'Unaffiliated Jews are a lost cause'

Exclusive: JTS head tells Post, "the answer is not numbers, but quality."

arnold eisen face 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
arnold eisen face 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The 1 million completely unaffiliated American Jews will probably be lost to assimilation and intermarriage no matter what happens, and therefore outreach efforts should focus on about 3 million Jews positioned between those who are committed to and those who are completely devoid of Judaism, Prof. Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post over the weekend. "The answer [to assimilation and intermarriage] is not numbers, but quality," said Eisen, who was in Jerusalem to attend the cornerstone laying for the new campus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and its 19th rabbinic ordination ceremony. He will take office on July 1. "We are losing one quarter [of US Jews], one quarter is getting stronger and the middle we have to fight for, and most of them we lose," said Eisen, who is currently Koshland professor of Jewish culture and religion at Stanford University. Eisen estimated that 20% of the approximately 5 million Jews in the US had no connection with Judaism. "So they really are not there, except maybe for the fact that politicians want their vote. So you are losing a million that you did not have anyway. They matter because every Jew matters. "But if I take the 20% that are active and if I turn another 20% into active [Jews] I have transformed the Jewish people. That 2 million out of 4 million would leave us in better shape than 1 million out of 5 million," he said. In an hour-long interview, Eisen touched on intermarriage, the future of US Jewry, the causes for the shrinking of the Conservative movement and Zionism. The incoming head of of Conservative Judaism's flagship rabbinical school refused to comment on two burning issues: ordination of homosexuals and lesbians, and same-sex marriage. This week the US Conservative movement's Committee on Law and Standards is expected to rule on the question of ordaining gays. In the past, Eisen, who is not a rabbi, has supported appointing gay rabbis. His selection to head JTS was seen as a harbinger for the upcoming rabbinic decision. Sidestepping the issue, Eisen described a US Jewry ravaged by intermarriage and assimilation. "The question is what you can do to improve quality so that you obtain a critical mass of the Jewish community. You don't give up on any Jew, but I read the sociological trends and the numbers are bad. There are issues of quality that we can do a lot about. I see enormous possibilities," he said. Eisen described himself as an optimist in the sense that "I do not count numbers." Eisen, who has devoted most of his career to studying the ideological trends of contemporary American Judaism, including the causes of strong Jewish identity, said that he accepted the chancellor post because "I believe something can be done" to reduce intermarriage and assimilation. "The intermarriage rate is not irreversible because it correlates with synagogue attendance, it correlates with commitment, it correlates with day school education, it correlates with strong identity. It also correlates with intervention efforts, as the Boston study proves," he said, referring to a recently released 2005 study conducted by Brandeis University's Steinhardt Social Research Institute on behalf of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies. "So if I get a stronger core, the intermarriage rate is going to decline. At the moment, if current trends continue, Orthodoxy will be a larger and larger percentage of American Judaism. That means the intermarriage rate will fall. This is good. So the bad thing to do is to project from the present as if the future is the same as the present, only more so and worse," he said. Although Eisen admits that US Jewry faces many demographic challenges, he rejects Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski's prognosis, voiced during to the UJC's General Assembly in Los Angeles last month, that Jews have no future in America and should all move to Israel. "Israel has many advantages in building Jewish communities, language first of all, but Israel doesn't have a monopoly on the possibility of building Jewish communities," said Eisen. "Obviously there is a future for US Jewry. I think that an Israeli Zionist should not want [Bielski] to be right. It is not in the interest of the Jewish people. Rather it is in the interest of the Jewish people that there be a strong Jewish future in the US. "We are not rivals. So we should get past that and have a realistic critique of Golah [exile] because there are a lot of real things to criticize about Golah. There really is anti-Semitism in this world and there really is assimilation in this world. "And the Zionist analysis was generally correct about these things. I say this as an American Jew and as a scholar. But to get carried away and say, 'There is no future' is wrong and unhelpful," he said. Eisen pledged to strengthen ties between Conservative Jews and Israel. "I bothers me to no end that two-thirds of American Jews feel no connection with Israel [according to studies by sociologist Steven Cohen]. "I believe as a scholar that the existence and the vitality of the US Jewish community depend on the existence and the vitality of Israel. And I believe, unfortunately, that the same is true of Israel. I really think we are mutually dependent. Politically and religiously we are interdependent," he said. Eisen is planning a "new operation for cooperation" that will bring more Conservative rabbis, cantors, educators and laypeople to Israel. The aim is to strengthen the feeling of a shared destiny among Diaspora and Israeli Jews. "If I do nothing else as chancellor I will do this. If I fail at this I will be a failure. This is why I took the job."