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Jewish Sociology: Chicken Little, Chicken Soup and the Reform Moment

Thursday, December 26, 2013 @ 05:12 PM
posted by Roger Price
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Almost half a century ago, a cover story in Look Magazine described “The Vanishing American Jew.” Extrapolating from demographic trends on intermarriage, birth rates and generational assimilation, the author predicted that the Jewish community in America would blend in and disappear before the end of the century.

One year later, 1965, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations in North America, invited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to speak. This was the first time that Heschel had been invited to address the GA. Among other things, Heschel reportedly urged that two words be banned from future dialog: survey and survival.

These events are important to remember a half century later as the Jewish American community seeks to digest the meaning of the data collected by the Pew Research Center in its recent study of Jewish Americans (the “Pew Portrait”).  The study has been criticized here and elsewhere on its methodology.  But with rare exception, nobody doubts the importance and value of the data collected by Pew. Yet, informative as the data are regarding the state of the Jewish American community, as telling are the many and diverse responses to the Portrait. In just a few short months, Pew has become a sort of Rorschach test.

Chicken Little

No sooner had the Pew Research Center published its study than a goodly number of commentators followed the lead of the title character in a famous children’s story, Chicken Little. The story tells of a young chick, Chicken Little, who wanders through the forest, gets hit on the head by an acorn, and concludes that something is seriously amiss. She runs around frantically shouting to one and all, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Soon Chicken Little’s friends – Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky and Turkey Lurkey – have joined in the frantic chorus. They are on their way to report to the king of the forest when, according to one version of the story, they are met by Foxy Loxy. Foxy then leads the worried fowl to his den, and –spoiler alert –they are never seen again.

Not surprisingly, the Jewish American community has its own Chicken Littles. Eschewing Heschel’s advice, they seem to love both surveys and perceived threats to survival. Sometimes taking a broader approach and sometimes a more narrow view, they have described the Pew data in terms ranging from serious to dire. For instance, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld considered the results to be “sobering,” if “not unexpected.” A Forward editorial stated that Pew “shows a remarkable dilution of Jewish identity,” a dilution “beyond recognition and sustainability.” Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that Pew has presented a “very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.” And Daniel Gordis, American born Senior Vice-President of  Shalem College in Jerusalem, concluded “The numbers are in, and they are devastating.” They portray a “community in existentially threatening dysfunction.”

You might think that the American Jewish community was on its death bed. And sure enough, within days of Pew’s publication, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was writing about the “extinction” of American Jewry and how necessary it was to “give mouth-to-mouth to our dying community.” Chicken Little had nothing on these folks.

Why so many David and Devora Downers? Well, according to the Pew Portrait, the percentage of the population of the United States that identifies as Jewish is much less than it was two and even one generation ago and Jewish Americans are older and are having fewer children compared to the general population.  (See Portrait, at 23-31, 38-40/214.) Indeed, the Jewish American fertility rate is less than that required for zero population growth in a developed country.

In addition, according to Pew, the strength of each leg of the traditional triad which has supported Judaism – God, Torah and Israel – has been impaired. Only 34% of Jewish Americans believe with absolute certainty in God or a universal spirit and 23 % do not believe in either. Only 19% believe that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish and only 28% think that being part of a Jewish community is essential. (See Portrait, at 53, 57, 74/214.)

The boundaries between the Jewish community and others seem to have dissolved. While the majority of Jews currently married have a Jewish spouse, almost six of every ten Jews married since 2000 has a non-Jewish spouse. (See Portrait, at 9, 36/214.) And inter-marrieds and their children are not as well connected to the Jewish community as are two Jewish parent households. (See Pew Portrait, at 37, 67-68, 76-77/214.)

Conversely, conduct previously seen as not acceptable seems to be becoming more prevalent within the Jewish community. According to Pew, Christmas trees can be found in 30% of Reform, 18% of Conservative and even 4 % of Orthodox homes.  (See Portrait, at 80/214.) Commentary’s Senior Online Editor Jonathan S. Tobin writes that the “most shocking” finding in the Pew survey is that fully one-third of all Jews think that the belief that Jesus was the messiah is compatible with being Jewish. (See Portrait, at 58-59/214.) As a result, Tobin said that American Jews are on the “brink of a demographic catastrophe.”

