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The endangered conversation

A recent study conducted among New York Jews reveals a growing well of silence about what it means to be Jewish

Two weeks ago, traditional congregations read the account, in Parashat Bamidbar, of the census Moses took of the people of Israel before they prepared to enter the Land of Israel. At the same time, UJA-Federation of New York was putting the finishing touches on the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, a comprehensive survey of the Jewish population of the eight-county New York area.

The study was released this past week. The report, a truly herculean effort undertaken by noted Jewish sociologist Dr. Steven M. Cohen and management consultant Dr. Jack Ukeles, is the product of 1.4 million phone calls that led to nearly 6,000 interviews. It deals with issues of pressing import to Diaspora Jewry, and the greater Jewish people: poverty in the Jewish community, intermarriage, Jewish education. There are endless words to be written about these particular issues, but I don’t want to talk about any of them.

I don’t want to talk about any of those things, because there is something far more important buried within the findings, an existential threat to Judaism itself: Jews have stopped talking about Judaism.

Cohen and Ukeles devised a list of 24 questions to ask participants in the survey in order to determine their Jewish engagement, things such as whether they light Hanukkah candles, whether they fast on Yom Kippur, whether most of their friends are Jewish. Three of these questions struck me. Respondents were asked:

1. In the past year did you engage in any type of Jewish study or learning, such as on your own, online, with a friend, or with a teacher?

2. About how often do you access Jewish websites or look for Jewish information on the Internet, if at all?

3. About how often do you talk about Jewish related topics with friends who are Jewish?

These questions constitute the backbone of Judaism, a religion long predicated on lively discussion, debate, disagreement and dialogue. And, significantly, they are not tied to religious practice, adherence to which varies across different streams of Judaism.

These questions have no barrier to entry — there are no dues to be paid or pre-existing knowledge required to talk about Judaism — and yet they embody the very concept of Jewish engagement. Unfortunately, they didn’t score well. Only 43% of New York Jews have conversations with Jews about Jewish topics. Thirty-eight percent participate in Jewish informal study. Another (or, quite possibly, the same) 38% access Jewish websites. All this, despite the New York Times headline about the study: “Aided by Orthodox, City’s Jewish Population is Growing Again.”

Cohen and Ukeles isolate and control for all sorts of different variables — gender, denomination, age, etc. — but the sad story remains the same. In fact, if we lay aside the New York Times’ optimism and look only at the non-Orthodox, these numbers dip considerably. Talking about Judaism, as it turns out, is less common among New York Jews than 11 other engagement points. This includes some obvious ones: attending a seder (69%), lighting Hanukkah candles (68%), and fasting on Yom Kippur (61%); as well as some that seem less obvious: donating to distinctly Jewish charities (55%), going to a Jewish museum or cultural event (49%), and paying synagogue membership dues (44%). Jews are “doing Jewish” (to use that ever-irksome phrase), without ever engaging in intellectual discussion about Judaism.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews converse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews converse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)

For all of their impeccable scholarship throughout the study, the authors do not provide us with much insight on why these three questions would yield such low responses. So I’ll give it a shot.

Jews have stopped talking about Judaism because they feel that there isn’t much left to talk about. The slow erosion of the intellectual commitment formerly demanded of the People of the Book has left a gaping hole, one too big to be filled by pastrami-on-rye and overbearing mothers. In the name of pluralism, and in order to seem more inclusive, Jews are validating all views and steering clear of judgment. The downside is that this leaves no room for any substantive Jewish conversation. Tradition teaches us that the Torah was taught in an unbroken line from Moses down through the generations. The rabbis of the Talmud gave way to the leaders of the Enlightenment; these, in turn, were replaced by the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, who outlined modern Jewish denominations. Today, this role of conversation-setter is largely vacant, replaced by the silent expectation of “big tent” Jewry.

Earlier this month, Dr. Jack Wertheimer, professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote an article entitled “The Ten Commandments of America’s Jews.” In it, he lamented this misguided pluralism, saying:

In order to bring everyone under one big tent, potentially divisive issues must be shelved…for all the talk of how enriching diversity can be, some of the most ‘inclusive’ Jewish institutions are loath to make room for those, especially Orthodox Jews, who depart from their orthodoxies.

The American Jewish community continues down this self-defeating road, blindly and blithely defending the validity of any and all opinions; unless, of course, that opinion is seen as too traditional, in which case it is declared to be outside of the tent and left to wither. We must remember that opinions aren’t sacred for their own sake; it is only when we busy our minds with holy conversation on Jewish topics that our society will be engaged and enriched.

There may be a cure, however, a prescription that could save Judaism from this precipitous decline into insignificance. It is impossibly vast. And it is impossibly easy. Talk. Read. Listen. Study. Debate. Discuss. Disagree. A far greater percentage of New York Jews than those who talk about Judaism – 52% – already answer that most of their close friends are Jewish. Even when two Jewish best friends talk, they aren’t talking about Judaism. It’s time to start the conversation!

It doesn’t matter whether you discuss the origins of keeping kosher or the origins of Jewish humor. It doesn’t matter whether you talk with your rabbi or with your girlfriend. It doesn’t matter whether this conversation takes place in the mall tonight or in synagogue on Shabbat or in the mall on Shabbat. The essence of Judaism has disintegrated into an endangered conversation, the echoes of which are fading to silence all around us. It is up to us to rejoice in Jewish thoughts and ideas, to bring the discussion to our unengaged Jewish friends. It is up to us to ensure that Jews start talking about Judaism once again.

About the Author
Seffi is a Jewish professional living in New York City. He holds degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He proudly calls New Jersey home. Yes, proudly. All opinions expressed are my own.