‘Jewish declines don’t invalidate current efforts’

American Jewry has the tools to fight intermarriage, sociologist Steven Cohen tells "Post".

Steven Cohen 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Steven Cohen 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Despite the increasing assimilation, declining endogamy and diminution in Jewish religious identity in North America reported in a Pew Research Center study released last month, sociologist Steven M. Cohen believes that the American Jewish establishment has gotten a lot right in its approach to the social issues affecting members of the tribe.
According to the study, which surveyed almost 3,500 Jews between February and June, there has been a generational diminution in identification as a “Jew by religion.”
“Intermarriage rates seem to have risen substantially over the last five decades” with nearly six-in-10 Jews married since the turn of the millennium having chosen a gentile spouse, the Pew study stated.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem this week, Cohen, the director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, asserted that the bleak figures included in the report do not invalidate approaches taken by the Jewish establishment.
During a panel on the Pew report on Monday, Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, expressed the view of those who are calling for a reappraisal of current approaches to Jewish engagement when he told audience members that “what got us here isn’t going to get us there. So all the answers that we think we have and all the programs that are working, clearly are not working enough.”
“The pew study shows us we have more work to do,” Sanderson asserted.
However, Cohen believes differently.
Cohen cited efforts at expanding day schools, Jewish camping and Israelcentric initiatives such as Birthright and Masa as having made a significant contribution to Jewish continuity.
“So you can say, with all these activities – why isn’t there progress?” he asked.
“The answer is that there is progress” but American Jewry is “facing incredibly strong social forces which militate against ongoing Jewish connection. So just because there’s Jewish population decline, as there is, doesn’t mean that these activities did nothing. It means that they helped stem the decline that has taken place, and were it not for them, we would have declined even further.”
For the most part, Cohen continued, “the tools are there.” Since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which shed light on many of the trends cited in the more recent Pew report, Cohen explained, “the issue of Jewish continuity has been on the agenda and there’s been a lot of responses: Birthright, day schools, Masa, to name just a few.”
“You can go on and on about all the activities that Jews have created in response to the perceived threat to Jewish continuity,” he stated.
Cohen suggested “having conversion-oriented rabbis placed around the country” as one of the approaches that could potentially help stem the decline in Jewish population, stating that congregational rabbis are not always able to work with potential converts, even those married to members of the tribe.
“If we want to address the Jewish population problem, we should help convert those people who want to be converted,” Cohen explained. “Either they are married to Jews, which would make in-marriages, or they are dating Jews, which also means we will get in-marriages.”
According to Pew, the only Jewish demographic experiencing growth is the Orthodox community.
Asked what factors have led to this growth and if they are transferable to other sectors within American Jewry, Cohen stated that what enables Orthodox growth is their relative separation from mainstream American life.
The Orthodox “create social ties that are very cohesive and that erect distance and boundaries with American society and culture,” Cohen stated.
“To some extent, non- Orthodox Jews need to learn some of those lessons and be willing to push for greater social distance from America in order to create stronger Jewish cohesiveness, ties among Jews, even at the same time as we look to allow non-Jews who want to become Jewish to become Jewish.”
Asked if such an approach is practical, Cohen stated that there are approaches that can be adopted to push such an agenda. Citing research that indicates that even intermarried Jews would have ideally preferred endogamy on some level, Cohen stated that “we need to capitalize on the urge for Jews to remain Jewish and to associate with Jews, and we could do some of that.”
“We could guide Jews perhaps to campuses where there are lots of other Jews, for example.
That could be a way of, in a sense, subtly separating ourselves from America.
We can certainly bring more Jews to Jewish camps, youth groups and Israel travel, which is a way of separating Jews from America. At the same time, I would invite non- Jewish romantic partners and spouses of Jews to join Jews on those programs,” he said.
Such efforts are not “about ghettoizing,” he explained. “I’m talking about privileging Jewish cohesiveness and community.”
Federations, Cohen further asserted, are “well positioned” to “excite the imagination and urgency of philanthropists” for these efforts.
“It’s a major communication, education and branding effort. Federations… can do it on a national continental level, and they can do it on the community level. Thought leaders and journalists can help make this happen.”