What Do Gen-Y Jews Want? Everything

Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations.

Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.

Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found … guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.

The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.

Why is everyone looking at the same population?

First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS), indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.

They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.

Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.

Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.

“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”

Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”

The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that while Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more.

Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” Sarna says.

But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?

Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the needs of the sponsoring organization.

For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 NJPS, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.

The statistic “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in.”

Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”

One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring-break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Tzedek will be a major emphasis [of Hillel programming in the future],” Sandler says.

Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.

Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.

She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.

In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.

Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.

“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”


Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’

“New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora” by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer (New York University Press, 2005).

Earlier this month, I participated in a consultation on “Jewish community in an era of looser connections.” Despite the presence of various paradigm-shifting luminaries, more than one reference was made to three absent influences, specifically, two people and a book. The people: Aaron Bisman and Matisyahu; the book: “New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora.” Bisman’s JDub Records seeks “cross-cultural … dialogue” through music indigenous to just about anywhere except Israel; Matisyahu, JDub’s breakout idol, is a baal teshuvah Lubavitcher who sings “Chasidic reggae.” They are the New Jews to whom the book’s authors, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, refer.

Aviv, a sociologist, and Shneer, a historian, are both native Angelenos who now teach at the University of Denver. They argue that the bipolar models of home and exile, center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, no longer apply to contemporary Jewish life. “What,” they ask, “does … an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?”

The authors propose a new map with “multiple homelands” that displaces Israel from “the center of the Jewish universe.” They point out that since the mid-19th century, most Jewish religious innovation has originated in the United States, rather than in Europe or Israel. As of 2003, more people emigrated from Israel to Russia than vice versa, and New York is the communal and philanthropic center of Jewish life. Ultimately, the authors find, contemporary Jews are at home wherever they live. “New Jews,” they argue, “connect emotionally and culturally with multiple places and traverse routes across national boundaries but are nonetheless rooted in a specific place they call home.”

In five case studies, Aviv and Shneer explore the implications of their argument. In Moscow, they find an increasingly vibrant Jewish urban center where Jews want to live, not leave. An examination of organized youth tourism to Poland and Israel uncovers a manipulative identity-building agenda that reveals the desperation of late 1990s “continuity” campaigns — but also points toward a future in which Jews crisscross the globe to explore their diverse cultural heritage. Two other chapters complement one another. A minisequel to their previous book, “Queer Jews,” considers collective identities that connect across geopolitical boundaries, and an ethnographic meditation explores the deep diversity cohabiting within the boundaries of New York City.

Finally, Los Angeles stars in a study of the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. Aviv and Shneer provide long-overdue histories of the creation of these two institutions — and important critiques of their respective programs. At the Museum of Tolerance, the authors highlight the tension between the universalistic message of tolerance and the particularistic focus on the Shoah, a tension that leaves the visitor “suspicious of the comforts of America.” At the Skirball, they find a deeply assimilationist message in which Jewish values explicitly are presented as indigenously American. Even as the Skirball upends the logic of Diaspora and exile, the authors observe, it remains “intolerant of difference” when such difference might divide Jews from other Americans.

Religion largely is absent from the discussion, though this appears to be by design. Freed from the theological bonds of Klal Yisrael — though by no means dismissing its importance — the authors make no apologies for their challenge to the political centrality of Israel in secular “Jewish geography, culture, and memory.” They question the sociological utility of thinking about some entity called The Jewish People.

“The only thing that Jews have in common,” Aviv and Shneer conclude, “is the fact that they self-identify as Jews.”

To those who grew up within the narratives of the Holocaust and the return to Zion, this will be distressing; to those in Aviv and Shneer’s generation, like Bisman and Matisyahu, as well as to Chabad emissaries no less than Conservative and Reform outreach advocates — it is old news.

