After Pew, what to do about the assimilating, intermarrying, disappearing American Jew?

In the 36 hours since the Pew Research Center released findings from its multimillion-dollar survey of American Jews – among them, that American Jews are intermarrying at ever higher rates, that one in five has “no religion,” and that Jews seem to think a good sense of humor is as essential to Jewish identity as Israel is – the reactions from scholars and leaders have begun to come out.

Many of the reactions amounted to little more than a shrug.

“The results confirm what I’ve been saying for years: the liberal denominations are declining, and Orthodoxy is growing, precisely because of high birthrates and high retention rates,” Jonathan Boyarin said in a statement circulated by Cornell University, where he is a professor of Modern Jewish Studies.

Jewish community leaders across the country agreed that the study’s results simply weren’t news. The findings, Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Federation said in a statement, reaffirm trends “that have been in play for years and which have long concerned Jewish communal leaders nationwide.”

And some heads of major Jewish organizations and movements sounded downright dismissive of the findings – and in some cases, of the opinions of those who responded to the Pew survey.

A sizable minority of American Jews – 38 percent – may have told Pew they believe the Israeli government is making a “sincere effort” to come to a peace deal with Palestinians, but nearly half of all Jews (48 percent) disagreed with the statement. Three-quarters of American Jews don't trust that the Palestinians are making a sincere effort to reach a peace deal, but 44 percent agreed that “the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts the security of Israel.”

The aggregate of American Jewish opinion didn't seem to matter much to leaders of major Jewish organizations that regularly take positions on matters relating to Israel. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has regularly taken the position that Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace. He told the Forward that he doesn't lead by poll results.

“I think it’s interesting, we need to be aware,” Foxman told the Forward. “But I’m not going to follow this.”

Conservative Jewish leaders, asked about the Pew study’s finding that their movement only represents 11 percent of young American Jews, downplayed any suggestion that a contracting Conservative movement was evidence of failure.

“I want to focus on our quality,” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, told the New York-based newspaper.

But if some leaders aren't likely to heed the results of the Pew study, Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, told the Journal on Oct. 2 that the study had to be a “wakeup call” for American Jewish leaders, if they wanted to stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage among Jews in America. 

“This is information that most everybody understood,” Sanderson said, “and we as a Jewish community haven’t been wiling to do a study like this because we were afraid, honestly, of what the results would be.”

Greg Smith, director of U.S. religion surveys at the Pew Research Center, said he hopes the study “will be used as a good, valuable source of information about the characteristics, attitudes, beliefs and practices of Jews in the United States for many years to come,” but as a “nonpartisan, nonadvocacy” organization, the center wouldn’t be pushing any particular agenda.

There are others in the Jewish community who are attempting to advance an agenda in a way that takes account of the Pew study’s findings.

Significant majorities of American Jews — 62% — believe that being Jewish is “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture”? Maybe a renewed focus on Jewish culture makes sense as a way of bringing large numbers of Jews into Jewish life.

That’s the argument Shayna Kreisler, senior program director of the 14th Street Y in New York City, made in an essay that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy recently, in which she decries the closures of various Jewish culture organizations, including the Six Points Fellowship and JDub.

“The Foundation for Jewish Culture recently announced that it will be closing its doors in 2014,” Kreisler writes. “As someone who has spent the last 12 years working at the intersection of Jewish life and cultural expression, I see these closures as not only sad, but naive bordering on ignorant.”

Sanderson said that Los Angeles — precisely because it is a city to which Jews move with the express intention of assimilating and disappearing — has been facing these questions for longer than other communities have, long enough that organizations have begun to come up with possible answers. 

“This is a country where trends and culture and social issues migrate from west to east,” Sanderson said. “The issues in the Pew study are more significant in Los Angeles — and on the other hand, there are things happening in L.A. that aren’t happening anywhere else. This is an oppoortunity for us to make Los Angeles a laboratory and stem the tide and turn around what looks like a declining jewish community.”