seeing in our Boston Jewish community.

But the idea that all institutional forms of engagement are doomed based on some existing data ignores the growth of many local congregations and emerging “congregation like” forms of engagement. Abandoning workable models or models that can be reformulated in favor of (mostly non-existent) non-institutional alternatives may be a recipe for disaster. Despite ongoing predictions that synagogue life is doomed in an era of “nones,” no other Jewish institution has such extensive penetration in Jewish life as does the synagogue. We also know from observation that there is growth and strength in some synagogues, where membership is blossoming, vibrant programming is engaging families and individuals of all ages and lifecycle stages. This suggests a flight to quality and to congregations that offer experiences that are joyful, spiritual and, for many, intellectually serious rather than across the board decline.

Finally, I believe that research is important but that numbers alone must not be allowed to define our future. Data can point the way but only we can determine what we do next armed with this information.

The American Jewish community is at a crossroads. We must take advantage of every opportunity to reach out to a next generation newly energized by Birthright and other immersive experiences. We will need to pursue our broad-based outreach while at the same time develop a “Judaism of meaning and purpose.” And that requires that our outreach and programming be rooted in substance. We must be committed to building a community with no barriers to entry but with a vision of Jewish life as high as Sinai; filled with the beauty and meaning of Judaism, rooted in tradition, but focused on the future.

In Exodus, at the burning bush, Moses asks God his name and God responds, “I will be what I will be.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, interpreting the words of God, explains God’s point for Moses and the Jewish people: “I will be what I will be, but you will determine the outcome.”

The facts of community studies will be what they will be, but we will determine the outcome.

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP
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