“New Jews'” greatest strength — that it is an open-ended introduction to a conversation, rather than a self-contained argument — also may be its primary weakness. Although I agree with Aviv and Shneer’s assertion that contemporary Jews are at home where they are, rather than in exile from an imagined homeland, I would have liked to see them explore some of the more dynamic implications of Jewish cultural transnationalism, or what scholars call “flows.” To study flows is to follow the movement of ideas, money, even music. Debbie Friedman tells of a Polish youth group’s request to hear the “traditional” melody for “Havdalah” (they meant her own, of course); I have sung Adat Ari El Rabbi Moshe Rothblum’s “V’Shamru” at a Czechoslovak Shabbaton. The late Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan wrote a qawwali called, “Allah Hu”; a group of Americans and Israelis living in Israel adopted, adapted and exported the chant to the United States, where it was popularized by Debbie Friedman, Danny Maseng and New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun as the liturgical song “Hallelu.”

The authors also do not contend with the sporadic but serious conflicts over Jewish being-at-home, whether in Paris and Brussels or on “Bill O’Reilly” and MSNBC. In the United States, controversies last year over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and this year over “Christianization” and the “War on Christmas” paradoxically juxtapose cultural complacency and communal insecurity. In Western Europe, anti-Semitic attacks by immigrant Arabs reflect both anti-Israel political violence and the jealous rage of the socially marginal against those perceived to have made it “inside,” those who are “at home.” These, too, are the experiences of “New Jews.”

Still, one hardly can fault the authors for provoking the reader to respond. And this is Aviv and Shneer’s greatest achievement with this book: to force us, gently but insistently, to consider the global implications of a world where Zion is a given and not a proposal; where perfectly respectable Jews emigrate from Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to New York; where, indeed, Los Angeles is the center of a Jewish universe.

J. Shawn Landres is the director of research at Synagogue 3000 and a visiting research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.


Wake Up and Smell the Fish

For UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, the fall of a great civilization can come down to fish.

“Fish prices have tripled; fish form a significant part of our diet,” Diamond told The Journal. “At the rate we’re going, most of the world’s major fisheries will be gone within a decade.”

He doesn’t expect Los Angelenos to obsess about it. “Fish don’t focus the attention the way a single earthquake does,” he said.

But Diamond knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of the best-selling nonfiction book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking, 2004). His book is the inspiration for a special exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Diamond will talk about his book and his ideas on Jan. 10 at a Writers Bloc Presents lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Diamond, who received a 1985 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction with his earlier book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (W. W. Norton & Company). The scope of Diamond’s research spans not only geography, but also ornithology, physiology and environmental history.

In the earlier book, Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. “Collapse” looks at the flip side: What caused some of the great civilizations to collapse into ruin and what can people today learn from their fates?

Some of what happens could come down to fish, Diamond said, or to other somewhat overlooked factors. Diamond expects a future massive fish decline to be a global version of the New Orleans levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina. A world without fish, he said, will result in “countries collapsing…. A substantial fraction of the world’s people rely on fish for protein.”

The Cambridge-educated Diamond, who is Jewish, said he has not found evidence that Jews, Judaism or any other major religion played a dominant role in why a civilization ended.

“I have not noticed that one particular religion is more prone or less prone to collapse,” he said.

Nor does he list the modern scourge of terrorism among crucial factors — at least it doesn’t rank nearly in importance with the supply of fish. “People don’t get excited about the gradual disappearance of fish,” he said, “until 2 billion people start sending out terrorists because they’re starving.”

Jared Diamond will discuss “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” at Writers Bloc Presents on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 855-0005.

Jewish Law Favors Stem Cell Research

Even as Ron Reagan makes a case for stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention, Californians may take matters into their own hands. In November, the state ballot will include a 10-year bond issue, which would generate $3 billion for stem cell research. If it passes, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would make the Golden State the golden goose of publicly funded stem cell research, generating approximately $295 million annually for stem cell research. This figure dwarfs by 10 times the $24.8 million spent by the federal government on human embryonic stem cell research last fiscal year.

While voters may still be deliberating the merits of stem cell research, authorities of halacha (Jewish law) are in favor of the technology, within certain limits. While not necessarily agreeing on their rationale, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all released statements endorsing stem cell research, and have made their positions known to President Bush.

