Steven M. Cohen Promotes "Meaningless Jewish Associations"
12/14/2010 - 18:51

Regular readers of this blog know that I have, on more than one occasion, criticized sociologist Steven “Intermarriage Is The Greatest Threat” Cohen. But to tell you the truth I’m starting to feel a little sorry for the guy.

While I doubt he cares about my blog missives, and while there is of course something noble about sticking to your opinions even when they are no longer fashionable, Cohen, who is a professor at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, seems to be increasingly out of step with the non-Orthodox American Jewish community. 

I just watched the video of his appearance last month, alongside’s Ed Case and several Jewish federation execs, at a Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly session entitled “Can We Encourage In-Marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families?”

Now, I actually share Cohen’s desire to see increased support for Jewish summer camps, educational programs, Israel trips and a variety of other programs that engage people in Jewish life.

But arguing, as he repeatedly does, that all this is important because it helps reduce the intermarriage rate, is not just offensive to those of us who are intermarried or the products of intermarriage, but uninspiring to say the least.

Cohen is a bright, articulate and highly educated man, yet he seems to have gotten trapped into this weird circular thinking, in which means and ends become confused. In Cohen’s mind, intermarriage is bad because it (according to outdated statistics examining intermarriages that occurred a generation ago or more) leads to fewer Jews, and Jewish education/engagement is good because it decreases intermarriage rates and, therefore (according to Cohen) produces more Jews.

Whether or not Jewish education/engagement does is in fact reduce intermarriage rates, I will save for another day, but if I understand Cohen’s view correctly, Jewish engagement has no intrinsic value to him and is not the end goal, but is instead simply a means to get Jews to marry Jews. (And even Cohen no longer argues that Jewish engagement actually prevents intermarriage or “inoculates” participants against intermarriage.)

Since anti-Semitism and the confinement of Jews to ghettos are also “proven” methods of reducing intermarriage rates, one almost wonders why Cohen doesn’t promote these approaches.

In fact, he does like to talk about the “ZIP code” factor whereby Jews who live near other Jews are — surprise — more likely to marry Jews. Underscoring the banality of this outlook, in the middle of his opening remarks, Cohen actually said, “Meaningless Jewish associations — just Jews in contact with other Jews — is especially critical for boosting the in-marriage rate.”

I rewound and watched it over and over again, just to make sure I heard him right. (It’s exactly 26 minutes and 52 seconds into the video, if you don’t believe me.) Let's start a special federation campaign to promote "meaningless Jewish associations."

But I need not critique Cohen because everyone else on the video — speakers and audience members alike — did, with several noting that asking how to encourage in-marriage is “the wrong question.” (If you're interested, I blogged about Ed Case's remarks a few weeks ago.)

Jay Sanderson of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles said, “We have a major communal challenge. It has nothing to do with interfaith families; it has to do with everyone … Most of the Jewish community, whether intermarried or not, are opting out of Jewish engagement.”

Barry Shrage, of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies said that while his own mother actually threatened to commit suicide if he ever intermarried, the “just say no” approach has less impact than emphasizing the positive.

“My son will always remember being on my shoulders on Simchas Torah and how much joy he had, how much joy my daughter had, and they will want that for their own kids with all their heart and all their souls,” Shrage said. “So either they’re going to marry a person who will convert and live a full Jewish life or marry someone Jewish.”

Or, I would add, marry someone who is not Jewish but is supportive of them living a full Jewish life and raising Jewish children.

Shrage’s children are already married (to Jews), so it’s a moot point, but you get the idea. Definitely not a moot point: his “message of love and engagement, that Judaism is a 3,500-year-old tradition that’s filled with meaning and purpose and community and Torah.”

