The Conspiracy

Pew Survey Conversation (Part 2)

Meet Steve, Sarah, Eliana, and Jonathan.

Part 2 of a 3 part series. Part 1 is here.

4.      Are the survey’s categories of denomination a useful marker of determining true religious affiliation/practice in today’s Jewish world?

Dr. Steven M. Cohen, sociologist: Yes. Denominational identities can be meaningful for people as many are strongly attached to Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism.

But others use these labels only casually. We need to understand that these are often off-the-cuff answers for many respondents and that they do not necessarily indicate strong attachment to any of the denominational communities to whom they refer, and that they may shift from one survey to the next. Nevertheless, they do signal significant inter-group differences that are worth of sensitive and more refined analysis and understanding.

Most critically, we need to distinguish the synagogue members from the non-members. Of Conservative Jews, half belong to a synagogue, as compared to a third of Reform Jews. Members of either denomination are more engaged the non-members of both denominations. And within the denominational groups, the members are far more Jewishly engaged than the non-members, and even more so among Reform than among Conservative Jews.


Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, linguist: Not really. You get people who say they are Reform and don’t do anything Jewish and people who say they’re Reform and do Jewish things frequently. You get people who say they have no denomination who are completely detached from Jewish life and people who say they have no denomination who daven in an independent minyan every week. You get people who say they are Orthodox because the synagogue they don’t attend is Orthodox, and you get people who say they are Orthodox who are halachically observant. However, because of families’ historical ties to the denominations, we do still see patterns according to self-proclaimed denomination.


Eliana A. Glogauer, student, IDC Herzliya: I do not think that the categories of denomination given as options in the survey reflect the reality of the modern world, vis-à-vis religion. I do not believe that labels in general are a positive classification, especially relating to religion. No one will fit any single “box” perfectly, and attempting to do so can strengthen feelings that some may have regarding inability to fit a specific category, with regard to religious observance.


Jonathan P. Katz, student, University of Chicago: No, no, no. Firstly, where did Reconstructionists and Renewal go? Secondly, a huge number of people are not completely comfortable with their or any identification at all – witness the large number of Modern Orthodox who prefer the non-denominational label shomrei mitzvot. Finally, a lot of us college students have started to find happiness in pluralistic communities – and struggle with the snobbery and self-righteousness infecting denominational communities when we go home.

Also, like Eliana said, what does “denomination” even mean at this point? You have everyone from mostly secular, bacon-eating, yet shul-loving people to shomrei mitzvotwho shun synagogue attendance identifying as Conservative.

Finally: the survey likely has massively undercounted Haredim, as these surveys often do. Something that I think should be noted.


5.     Do you see the survey results having an impact on Jewish communal approaches to Israel? Should it?

SMC: The survey results should remind us that increasing intermarriage will produce fewer people attached to Israel among the non-Orthodox. They also point to greater diversity in feelings about Israeli policies among those attached to Israel. In other words, in the short run we may see a rising number of American Jewish counterparts to Israel’s Jewish Zionist left; in the longer run, we should see fewer Israel supporters among all American Jews and a greater fraction of them identifying as Orthodox. What one does about all this depends upon one’s objectives and value orientations. But if we want more Jews caring about Israel, we should adopt more policies that will promote inmarriage and more Jewish child-rearing, particularly among the intermarried. And we should expand the scope of welcomed conversation on Israel to include those who are deeply critical of Israeli government policies.


SBB: I think Jewish communal leaders, including those on campus, should use the survey results primarily in two ways: to enhance their grant applications and to engage populations who consider themselves Jews but are alienated from Jewish communal life. I don’t think that organizations with right-wing Israel policies should change their policies based on the finding that “just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security.” But that finding might spur left-wing organizations to attract more members and dollars and continue the work they’ve been doing. Maybe some results of the survey will even inspire the creation of new organizations. In this era, our communities and our campuses are made up of thousands of organizations representing diverse views and approaches to Israel. That indicates a healthy community, and the survey results should not change that.


EAG: This survey is, at its core, data about how Jewish people in today’s world act and think. Will this information be used to better figure out how to better influence Jewish people? I feel that this is a bit of an obvious answer.  As to whether or not this information should be used to modify communal approaches to Israel and Israel advocacy, I feel that the survey was conducted in order to generate data that can be interpreted and utilized. At this point, the survey has been conducted, data has been generated, and not to utilize this information, learn from it, and use it to be more effective would be wasteful and stupid.


JPK: Let’s distinguish between should and will here.