If the major denominations within Judaism can agree on this issue, why are others around the nation up in arms? Because stem cell research raises questions about how life is defined and when it begins. Although stem cells are found in the body at all stages of development, the ones that seem to be most promising for research purposes are those extracted from embryos (fertilized egg cells) only a few days old. Most embryonic stem cell research is performed on excess embryos created in Petri dishes for couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization. These preimplanted embryos [also referred to as pre-embryos] would otherwise remain frozen or be discarded.

In the laboratory, embryonic stem cells are able to replicate rapidly to create a "line" of cells uniquely capable of developing into any kind of cell in the human body. These cells provide enormous potential for treating and possibly curing a host of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease and cancer. The catch: extracting the stem cells destroys the embryo.

"While the saving of life is paramount in the rabbinic legal code, and most laws can be violated to achieve this goal, the prohibition of homicide is one notable exception," wrote Rabbi Edward Reichman, an assistant professor and physician at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine of Yeshiva University, in The Forward. "The crucial question then is this: Is the fertilized egg considered human life, such that destroying it in order to harvest its stem cells is tantamount to homicide?"

Reichman said that according to most contemporary rabbinic authorities, although one may violate the Sabbath in order to save a fetus in-utero, one may not violate the Sabbath to preserve a pre-embryo. "And since, as the Sabbath test shows, the pre-embryo does not have the status of even potential life, it may be concluded that its use for medical research, with the potential to aid in the cure of widespread human suffering, is not only permitted but laudatory," he writes. "One should treat the pre-embryo with respect, and not wantonly destroy it. It is human tissue. But it is not human life."

"The farther back you go in pregnancy, the lower the [legal] status of the fetus," notes Rabbi Mark E. Washofsky, professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the chair of the committee that composed the Reform Movement’s Responsum on Human Stem Cell Research. At the same time, he says, "There is a moral issue here: The treatment of a human organism at this earliest stage requires at least some consideration on our part, otherwise you can’t call the human organism sacred in some meaningful way."

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, says that in Jewish tradition, embryos less than 40 days old are considered as "mere water," and do not have full status as a human life. Further, the cluster of cells from which stem cells are extracted cannot be considered a human being because these cells are incapable of developing outside the womb.

Dorff, who wrote the Conservative Movement’s Responsum on stem cell research, said the potential for saving lives takes precedence over a cluster of cells that have no potential to develop into a person.

"While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose? And how do you express that respect? Not at the cost of saving people’s lives," he said

To those who believe endeavors such as stem cell research cross the line into God’s realm, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish Law at Loyola Law School, disagrees.

"The idea that we have no right tinkering with God’s work is fundamentally anti-Jewish," said Adlerstein, the Orthodox rabbi. "There are things that God fully expects mankind to do. One of those things is to use the wisdom and the tools that he gave us to expand the far reaches of the universe."

He said that finding the answers to previously undiscovered questions such as how life originates "doesn’t diminish our belief in God," he says. "On the contrary, it increases it."

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, director of the Center for Medical Ethics at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, expressed a similar sentiment in correspondence with Dorff. He wrote: "These wondrous genetic discoveries can strengthen one’s faith in the Creator of the world because where there are laws of nature, there is a Creator. It is a confirmation of the biblical verse (Psalms 104:24) "How abundant are your works, O Lord, with wisdom you made them all."

In the case of stem cell research, scientists hope to learn how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells. This knowledge holds potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs, as well as for testing safety and effectiveness of new drugs without harm to human subjects. Preliminary research in mice and other animals has demonstrated that healthy cells transplanted into a diseased heart can regenerate heart tissue. Other studies are exploring whether human embryonic stem cells can form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in therapy for diabetics.

"I think stem cell research is the most promising line of medical research since antibiotics," Dorff said.

