Commentary Magazine

The Chrismukkah Battalions

In my feature story last month, “Loving Us to Death: How America’s embrace is imperiling American Jewry,” I discussed the implications of the Pew Research Center’s new study,“A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Here is a sample of reactions from other sources on the same topic.

The Chrismukkah Battalions

While Pew’s statistics told a story in which intermarriage and the decline of belief in Judaism and Jewish peoplehood were inextricably linked, those who prefer to celebrate this trend were given prominent platforms to extol rather than lament the results. A prominent example was an op-ed in the New York Times by Susan Katz Miller, the author of a book that advocates greater support for raising children in more than one faith. Miller used the Times platform to claim that those brought up in such households were not lost to Judaism. But while she cited Pew’s findings to note the large and growing numbers of such families, she ignored the implications of the rest of the data, which showed that children of intermarriage are less likely to educate their children as Jews or to affiliate with the community. It may well be that they “feel comfortable” in all settings, including those that are Jewish, but the odds that they will be Jews or will choose to raise subsequent generations of Jews remain slim.

Doubling Down on Outreach

Echoing those views in some ways was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union of Reform Judaism. His movement was, in one sense, a winner in the Pew data, since Reform is now clearly the largest of the Jewish denominations in the United States. The Pew study illustrated that the decline in Jewish numbers is the inevitable result of a Jewish population that no longer primarily defines its Jewish identity in terms of Judaism and particularistic Jewish values or support for Israel. It also demonstrated the bankruptcy of outreach programs that diverted disproportionate resources to the less committed sectors of the population—especially the intermarried and those who eschew religion. But Rabbi Jacobs suggested in Haaretz that the community should double down on those efforts. Since the study showed most Jews defined their identity in terms that were primarily political or social rather than religious, he urged that this be the focus of more outreach. The true purpose here would seem to be the unabashed identification of Judaism, the world’s oldest faith and one not easily adapted to present-day mores, with the latest in American liberal tropes.

Stretching to What End?

The Pew Study made it clear that Conservative Judaism is in a steep decline. But when its synagogue arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, met for its centennial gathering weeks after the report’s release, one of the movement’s most important leaders didn’t seem to have much in the way of inspiration to offer. Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said Conservatives needed to stretch and increase outreach without changing who they were or what they stood for. But while such sentiments were applauded, Eisen seemed somewhat oblivious to the tensions between emphasizing outreach and sticking by the movement’s devotion to religious law—law that the overwhelming majority of its affiliated members don’t observe. Since this is the central problem that has led to the halving of the size of Conservatism over the past two generations, there was little indication of what more of the same would do to halt this trend.

Orthodox Triumphalism

Another odd response to Pew came from an Orthodox source. In an article in New York’s Jewish Week, Rabbi David Eliezrie of the Chabad movement disputed, without any statistical basis, the finding that many older Americans who were raised Orthodox had left the movement. Moreover, he claimed that because there are more Chabad outreach centers in the country than Reform synagogues, Chabad should be considered the largest denomination—even though those centers, which do admirable work bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated, do not have members in the same way that the movements do. And he claimed that more than a million Jews were in some way affiliated with Orthodoxy, more than double the numbers that Pew reported. There is no reason to believe his claim that the Orthodox were undercounted. Pew showed that Orthodox Jews are the one sector of the population that is growing, especially the ultra-Orthodox. But triumphalism from the Orthodox or claims that exaggerate their numbers or influence do nothing to advance our knowledge of the problem or how best to address it.

Full-Bore Denial

Perhaps the most bizarre response to the Pew study came from Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg, who wrote flatly that the study—the most comprehensive and authoritative work on the American Jewish community in a generation—should be ignored. He disputed its methodology and perversely argued that its data actually showed that there had been no increase in those who fit in the category of “Jews of no religion.” He also tried to claim that there was no rise in intermarriage and that the fuss about the impact of this development was misplaced if not completely wrongheaded. But, as the study’s authors wrote in a devastating reply published in the Forward in response, their numbers were not only correct, but also were every bit as far-reaching in their impact as advertised. Comparing their survey with the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, Goldberg claimed that it showed that Jews of no religion were only 20 percent of American Jewry. But the numbers show that they now total more than 30 percent. Goldberg speculated that there was real doubt as to whether Jewish demographic decline would continue; the study proved just the opposite. Facts are stubborn things.

About the Author

Jonathan Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.

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