Should the report have an effect? I sincerely hope so. I think Ori Nir from Americans for Peace Now puts it perfectly in that the report shows that “young American Jews are much less disposed to tolerate the cognitive dissonance that results from the clash between their values and some Israeli policies.” Furthermore, I think American Jews of all ages are really losing patience with an intransigent, stubborn, ostrich-in-a-sand-dune Israeli state. And honestly, anecdotally, it seems a lot of us are “Israel-ed out” – I myself have written about this – we’d like to see more stuff here for a change. Finally, synagogues’ and organization’s absolute devotion to Israel – I think the Chicago JUF gives something like a third of their money as aid to Israel – is actually not appropriate in an era where Jewish institutions here really need financing and support in a much more real way than Israel does right now.

Will it have an effect? Given who has the money right now, and given people’s stubbornness, I doubt it.


6.     How should these results affect campus Israel programming, if at all?

SMC: We cannot draw a straight line from the results to campus Israel programming. I would advocate the same policies after the Pew study as before: Expand the scope of Israel programming to include counterparts to all Zionist parties in Israel, including those who want to see an immediate end to the Occupation of the West Bank.


SBB: See my answer to #5.


EAG: I agree with Steven, in that I believe that there is no direct correlation between the results of the survey and campus Israel programming. I do believe that, in general, campus Israel programming needs to change. I also agree with much of what Jonathan has said; I believe that more openness in discussing various facets of the situation (again, as Jonathan mentions, the ban on discussing BDS is absolutely ludicrous). In general, I believe that more dialogue and more research on the part of students is absolutely necessary – the mistake that many of the Israel advocacy groups make is spoon-feeding us what they feel is the relevant information. We need to do our own research and come up with our own, informed conclusions. Dialogue is of utmost importance regarding Israel advocacy, but dialogue is only constructive if both parties actually have an active understanding of what they are discussing.


JPK: Again, I am pessimistic that things will change. BUT there are two things I think the report could do:

a)      Less of a focus from Hillels on Israel programming. College Judaism should not and cannot start and end at Birthright. Let’s see more of the innovative programming that you find at the most successful Hillel outposts that focus on the everyday: Challah for Hunger, soup kitchen volunteering trips, accessible Torah study…

b)      And more openness. This ban on the discussion of BDS is honestly similar to what I imagine a petulant child who doesn’t get his favorite candy bar to be like. Closed-minded and obnoxious. Again, young American Jews are not only more critical of Israel, but more questioning of what Israel means. Instead of more right-wing hasbara pushes and assuming undying devotion, let’s see more discussion of the tough issues. I think the Open Hillel movement really should and could take advantage of this report to push more open-mindedness and debate within Hillels. More welcoming for J Street U should happen – I am fortunate enough to be on a campus where this is the case – and maybe even non-pro-Israel groups.


We might just be the last Jewish organization to respond to the big bad Pew Survey and we’re fine with that. It seems like every response so far is other people telling us what how we need to feel about it, whether we should be scared,  take it as a a dare to engage singles in their 40′s suffering attritionbe optimistic, or think they got it all wrong.  But here at New Voices, we (and by “we” I mean “me,” editor Derek Kwait) aren’t so into only getting one side of the story. To this end, we’ve engaged two of the best and brightest Jews in academia and two of NV’s best and brightest student writers to participate in an inter-generational, inter-denominational, inter-gender, inter-orientation, inter-community, inter-national (we included a Canadian)…in other words, inter-human dialogue on the Survey’s results in the hopes that, after hearing all these varied perspectives, you will be able to find yourself a little in all of them, and be a little offended by all of them.

By engaging such different Jews in conversation with each other here, we hope to engender better conversations among different Jews in campuses and communities out in the world, thus bolstering what all agree to be the most important thing about Jewish life: a strong and vibrant Jewish community.

Meet the conversers:

Dr. Steven M. Cohen [SMC] is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College in New York, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.  He received an honorary doctorate from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, the Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, and a National Jewish Book Award. He had been cited as one of the Forward Fifty. In 2012, he was elected president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.

Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor [SBB] is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She teaches about the social science of American Jews, as well as about language and culture. She wrote the acclaimed book Becoming Frum, about the way Jews who become Orthodox later in life use language, has published many academic papers, and given lectures around the country about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, and American Jews. She edits the Journal of Jewish Languages and the Jewish Language Research Website, both of which she founded.

Eliana A. Glogauer [EAG] is New Voices’ chief editorialist. She currently studies government at IDC Herzliya, and is a co-founder of the Israel advocacy initiative, AskMeMore. She is the promised Canadian, from Toronto.

Jonathan P. Katz [JPK] is a New Voices contributor, and studies history and geography at the University of Chicago. Originally from New York City, he is also a polyglot and was a summer research intern for the Urban Land Institute.


Tomorrow–Part 3!

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