In 2001, Bush ordered that the federal government fund only embryonic stem cell research performed on the limited number of existing stem cell lines, precluding federal funding for research involving production of new stem cells or research on those produced overseas. (Private research on embryonic stem cells is not presently affected.) Under pressure from critics, on July 14, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would create a bank to distribute existing stem cells, but critics say this doesn’t go far enough.

"The government should not only allow stem cell research, they should fund it generously," Dorff said.

But while Jewish leaders endorse federal funding for stem cell research, they also urge that it be performed with stringent guidelines and controls, and for therapeutic purposes only. Selecting traits to create "designer babies," for example, would be unacceptable.

"For every step God gives us of greater control over the physical parts of man, we had better be sure we have a firmer handle on the nonphysical part of man — on the neshama — on the soul," Adlerstein said. "God gave man intelligence to be able to create things."

At the same time, as "moral gatekeepers, Jews are there to remind the world that not every combination that you can produce should be produced," he added.

Save the Date: Rabbi Elliot Dorff will be the keynote speaker at "A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research," a forum hosted by Temple Beth Am on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7:30 pm.

‘Deadwood’ Lassos South Dakota Tales

David Milch’s HBO Western series, "Deadwood," tells of a grimy mining town where drinking, whoring, killing, cussing and cheating are de rigeur. Illegally located on Sioux land ungoverned by United States law, its saloons and gambling dens seethe with debauchery — largely orchestrated by a Machiavellian pimp, Al Swearengen, whose language rivals Tony Soprano’s.

In an interview, Milch, 59, eschews expletives, although his grittily poetic speech resembles Swearengen’s, as does his fascination with vice. It’s an interest that dates as far back as his bar mitzvah, when this son of a Jewish surgeon learned a thing or two about sin.

"I studied with a cantor who was susceptible to being bribed," he said, raspy and with relish. "He was a great stamp collector, so I was able to get around some of the more stringent requirements."

But something about the religion apparently stuck, because Milch added that "Judaism is predicated on an ethical and legal perspective, and I imbibed that." Indeed, his TV work has obsessively focused on laws and lawlessness since he left his Yale English teaching post to write for the cop drama "Hill Street Blues" in 1982.

Milch, a creator of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," envisioned a more unusual police show in 2001 when he pitched the series that would become "Deadwood": a cop drama set in ancient Rome. The HBO executive replied that the network already had a proposed Roman series, but would Milch like to try a Western? He quickly agreed.

"I realized the genre was perfect for exploring how laws emerge in a place where nothing is explicitly forbidden," he said.

While poring through historical documents, Milch discovered that the real Deadwood, S.D., was perhaps the quintessential example of how order developed from the "primordial ooze of libertine anarchy." He decided to set the series there, mixing fact and fiction to people it with characters who had flooded the area after gold was discovered in Deadwood gulch in fall 1875.

The show’s historical figures would include the famed "Wild Bill" Hickok (Keith Carradine); the crude Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert); hot-headed ex-marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his temperate Jewish partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), who founded the town’s first hardware store (their most popular item: chamber pots). During a year of meticulous research, Milch was interested to discover that Star, an immigrant from Bavaria, was elected to Deadwood’s first city council in 1876 and eventually served 10 terms as mayor. Milch had conceived the series before Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now known as The Museum of the American West) opened its 2002 "Jewish Life in the American West" exhibit, and was unfamiliar with how Jews helped civilize such towns.

"Jewish immigrants played a major role in providing businesses that supplied Western communities, and it was not uncommon for Jewish leaders to hold political office," said James Nottage, the museum’s founding chief curator. "Certainly it was not uncommon in Deadwood, which became the center of the Jewish population in South Dakota as people rushed to mine gold from the Black Hills."

Although only a couple hundred Jewish merchants lived among Deadwood’s estimated 5,000 inhabitants between 1876 and 1900, they owned more than one-third of downtown businesses, said Mary Kopco, director of the town’s Adams Museum & House. "They were such a stabilizing force," added Kopco, who in 1999 curated an exhibit titled "An Unbroken Chain: Deadwood’s Jewish Legacy." "It was the Jewish community that really allowed Deadwood to survive."

