A dialogue on Jewish life in America today

Following the publication of the New York Jewish Population Study, Shmuel Rosner interviewed Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. So, how many Jewish people are there exactly?

Dear Steven,

A couple of years ago, you made a name for yourself by provoking the Jewish world to consider the possibility of a growing divide between two kinds of Jewish people — the in-married and the intermarried. Of course, no consensus ever was reached on the matter — yet consensus is hardly a Jewish value. However, your description stuck and is still quoted in articles and discussions.

Enter the latest New York Jewish Population Study (which you authored, together with Jacob Ukeles and Ron Miller) with its many details, and it seems to me that a new Jewish divide should be considered.

On the one side — the progressive and secular Jewish world, with its many components: A community that isn’t always much connected to Jewish identity and practice, but is educated, affluent and quite successful, economically speaking. They have less by way of daily Jewish life, but more resources with which to make Judaism available for all.

On the other side — the Orthodox Jewish world: Fast-growing, vibrant and highly affiliated, Jewishly educated, well-connected to Israel, with a very low rate of assimilation and very high number of children. And it is relatively poor. The more they are affiliated, the less resources they have to support the high cost of Jewish life.

Can this divide be bridged? Can we find a way to somehow overcome the seeming contradiction between affiliation and financial resources?

I’m turning it over to you …

Dear Shmuel,

Your call to focus on the divide and differences between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is, indeed, well-placed. As our study amply demonstrates — and as your comment underscores — Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews differ on so many dimensions of Jewish engagement, demographic patterns and worldviews.

But I think it would be a mistake to ignore another critical divide (as maybe you are suggesting) among the non-Orthodox: That distinguishing the intermarried or the children of the intermarried from the majority of non-Orthodox Jews who are the children of two Jewish parents and are either non-married or in-married. In other words, rather than divide the world into two (either Orthodox/non-Orthodox or in-married/intermarried), I prefer to divide the world into three (Orthodox; in-married or unmixed ancestry non-Orthodox; intermarried and mixed ancestry). The differences across these boundaries are real, even as the groups do bleed into one another.

In fact, each camp I’m suggesting may itself be divided in two. Among the Orthodox, we found incredibly large differences between the Modern Orthodox and the Charedim, especially with respect to participating in the larger Jewish community. Among the in-married non-Orthodox, we found substantial differences between Conservative and Reform Jews, especially if affiliated, countering the widely held notion that the two venerable denominations are no longer meaningful. And among the intermarried population (be it by ancestry or current circumstance), Jews divide significantly between those who see Judaism as their religion and those who do not.

In short, Orthodox/non-Orthodox obscures and distorts reality too much. It leads you to obliquely characterize the non-Orthodox Jewish world as “progressive and secular” and to speak of the Jewish community within it in the following way: “A community that isn’t always much connected to Jewish identity and practice.” The data that Jack, Ron and I analyzed in depth say otherwise. The (non-Orthodox) Jewish community — those who are engaged in Jewish life but do not identify as Orthodox — is very much “connected to Jewish identity and practice,” sometimes “progressive,” and does not see itself very much as “secular.”

In short, the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide, when unqualified, leads even some very smart, sympathetic and experienced observers in Jewish life in the United States to a downwardly biased assessment of Jewish life and vitality among the non-Orthodox.

As much as I value the focus on the demographic issues of in-marriage and birthrates for analytic and policy purposes, I believe we need to see Jewish demography and Jewish communal vitality as related but with distinct dimensions. As important as is population growth/decline, it is not the total measure of cultural, communal, and spiritual success (or failure). From a policy point of view, we cannot assume that inspiring communities automatically promote in-marriage, high birthrates and Jews (or non-Jews) choosing Jewish engagement. Just as we need policies and practices that strengthen Jewish communities and life, so, too, do we need separate policies and practices that improve the likelihood of Jews marrying Jews, Jews parenting Jews, as well as Jews and non-Jews engaging in Jewish life.

In short, we need to think of at least three population segments, not two; and two sets of policies, not one. The Orthodox, in-married and intermarried merit our distinctive attention. So, too, does Jewish vitality and Jewish demography.

In a follow-up letter, Rosner asks Cohen: Do you have to have money to be Jewishly engaged?

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your response. I have many follow-up questions but will have to start with the question I’ve already asked. Interestingly, while my original question was a lot about the economics of the Jewish community, your response doesn’t at all deal with it — you highlight the differences among three groups but do not write about Orthodox financial constraints. I guess what I need to know first is if there really is such difference that is affiliation-based. And if there is such difference, what do we do about it?

Dear Shmuel,

In response to your question, “I guess what I need to know first is if there really is such difference that is affiliation-based. And if there is such difference — what do we do about it?”

I offer the following: Some indicators of Jewish engagement are sensitive to income (usually, the ones that cost money), and others are not.

Those measures that are at least moderately related to higher income are a collection of indicators, all reflecting institutional involvement:

  • Going to museums or Jewish cultural events.
  • Going to Jewish community center programs.
  • Attending Jewish educational programs.
  • Accessing Jewish Web sites.
  • Belonging to synagogues.
  • Belonging to Jewish organizations.
  • Giving to Jewish causes, both UJA-Federation and others.
  • Volunteering under Jewish auspices.
  • Celebrating Passover and Chanukah (family-oriented holidays).

Among the items not related to income are:

  • Shabbat-meal frequency.
  • Monthly service attendance.
  • Keeping kosher at home (higher among the poor).
  • Lighting Shabbat candles (higher among the poor).
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Having close friends who are Jewish.
  • Feeling attached to Israel.
  • Feeling that being Jewish is very important.
  • Talking with friends about Jewish matters.

Not surprisingly, feelings of being part of a Jewish community in New York rise with household income, from 19 percent of the poor and near-poor who answer “a lot,” to 36 percent of the affluent group.

As compared with the affluent, low- and moderate-income Jewish New Yorkers feel just as Jewishly engaged and act just as Jewishly engaged in their private and social lives. However, financial and social barriers, if not the pressures of daily living, work to restrain and constrain the participation of the less-affluent in Jewish communal life, in matters ranging from belonging, to attending programs, to volunteering.

As to what can be done about financial barriers, a few ideas come to mind:

First, we need to recognize that more committed and connected Jews find more value in acts of Jewish engagement, even when they cost money. Hence, anything that can raise commitment and connection will tend to lower the perceived cost of Jewish involvement.

Second, volunteer efforts by committed Jews with high cultural capital can significantly trim costs. Some Jewish camps, schools, congregations and minyanim can operate with relatively lower budgets than conventional counterparts because they draw upon capable volunteers or semivolunteer low-paid professional staff. But that requires a pool of people with Jewish commitment and cultural capacity. Where such people are plentiful, the cost of Jewish involvement drops. Hence, the Jewish community has an interest in educating young people who, in some time, will go out and volunteer their talents to build and sustain Jewish institutions, especially those engaged in education or prayer.

Third, targeted scholarships and fee reductions can induce some families to engage in Jewish life in various ways. The generic problem with such policies is that, if not targeted, the costs will mount dramatically with little impact on increased participation. All such programs grapple with the question of how to target the funds without insulting or offending families who would otherwise participate in the particular activity or institution.