Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Will Your Grandchilden Be Commited Jews (Regardless of Denomination)?

The well-known article "Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?" claims that only Orthodoxy can save American Judaism from extinction caused by high intermarriage rates and lower birthrates among non-Orthodox Jews. This article addresses a real problem, but in a slipshod way. In Will Your Grandchildren Be Reform?, I have criticized this article for ignoring the relatively high Orthodox interdenominational switching rates. As noted there, a much higher percentage of Jews raised Orthodox switch to other denominations than Jews raised in other denominations. In the comments section, commentators have criticized my critique for not distinguishing between the more nominal Orthodoxy of 50 to 100 years ago (with a presumably higher switching rate) and the deeper Orthodoxy of today (with a presumably lower rate). I think that critique is correct as far as it goes, but the original article is still deficient for failing to include any adjustment for interdenominational switching.

In A Tale of Two Jewries: the “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews Sociologist Steven M. Cohen has examined the data and reached a a much more nuanced conclusion: the overall denominational averages masks the presence of "two Jewries". And this conclusion has startling implications.

Cohen notes that American Jews tend to fall into two broad categories:

  1. Jews who have a relatively high level of observance, are affiliated with a synagogue, attended Jewish educational or social institutions as a child (day school, religious school, summer camp), have married other Jews, have children, and send their children to Jewish educational or social institutions; and

  2. Jews who have a lower level of religions observance, are unaffiliated with a synagogue, have intermarried, and who do not have children or who do not send their children to Jewish educational or social institutions.

In short, there is a Jewishly committed group, and a Jewishly uncommitted group. Or perhaps a core and a periphery. (Cohen refers to them an the in-married and the inter-married, although the groups seem to me to capture much more than simply choice of spouse.)

What is largely missing in a middle, or a moderately committed group. In the past, this group may have been by less observant people with a strong ethnic sense of Judaism. But in the past several decades, ethnicity as a force in Judaism has strongly declined. Cohen notes that we have experienced "ethnic decline but religious stability."

Cohen found that the committed group tends to raise children who are themselves committed, and the uncommitted group tends to raise children who are themselves uncommitted. But his most interesting conclusion is that the committed group is dispersed throughout the denominations in approximately equal numbers. That is, in absolute numbers, there is about the same number of committed Jews who are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. But since the Reform movement is the largest, followed by Conservative Judaism, followed by Orthodoxy, the percentage of "committed" Jews is very high in Orthodoxy, smaller in Conservativism, and smaller still in Reform.

Because of this, the overall averages for the denominations picks up and masks the averages of two very different sub-populations within that denomination. So a much smaller percentage of Reform Jews (say) attend a passover seder than Orthodox Jews, but that is because Reform Jews have a relatively low number of "committed" Jews (who do attend seders in high numbers) and a relatively high number of uncommitted Jews (who do not).

The implications of this are striking. Contrary to the Orthodox claims, the "solution" to the "problem" of Jewish continuity is not for Jews to become Orthodox; it is for Jews to become religiously knowledgeable, committed, and involved. That is, if a Reform of Conservative Jew really takes Judaism seriously --- that is, has a high level of Jewish knowledge, observance, and belief, affiliates with a synagogue, marries another Jew (by birth or conversion), and sends his or her children to Jewish institutions --- that Jew has a relatively high chance of that Jew's children doing the same.

An important warning: this is not grounds for complacency. Reform and Conservative Jews cannot simply join a synagogue and send their kids to camp and think that they have ensured Jewish continuity. They need to strive for a serious and deep understanding of Judaism, actually practice it, and teach this diligently to their children. The v'ahavta has it right, and v'shenantam l'vanecha is at the core. The challenge for Conservative and especially Reform Jews is to be able to do this in a synagogue where only some of the members have similar beliefs and practices.

What does this involve? More in future posts.

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