Their influence is literally carved in stone, as Milch discovered while wandering downtown Deadwood for inspiration. The name "Goldberg" is still engraved in the brick building that housed Jacob Goldberg’s grocery, where Calamity Jane once shopped. Harris Franklin (ne Finkelstein), an ex-peddlar, liquor distributor and cattle baron, hired a synagogue architect to design his 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, now the Adams House.

A grander Victorian structure, the Bullock Hotel, stands on the site of the former hardware store, Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants. The store’s well-liked co-founder, Star, was "a fascinating person," according to Milch, "someone who wasn’t typically associated in the popular imagination with the West."

Star was born in Bavaria in 1840, probably to a Reform German Jewish family, and immigrated to the United States at age 10. He settled with relatives in Ohio, moved to Montana in the economic chaos following the Civil War and met Bullock, with whom he traveled to Deadwood via a wagon loaded with hardware in 1876. Their goal was "to mine the miners," said actor Hawkes, who read numerous books on Judaism and pioneer Jews to portray Star.

There was one catch, however: "I’m not Jewish," Hawkes frankly told Milch upon their first meeting two years ago. "David asked me, ‘Have you ever felt shame or sadness or ostracized?’ I said, ‘Every day.’ And David said, ‘Then you’re Jewish.’"

It was this sense of Jew-as-outsider that Milch wanted the actor to bring to his level-headed character, albeit in a subtle way. Hawkes’ Star is an assimilationist who "goes along to get along" and has keenly honed survival skills, "undoubtedly enhanced by centuries of Jewish persecution, and ramped up by the outlaw community of Deadwood," the actor said. "So when my character goes into a new place for the first time, he always knows where the exit is, as if he has eyes in the back of his head."

The fictional Star also avoids cussing, which is telling in a town where expletives indicate just how far a person is willing to go to protect himself. Milch — who said the swearing is historically accurate — sees Sol’s refusal to cuss as part of his survival strategy, a "submissive posture that suggests, ‘You’ll have no trouble from me.’"

Nor does the Jewish character bat an eyelash when the notorious Swearengen tells him, "I love you people. You make $5 before I’ve gotten out of bed and taken a p—."

Milch compared the comment to the kind of ignorance-based prejudice he encountered while living with rodeo cowboys to research the show.

Kopco and other aficionados give Hawkes’ character high marks for historical accuracy. But given Milch’s interest in vice, will "Deadwood" explore the darker side of Star who bounced back from at least one scandal?

"Well, he did get fired and accused of theft as the town’s postmaster," the producer said in his gravely voice. "So I think you’re entitled to all those expectations."

"Deadwood" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Style and Substance

What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that TheNew York Times wedding announcements can’t?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tellyou that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack inhard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I’m not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines thataccompanied the survey’s release are overripe. “Where have all the Jewishpeople gone?” read one news release. “Jewish Population Declining” screameda newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show:With fewer Jews, he asked, “Who will write all those sitcoms about Latinoand African American families?”

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group UnitedJewish Communities, reported that the nation’s population of 5.2 millionJews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey’s numbers are well within themargin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPSactually states in its methodological appendix that, “many researchersbelieve that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts ofthe Jewish population.” That decline you’ve been reading about all week? Itmay in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rateamong all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, asany weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate.This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and JoelSacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claireand Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paperreported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center inTisbury, Mass., “took part in the service.”

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I’d sayThe Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY!statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionalspredicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number thatlaunched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, asother numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepeninglevels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledgesthat in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted asintermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time theydefined intermarriage as “the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someonewho is non-Jewish at the time of the survey.”

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rateof intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead bedownright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down andacross the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place apremium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of theirchildren are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times morelikely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewishlife (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, homerituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don’t think for a second these numbers tell the whole story,or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it’s amovie. People’s feelings about their religion change depending, among otherthings, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, thesurvey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing,while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination ismore welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey – and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements – donothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as anonus, but as an opportunity.