Chicken Soup

This sense of doom and gloom is wide spread, but not universal. Others mine positive data from the Pew Portrait. For instance, in absolute numbers, the Jewish population has increased in recent decades, Jews are relatively well-educated compared to other Americans, and they are wealthier on a per household basis as well. (See Portrait, at 42-43/214.) Far from Jewish communities of the past that were subject to discrimination, persecution and worse, Jewish Americans today seem well situated to continue to succeed in America. Understandably, Jewish self-esteem is high, with about 94% of American Jews being proud to be Jewish, whatever that may mean. (See Portrait, at 52/214.)

Even significant intermarriage is interpreted in a positive fashion. First, the situation is put into historical perspective. High rates of intermarriage and other indicia of declining ties are no different in the Jewish community than they are on other ethnic groups of similar longevity in America. Where our ancestors were shunned, now Jews are fully welcomed.

Further, Forward Editor-at-Large J. J. Goldberg points out that the percentage of children of intermarried couples who identify as Jewish is greater than was predictable based on data collected two decades ago. Indeed, Senior Research Scientist and Brandeis Professor Theodore Sasson reads the Pew data as showing an increased tendency on the part of children of intermarried couples to identify as Jewish.   Whatever the real numbers are, by definition they are greater than would be the case if intermarried couples and their offspring were excluded from the community. Princeton lecturer Karen E. H. Skinazi concludes that “Jews are fine.”

Finally, the positivists see not so much a decline, but a change in Jewish identity. Pew found that around one-half of Jewish American Millennials (ages 18-29) do not identify with the conventional denominations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. (See Portrait, at 49/214.) But some see this phenomena not as a rejection of Jewish identity, but a recognition that denominations are not Mi Sinai, i.e., not ordained, and that models of Jewish expression are changing, just as is the composition of Jews. The duel message is underscored by George Wielechowski, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. A first generation Latino American, a convert and an agnostic, he thinks Pew brings “the best news yet” because the data shows that Jews have “organically expanded on what it means to be Jewish.”

There is certainly some truth there. If you want to see new, vibrant and varied expressions of Jewishness, look, for instance, at Limmud and the Slingshot Guide. Just don’t look for them in the Pew Portrait, which never mentions them.

Still, while they can spin the Pew dreidel all they want, the optimism of the positivist camp cannot mask the reality that American Jews, many well-educated and well-off, seem to be content with a Jewishness akin to lukewarm chicken soup, a thin, yet still comfortable gruel that is capable of eliciting some memories, perhaps inspiring some feel good social action, but certainly not spicy and not sufficiently nutritious to cure what ails Jews or allows them to maintain a healthy Jewish life.

The Reform Moment

To acknowledge a problem is one thing, to overcome it is something else entirely. Deborah Grayson Riegel’s book Oy Vey! Isn’t a Strategy is not about the Pew Portrait, but the clever title is apt. For all the ink spilled and electrons spun since the publication of the Pew Portrait, the ideas raised to address the issues discussed in the report have been few in number, less than original, small in focus, sometimes self-serving (or at least self-justifying) and often risk free. So, for instance:

  • A Federation official suggests that “philanthropy is one of the most popular ways for Jews to express their Jewishness.”
  • A Chabad rabbi proposes shifting from a “synagogue-forced paradigm” to a “more authentic” model that “emphasizes the personal observance of mitzvot.”
  • One writer urges a marketing campaign aimed at increasing conversions while another wants synagogues to offer a broader “Jewish buffet” than they presently do.
  • A clinical professor of psychiatry also seeks different models of engagement, but hers include film festivals and intermarriage workshops.
  • One rabbi without a congregation calls for more respect for rabbis and more pay for day school teachers, while another envisions Judaism Next and urges insurrection.

They all have a point, but none seems to have a serious, implementable strategy.

