Why ‘Jewish Community’ Is Harder To Define, And Serve


Only about 2 percent of the respondents to the New York Jewish Population Study are “Jewish by conversion.” Twice as many people — 5 percent of the study — describe themselves as “Jewish by personal choice.”

The latter category refers, for the most part, to people with some family connections, perhaps a Jewish grandparent, or a Jewish spouse (or former spouse) or child or grandchild. Some of these people say that Judaism is their religion, some say they have no religion, and the largest percentage of this group identifies with another religion.

No one ever said defining what it means to be Jewish was easy.

The countless statistics in the detailed and rich report, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, underscore how confusing it is to describe Jewish identity these days, and to determine communal policy implications.

For example, if such a small percentage of people formally convert, what does that say about all the outreach energies and resources promoting conversion? Have these efforts been undermined by the fact that people who simply choose to identify as Jews are easily accepted in our more liberal denominations, with no Jewish education or ritual ceremony required, and no questions asked?

Steven M. Cohen, a leading demographer who helped conduct the survey, has a more positive view. Noting that conversion families tend to be far more engaged Jewishly than families with someone Jewish by personal choice, he believes conversion should be viewed as a hoped-for “positive eventuality.” And since there is a relatively large group of people who are Jewish by personal choice, they make up a natural constituency of potential recruits for conversion to Judaism.

Cohen and his demographer colleagues make a solid case in saying that the New York study offers further proof that our community is increasingly fluid, and that the boundaries of who is and who isn’t Jewish are more and more porous, based on self-definitions and attitudes rather than imposed religious standards.

That makes defining — and serving — the “Jewish community” ever more difficult.

A few years ago a survey of the Boston Jewish community found that about 60 percent of interfaith families said they were raising their children as Jewish, about twice the percentage found most recently in New York, and in other cities. Some credited the Boston community for its aggressive outreach efforts, but Cohen notes that the way the question was posed in the Boston study may have been a contributing factor. It did not offer a response that would indicate if the children were being raised in more than one religion. By contrast, the recent New York study did; the results suggest that a significant number of children in interfaith families are being brought up in two faiths.

We’ve seen from the headlines of the new study that 37 percent of Jews in New York define themselves as “Just Jewish,” with little interest in identifying Jewishly, and the next biggest group is made up of haredim, whose religious and social behavior emphasize separating themselves from their fellow Jews.

The group we think of as the center of the Jewish community, made up primarily of Conservative and Reform constituents, has been losing about 1 percent of its members each year over the last decade.

So the Not Interesteds (Just Jewish) and the Very Interesteds (Orthodox) are moving in different directions and away from the communal center, where there is increasing decline.

That puts the spotlight on the Modern Orthodox, who could play a pivotal role as a bridge between the more extreme elements of the community, the secularists and the more rigidly Orthodox. But there are increasing signs of significant tension within the Orthodox community itself, which may be seen as a bloc by outsiders, but certainly not from within.

In the Modern Orthodox camp, part of a struggle currently being played out within the membership of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical body in the world, is over its policy not to accept as members rabbis ordained exclusively by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the New York institution founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and calling itself an institution of “Open Orthodoxy.” The RCA is also divided over the role of women in positions of synagogue leadership.

And if there is any doubt that the divisions in the Orthodox community between the modern and fundamentalist segments are growing wider, consider:

On Aug. 1, more than 90,000 men and women are expected to fill MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to mark and celebrate the 12th Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi — the celebratory culmination of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of a-page-a-day Talmud study. The remarkable event is described by its sponsor, the fervently Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, as “the grandest fulfillment yet of Rav Meir Shapiro’s dream of ‘bringing Jewish hearts into one great, harmonious union’ through limud haTorah [Torah study].”

But five nights later, and for the first time, a number of Modern Orthodox congregations and educational institutions in New York will come together at Congregation Shearith Israel to celebrate the completion of the Talmud cycle in their own way.

“We don’t see our event as an alternative to the Agudah siyum [celebration],” says Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean and rosh yeshiva of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. “We are encouraging people to go to the Agudah event. But ours will be an additional opportunity,” he said, noting that speakers at the event will include women scholars, underscoring the “pride we take in our diversity.”

Rabbi Linzer was being positive and polite in describing the new celebration. Others have long complained that the Agudah event has never included as speakers rabbinic scholars from Yeshiva University, which is outside the “yeshiva world” sphere of Agudah.

Those federation leaders charged with analyzing and acting on the results of the new study with the goal of unifying and strengthening our community no doubt will seek to further cultivate the Modern Orthodox. That will require addressing existing resistance in the Orthodox community due to the perception that federation is not sufficiently focused on the crisis in day school tuitions at home, and out of sync on Israel when it comes to open support for the settlements, and other issues where the Orthodox are more hawkish than the mainstream community.

One final (for now) observation on the New York study: little attention has been given to the findings regarding longevity. Steven Cohen points out that for the first time since the days of the Bible there are four adult Jewish generations alive and active at the same time — young people over 18, their parents, grandparents and increasingly in recent years, their great-grandparents.

The percentage of Jews over 75 has tripled in the last two decades, Cohen says, “and they are healthier.”

More attention needs to be paid to this cohort, as well as the Baby Boomers, who are right behind them. A welcome new initiative, called B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, seeks to connect that growing group with the Jewish community through encore careers, volunteer service, philanthropy and learning.

In addition, synagogues and organizations should be thinking about multiple forms of prayer and programming to deal with this new and vast age span, Cohen says.

It’s a blessing to have that “problem,” and a reminder that for all of the dilemmas raised by the New York study, we have the challenge and opportunity to address them with creativity and wisdom. Our future depends on the outcome.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.