A New Model for Jewish Identity

For countless American Jews, Jewish identity is shaped by the model of living as a minority immigrant group struggling to protect its heritage against assimilation. Contemporary research affirms this, tending to frame questions in terms of traditional Jewish behavior — lighting Shabbat candles, attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur, affiliating institutionally and supporting Israel.

Yet the reality for many today is that they do not relate to this inherited model. Economically and socially successful insiders, Jews are part of a pluralist society in which the primary factor determining ethnic and religious identity is individual choice. We need a new, more helpful descriptive model that recognizes the vital role that personal decisions play in Jewish American identity construction. I suggest a model based on the following four claims about contemporary Jewish identity:

First, Jewish identity is made up of choices. We pick, consciously or otherwise, from a sort of identity menu that offers us options for behaviors that we understand as “Jewish” because we see them as “Jewish things to do” or as “done in a Jewish way.” At the cutting edge of cultural change, the menu expands, increasingly listing behaviors that once were seen as belonging to other, non-Jewish menus, such as donating to universities, museums and symphonies.

Second, identifying ourselves as Jewish does not necessarily say anything about how we express that identity. From a purely descriptive standpoint, it is essentially the choice of self-identifying that makes us Jewish, even when it isn’t exactly clear how that identity is experienced or conveyed.

Third, Jewish identity has become increasingly fluid and linked to personally important life contexts. For example, many Jewish parents find that their interest in Jewish life increases when their children reach school age. Or some, in late middle age, find that Jewish spirituality animates them. For those who have chosen more traditional Jewish identity behaviors — keeping kosher, going to synagogue, donating funds — this “shape shifting” may seem inauthentic, but for the vast majority of American Jews, being open to important lifecycle changes is more highly valued than faithfulness to traditional practice.

Fourth, most contemporary American Jews are suspicious of “experts” and rarely consult institutional authorities in choosing how to be Jewish. We resist any “pressure” to affiliate with Jewish institutions. If and when we choose to affiliate, it generally is not because we feel duty bound but because doing so meets our needs.

The model that I propose offers new approaches for supporting and enhancing American Jewish identity, given the realities of today. Whatever our particular ideas about how we would like to see Jewish identity develop, we will be better off if we accept the social and cultural realities of Jewish American identity formation.

  • Spend less time creating standards for the options we offer and more time broadening the number of communally acceptable choices. However unusual new views or practices may seem, we should expand the range of communally acceptable options in Jewish politics, religion, music, etc. We have to stop devaluing others for making identity choices that differ from our own.

  • Add new menu options for what counts as Jewish. For example, can we imagine creating communal institutions that treat general philanthropy as a Jewish activity? We need to remember that in a culture of choice, people will remain committed to the Jewish world only if it is big enough to embrace their most important values.

  • Proactively connect Jewish identity construction with other significant life events. For example, getting a driver’s license, taking a first legal drink and other turning points in life could be transformed into Jewish activities. Or why not move beyond the more conventional sense of “Jewish activities” and look at what it might mean in the most profound sense to work — invest, practice law or medicine — Jewishly?

  • Begin teaching Jews how to be skillful at consciously constructing and maintaining their own Jewish identity across the life cycle. This might mean that on occasion we put less emphasis on motivating young people to adopt the particular ways of being Jewish that earlier generations practiced. In a culture of choice, young people create their own Jewish identities and, whatever our own proclivities, it is important that they do so thoughtfully.

These guidelines already are employed in many parts of the country. This suggests that this model is only making explicit what Jewish professionals and lay leaders intuitively know — we need a paradigm change in the area of Jewish identity formation. As Jews try to create new Jewish identities that are exciting and interesting enough to invite their allegiance, we now need to create a model that expands our sense of what being Jewish can mean. We must construct a model that understands and encourages the many ways that today’s Jews form their unique Jewish identities. This will not only help revitalize Jewish life but will help reinvigorate Jewish communities for the decades ahead.