To a considerable extent, the Reform movement owns the health and future well-being of Jewish American community. And it does so, not because it broke anything, but for three independent yet related reasons.

First, according to Pew, only about 10% of Jewish Americans identify with the Orthodox community, and that community is itself divided between the Modern or Open Orthodox and what Pew calls Ultra-Orthodox, meaning Hasidic, Yeshivish, Heimish or as so self-defined. (See Portrait, at 48/214.) Both groups appear to have a strong commitment to living a Jewish life and attitudes and practices which encourage and support population growth as well. But the non-Modern forms of Orthodoxy appeal to only 6% of American Jews and the model of American Judaism in the 21st century of the Common Era will not be located in 18th century Poland. Nor will it be found in isolation from the other 99.9% of America, in limited education, in a rejection of science and avoidance of modern technology, and in dependence of the welfare of the state. Such conduct, if it persists, may severely limit and ultimately seed the destruction of such a separatist movement, however dedicated it may to a higher calling.

Second, the Conservative movement is a demographic mess, losing members in droves. (See Portrait, at 11/214.)The center, apparently, cannot hold, and Jewish Americans, like other Americans, while they may root for the underdog, tend to like to be identified with winners. Perhaps Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is correct in believing that a smaller Conservative movement will allow for a greater focus on quality, but his view may also just be another example of hope overcoming experience. Halakhically oriented Conservative Jews can find comfort in a vigorous, intellectually honest emerging Modern or Open Orthodox movement. Other Conservative Jews may be more comfortable in Reform or Reconstructionist settings or in one of the various independent and energetic traditional minyamim that have sprouted around the county.

Third, the Reform movement, even though its congregational affiliates and their membership have decreased, is still the movement with which the largest number of American Jews identify. Its leadership and membership seem in sync. And for all of its internal problems, and a closed and top-down management mentality, the Reform movement has the largest Jewish infrastructure with which to advance change in Jewish American life. Reform Judaism may not be the first to come up with an idea or the most nimble about implementing it, but it has the resources and the reach to make an impact across the nation.

At its recent biennial convention, Union of Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke at length to 5,000 true believers in Reform Judaism. His keynote address contained a laundry list of programs designed to touch many bases, with an emphasis on “audacious hospitality” for the young  and the “Nones,” and not much for an even faster growing demographic, those over age 65.

Perhaps inspired by the Southern California setting of the convention, Jacobs’ invoked the metaphor of surfing, referencing the waves threatening the Jewish community and the challenge of riding the big ones. But as one who apparently engaged in a good bit of real surfing along the Pacific shore, Jacobs surely knows that fundamentally surfing is about skimming the surface. So while the breadth of his proposals for camps and other programming was impressive, and the depth of his personal commitment cannot be questioned, there are hard questions that were never addressed and need to be. Some of them relate directly to findings in the recent Pew study, others go beyond those findings. Among them are the following:

From the Pew Portrait:

  1. Pew shows that non-Orthodox Jews do not think that there are very many, if any, beliefs or activities that are essential to Jewish identity. Will the Reform movement devise a set of principles and a code of conduct which constitute significant expectations and markers of Jewish identity?
  2. Pew shows that a significant percentage of heterodox , heteroprax and unaffiliated Jews do not belief in a supernatural God. Rick Jacobs, in his address, called for an “intellectually rigorous” Reform Judaism and acknowledged that “God did not literally hand down sacred laws in the Bible and the Mishna at Sinai,” rather individual “Jews have written our sacred texts.” Will the Reform movement commit to revising its prayer books to reflect what the history, archeology and the sciences teach so that those who are drawn in do not turn around and walk out?
  3. Pew shows that while Jews in Orthodox communities are bearing children at rate which results in positive population growth. By contrast, non-Orthodox Jews are not bearing children at a rate sufficient even to replace the current population. Will the Reform movement encourage marriage and increased child bearing with the same enthusiasm and intensity as it promotes a woman’s access to an abortion?
  4. Pew shows that there is significant disaffection with organized religious institutions. Can Reform congregations move from a fee-for-service moneyship model of affiliation to a true membership model?

