Time To Act On Continuity Studies
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Anyone who has been reading about the state of American Jewish life lately — the numerous studies showing that younger people feel increasingly distant from Israel, synagogues, federations, organizations and a sense of peoplehood — should recognize the name Steven M. Cohen. As a leading sociologist of American Jewry, he has authored or co-authored at least seven important reports or articles in the last year and a half describing the crisis the community faces in transmitting its Jewish values from this generation to the next. He not only gathers the data, though. He has some strong views, based on his findings, and he says the situation is not all bleak. “My work tries to identify the opportunities as well as the dangers,” said Cohen, 57, in an interview this week, noting that the media tends to focus on bad news. And while he readily agrees that the way younger people today identify Jewishly — on a personal rather than a collective level — represents a danger to communal continuity, he also points out that there are hopeful trends as well. For example, a recent study he designed, “Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants,” found a steady growth of small, independent minyanim around the country that are “creating a different form of spiritual community,” he says. (See “Wake-Up Call For The Denominations” in last week’s Jewish Week). The report noted there are at least 80 such groups, mostly egalitarian, non-denominational, with no rabbi or permanent building, founded and led by Jews in their 20s and 30s who have strong Jewish backgrounds and a high degree of Jewish education. Such prayer groups represent a concern for, if not a rejection of, large, traditional synagogues. But Cohen sees these findings as a “great opportunity” for the establishment to respond positively. “We need to pay more attention,” he said, to the interest in “spiritual community and cultural events” that younger people express. He said he often undertakes a study “skeptical and unaware” of what he will learn and comes away “pleasantly surprised at discovering that young Jews are finding innovative new ways to be Jewish.” But while Cohen’s research is widely reported and studied, he said he sees no indication that Jewish policy makers — including organizations, donors, rabbis, etc. — are making decisions based on his data and conclusions. If they did ask his opinion, he would urge them to embrace both sides of the inreach vs. outreach debate regarding intermarriage, rather than choosing between them. “This dispute is paralyzing rather than mobilizing,” Cohen said of those who argue either for focusing funds and support on Jewish education and in-marriage or outreach efforts to interfaith families. “There is no serious downside to welcoming non-Jews” who are married to Jews, according to Cohen, who opposes “stigmatizing those who are intermarried.” A positive approach increases the chances for the non-Jewish partner to convert, and for the children to be raised as Jews, he says. But he also believes that “outreach is not enough, and we can’t give up on providing a strong Jewish education to induce more Jews to marry Jews.” It’s a fine line he draws, asserting that “social barriers should be dropped” while maintaining ritual and liturgical distinctions (such as limiting synagogue participation by non-Jewish partners). He notes that both the inreach and outreach proponents maintain that the other’s efforts are undermining Jewish continuity. Inreach advocates say that too welcoming an attitude toward non-Jews waters down Jewish practice and undercuts conversion efforts; the outreach camp says that an emphasis on conversion makes non-Jewish partners uncomfortable and turns them away. “There’s some truth” in these arguments, Cohen acknowledges, but not enough, he believes, to discard their underlying principles. “Each camp should embrace the other,” he maintains, calling for “adjusting our educational policies to the reality we face.” In practical terms, that means promoting in-marriage through any and all forms of Jewish education — with the exception of Sunday schools (or other one-day-a-week programs), which Cohen believes are “counter-productive.” He says such schools are “the meeting ground of those with weak resistance to intermarriage.” Perhaps the toughest part of his job, according to Cohen, is “finding the way to give Jews bad news in a way they can hear,” which he calls an ongoing struggle. He said he has not found a way to transmit his conclusions without appearing to criticize certain segments of the community. The most resistance he gets, he says, is when he points out statistics like the fact that only 13 percent of the grandchildren of intermarried Jews identify Jewishly. Some outreach proponents counter that it’s early in the game and the numbers will improve, but Cohen notes that “no other ethnic group has escaped that change” and reversed the tide of assimilation. Cohen points out that marriage decisions are heavily influenced by social networks. Who your friends are and where you live play a greater role in who you marry than Jewish commitment, he says. So Jewish schools are important not only for the education offered but for providing a Jewish social network. On the college campus, the ideal is to attract large numbers of Jewish students to exclusively Jewish events, he says. “But if most won’t come” to a Jewish venue, “hold events where 70 percent” of the participants are Jewish. It’s true, he acknowledges, that a Jewish student conceivably could meet a future spouse who is not Jewish at such an event. But Cohen notes that the couple probably would have met any way, and besides, “I have to accept some harm to accomplish” the greater good. He observes that this is a current trend of the community — sponsoring quality social events that attract non-Jews as well as Jews — and he “applauds it,” adding that Makor, an attempt to reach Jewish New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s through culture and entertainment, has been “a resounding success,” despite occasional rumblings to the contrary from its founder, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, about it attracting large numbers of non-Jews to its programs. Cohen, who has taught at universities in Israel and the U.S., has been research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for the last three years. Currently, he is looking into the issue of gender in Jewish identity and the level of Jewishness of single young adults (25-39), noting that most non-Orthodox Jews in that age group are single. He is also planning an article on the differences, if any, in Jewish identity between straight and gay Jews. His overall goal is to “inform the discourse on Jewish life,” though he acknowledges he is “mystified” as to why communal policy makers have not sought out his views. Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist who has done a number of research projects on and for the Jewish community, is not surprised at the lack of response. She described the community as “ad hoc” in its approach to sociological studies. “Who pays attention to results?” she asks rhetorically, noting that “our system is looser and less systematic.” She would like to see a centralized research and development component that would enable the Jewish community “to act in a rational way.” For now, work such as Cohen’s points out the gap between presenting the available data and responding in practical terms through programs and projects. Perhaps the community will wake up to the challenge. In the meantime, Steve Cohen is at work on his next project. E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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10/01/2009 - 12:36
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