This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the director of organizational development at CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the 2003 recipient of the Bernard Reisman Journal of Jewish Communal Service Article of the Year Award for “How to Think About Being Jewish in the 21st Century: A New Model of Jewish Identity Construction” (fall 2002), on which this piece is based.

Preschool Students Guide Curriculum

Strolling through the classrooms of the Stephen S. Wise Early Education Center is like walking through a museum. Walls are jam-packed with the children’s elaborate educational art projects, photos of them creating these masterpieces, and typed quotations of their thoughts on the topic at hand.

One preschool classroom boasts a replica of the Western Wall made out of painted paper bags. Next to it is a list of the youngsters’ explanations about the famous landmark. "You put notes in the holes and God reads them" is one 3-year-old boy’s comment. "You can wish or tell a story." Nearby is a small clay model of the Wall and photographs and postcards depicting the real monument in Israel.

This ornate aesthetic display is just one element of the Reggio Emilia teaching methodology, which is becoming more popular in Jewish preschools in Los Angeles. The teaching style was developed in a northern Italian town of the same name. After the city of Reggio Emilia was ravaged in World War II, citizens wanted to give hope to the community by creating quality preschools. A young teacher named Loris Malaguzzi developed the "Reggio approach," which maintains that the child is a contributor to his or her education. Other cornerstones of the philosophy include incorporating local culture, encouraging parent involvement and using the classroom as the "third teacher," in that it should contain thought-provoking objects and experiences.

Esther Elfenbaum, the director of Early Childhood Education Services at the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), introduced Reggio Emilia to the community four years ago after she spent time at the original Reggio school in Italy, where educators from all over the world go to learn about the program. Since then, Elfenbaum has trained local preschool teachers both inside and outside the Jewish community to use this approach in their classrooms. This summer, she made another trip to Italy to gather new information on the method.

Elfenbaum teamed up with Dafna Presnell, the director of the Stephen S. Wise Early Education Program, and the two women developed the program for the Los Angeles preschool. Presnell was immediately drawn to the methodology.

"The approach was so inclusive," she says. "They really emphasized relationships and the necessity to include the community. When we were looking at the cultural part, it was so exciting, because I was thinking of our rich and magnificent culture and religion."

"In traditional teaching, the teacher has a plan," says Elfenbaum. "This is different. It’s inspired by the children." To enable the children to guide their learning experience, teachers must be observant facilitators and let the lesson evolve by discovering what the children are interested in. Children then hypothesize about the subjects they are studying and do research to see if their theories are correct. This research might involve discussions, drawing pictures, painting, working with clay, putting on a play and countless other creative processes, which constitute what this method calls the "hundred languages" of children.

In the spring, preschoolers at Stephen S. Wise learned about Passover. This led to a lesson on the desert. When the children expressed their knowledge of Palm Springs and the Negev, the teachers asked questions about what desert life is like, which lead to a monthlong study of the topic. Yom Ha’atzmaut presented the perfect segue into a monthlong study about Israel. The children drew pictures of the Israeli flag and brought in pictures, postcards and other authentic relics belonging to their families. Classes then created "Israel museums" for the other students to visit.

While some preschools, like Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and Adat Ari El in Valley Village, embrace Reggio wholeheartedly, other institutions choose to simply incorporate aspects of the approach. At Temple Israel of Hollywood Nursery School, teachers borrow the aesthetics theory used in Reggio.

"I don’t believe in one program meeting the needs of all children," says Eileen Horowitz, who heads Temple Israel’s school.

Carol Bovill, the director of the Mann Family Early Childhood Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, plans to teach her staff about Reggio Emilia this fall. "It will be one part of our program, along with the Montessori and High Scope," Bovill said.

Still, Reggio advocates believe that the method can stand alone, since it represents a belief in a youngster’s potential. "You don’t always know what children will know unless you give them a chance," Elfenbaum emphasizes. "You would be amazed at what kind of information comes out of a child."