Beyond Pew:

  1. What is the driving mission today for Jewish Americans, one which is both as distinctively Jewish and as compelling as establishing the State of Israel was two generations ago and saving Soviet Jewry was one generation ago?
  2. Is the Reform movement willing to disrupt what Rabbi Sharon Brous calls spiritual anorexia in the Jewish community, and act to dispel boredom by turning congregations into what Rabbi Ed Feinstein envisions as places of relentless, innovative and radical experience, where failure is allowed?
  3. The Reform movement has been committed to individual autonomy in matters of religious belief and practice. In an age of the sovereign self and instant gratification, will the Reform movement be willing to teach the language of community and of a covenant among Jews?
  4. As it seeks to attract Millennials and non-affiliated Jews, will the Reform movement reinstate serious learning opportunities like its abandoned Summer Learning Institute for already affiliated, more mature Jews?


We began with two true stories and a children’s fable. What have we learned?

(1)     To paraphrase a great admirer of the Jews, Mark Twain, the report of the death of American Jewry has been greatly exaggerated. Look Magazine was wrong fifty years ago and it is now gone. By contrast, Jews are still here, indeed more of them than ever. This time may be different, but American history suggests that the Jews in this country are as resilient and adaptive as the Jewish People has been in other countries and at other times. The Judaism of the future will not be like your father’s or mothers, much less like zayde’s or bubbe’s, but there will be a Jewish future.

(2)    Heschel was a wise man, but he was never asked to speak to the GA again. Jews love crises, and surveys, too. As Chicken Little learned, a bit too late, however, the imperfect collection of data and faulty analysis can lead to disastrous consequences. One of the problems about measuring the health of the Jewish American community based on the Pew study is that Pew asked questions about what it viewed as certain religious practices, as if Jews were like other socio-religious groups it had studied. But Jews have never really been purely or even primarily a faith community like Baptists or Mormons. There is no Baptist People, no Mormon Civilization. Jews are different.

(3)    To compound the problem, with certain conventional markers in mind, Pew sought to determine “How Jewish are Jews?” More interesting and more important questions are “How are Jews Jewish?”  and “Are Jews, as a community, still committed to anything unique?” In short, if the community wants to treat the Pew Portrait as evidence of crisis, fine, but the inquiry must go beyond the Pew data.

(4)    Reform Judaism, as the movement with which a plurality of American Jews identify, now has the greatest responsibility for the future of Judaism in America. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel teaches, one must be careful not to waste an opportunity created by a perceived crisis.  Consequently, a successful future for Jewish life in America depends on only two things: leadership and followship. Simple, huh?

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One Response to “Jewish Sociology: Chicken Little, Chicken Soup and the Reform Moment”

  1. Andrea London says:

    You are right that the Pew study leaves us scratching our heads as to what being Jewish by religion or not means. What Pew indicates is that many people are proud to be Jewish, but their Jewish practice may have no content. Jews are unaccustomed to defining themselves as “religious” because Judaism is more than a religion, and they can be a part of the Jewish community in many ways. As you also correctly point out, the ever-vanishing Jewish community continues to survive despite persecution, the Holocaust, and, even, assimilation. And predictions as to where the community is heading are also problematic. David Ben Gurion thought the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel were a dying breed and look what has happened to that community in the last 60 years. The sociologist Robert Putnam has found in his research on religion in America that the groups growing the fastest are the most fundamentalist or conservative and the “nones”—those who claim no religion. Pew found this reflected in the Jewish community as well. What fundamentalists and secularists share in common is their rejection that modernity and tradition can co-exist. Fundamentalists have rejected modernity and secularists have rejected tradition. Liberal religion has the difficult job of blending modernity and tradition. The task of liberal Judaism is to be intellectually challenging, spiritually compelling, and morally engaged. There’s not one right way to do this and certainly many more wrong ways to go about creating this kind of Judaism, but for those of us who think that Judaism is a compelling way of life, this is our challenge and our task.

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