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from my understanding, Steve Cohen is only concerned that Jews marry Jews and that everything else related to Jewish life is irrelevant. he doesn't care if people keep kosher or if they attend High Holidays services...he only cares that all the single Jews are matched up with one another and that any resulting offspring are legally Jewish. the "because i said so" approach doesn't work, but Steve Cohen hasn't figured that out yet. nothing in life is guaranteed and no matter how many years of Day School or Jewish summer camps have been attended, it is not automatic that in-marriage will be the end result. there are many Jews who married other Jews, only to be ambivalent about religion or feel that they compromised their happiness by marrying someone they don't love or have nothing in common with other than being Jewish (divorce isn't cheap) to please the "because i said so" crowd. this is not reflectant of everyone, but in instances like this it is a sad reminder that sharing a religion doesn't guarantee success or happiness. the real problem is lack of interest and lack of readiness to adapt to changes in modern Jewish life, not intermarriage itself. there are many intermarried Jews (and their non-Jewish partners) who are gung ho about Jewish life, but are turned away because they didn't do what they were told when it came to choosing a partner. if Judaism was marketed in a more positive light, afilliation levels would rise regardless of whether people are in-married or intermarried. and if anyone is delusional, it's the so-called "anti-intermarriage" poster. they suffer from the "because i said so" attitude, which is not going to get very far. i'm not saying people should intermarry left and right, but the fact is we live in an open society and are going to do whatever they want regardless of what this naysayer or anyone else with a similar view tells them.
Anti-intermarriage - I do not believe that being born Jewish is meaningless. Nor do I believe that people who convert to Judaism are "less" Jewish in any way than those who were born Jewish, and Jewish tradition supports my belief in this. Gentiles can help raise Jewish children by supporting activities based on the heritage and culture of the Jewish parent. Involvement in synagogue activities and Jewish schools can help to reinforce the transmission of Jewish culture and heritage. I do not believe your parents or grandparents are worthless or inferior to gentiles. I never implied any such thing, and I find the fact that you suggest otherwise to be offensive. When you argue a point by inventing perceived insults that don't exist and relying on emotions rather than facts, you are unlikely to persuade many people to your point of view. If you have any statistics to show that children raised by one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, and who were raised Jewish, are any less Jewishly involved than children of inter-married parents, I would love to see them. But unless and until there is reliable data to show inter-marriage is a problem, I don't believe it is one.
You just made my point, Susan! You, like Julie, believe that being born a Jew is meaningless and that gentiles can raise Jewish children without the benefit of a Jewish heritage and culture. What a bunch of hogwash! Gentiles are incapable of raising Jewish children! "It's neither better or worse!" Now that is offensive and bigoted toward Jews. (It's definately worse!) My parents and grandparents are not worthless and inferior to genitles as you seem to think. Only Jews can raise Jewish children and only gentiles raise their children in whatever non-Jewish religion and culture they are. That is a fact and the pro-intermarriage crowd are delusional to think otherwise.
In no way did Julie, or any other person I know of who says inter-marriage is not a problem, claim that "gentiles can raise Jewish children better than actual Jews." What we are saying is that gentiles, who are married to Jews, and who support raising their children as Jews, do not get in the way of those children becoming fully engaged Jewish adults. Therefore, inter-marriage does not lead to fewer Jews as long as both spouses are committed to raising Jewish children. It's neither better nor worse.
I actually feel sorry for Julie and the rest of the pro-intermarriage crowd. Her radical pro-intermarriage cronies offend me with their gentile superiority attitude. Their philosophy that gentiles can raise Jewish children better than actual Jews borders on anti-semitism. So Jews are worthless and basically inferior to gentiles? That is delusional! Only Jewish women can give birth to and raise Jewish children and that is the truth!
One problem with excessive focus on "the intermarriage problem" is that it implies that in-marriage automatically produces engaged Jews, whereas the only thing it guarantees is that the offspring will automatically be Halachically Jewish. I know plenty of Jews with two Jewish parents who have abandoned Judaism: some converted to Christianity, some simply do not practice Judaism at all, not even at Pesach or High Holidays, and have not passed down any aspect of Judaism to their children. (And it saddens me that they did not value a precious birthright that I saw as wonderful and beautiful such that I chose to take it on.) And yet I know many Jews with a non-Jewish parent, grandparent, or spouse, who are raising their children with strong Jewish identities. (And before you dismiss these children as non-Jews anyway, I would add that some of these children are Halachically Jewish with an unbroken matrilineal Jewish line.) I support better and more Jewish education, summer camps, etc which tend to lower intermarriage rates as an incidental effect since that is not their main purpose. In contrast, the nasty and often hateful "anti-intermarriage" messages do not seem to be that effective, even alienating and driving Jews away from Judaism, thus decreasing the number of future Jews. It is usually done while shirking responsibility for the negative effects by claiming that those Jews had left the Tribe already. The positive approaches benefit everyone, Jewishly engaged or not, intermarried or in-married, with positive effects for everyone. Spending effort on instilling fear or hatred of intermarriage just takes away from effort that could be spent on instilling a love of Judaism. As a convert myself, I don't understand why some of the most strident anti-intermarriage proponents seem not to believe that Judaism could have a powerful enough draw to keep Jews engaged for positive reasons.
I'm not all that worked up about Steven Cohen. He is simply stating a sociological truth. If you put apples in front of someone and they are hungry, chances are good they will eat apples. If you live where there are many Jews, chances are you will befriend more Jews and marry Jews. He isn't commenting on the strength of their commitment to Judaism. I know several people who grew up in my heavily Jewish zip code who married Jews but are "culturally Jewish" or 3x a year Jews, just as their parents were. I think we all agree that Jewish experiences are more effective at promoting continuity of Jewish identity two or three generations down the line. But since Jewishness is an ethnicity as well as a regligion/identity, it is entirely valid to focus on that aspect as well.
Cohen may be "out of step with the non-Orthodox American Jewish community" (or at least a portion thereof), but the demographics in the non-Orthodox American Jewish community are not encouraging - and those are not outdated statistics. They are today's reality. I agree that there's no point in just telling people to marry a Jew for the sake of marrying a Jew. But I think Barry Shrage (who is Orthodox) has it exactly right - if we attend to the beauty of Judaism, the continuity part will take care of itself. And that's the real reason why the Orthodox are growing (in addition to reasons of birthrate) and why many people (myself included) are Orthodox even though we didn't grow up that way. The Orthodox don't obsess about intermarriage nearly as much as they obsess about living a fully Jewish life. And while I have great respect for non-Jewish spouses who choose to raise Jewish children, it is not the same as someone who chooses to become fully Jewish themselves. My wife will tell you that there is a difference between her life before and after conversion. And as she says, to equate the two is in effect to tell the convert that their conversion is meaningless, which is quite offensive. The more we welcome people in AND expect something of them while offering our wonderful tradition in return, the less intermarriage will be an issue.
Oh, my. And all this time, at my synagogue, we have been increasing engagement by increasing the number of meaningful Jewish experiences. Apparently we've been going about it all wrong!