The Issue of Class in the American Jewish Community

By Annie Jollymore

Now is as pressing a time as ever to discuss class. Jewish communities are grappling with the current and anticipated economic effects of COVID-19 that are threatening to reconfigure all kinds of communities, including Jewish ones. According to statistics released by the Department of Labor, over 52 million Americans have filed for unemployment for the first time since March. And although some of those jobs have come back, and others will follow when the economy can fully reopen, there is still much uncertainty around how many people will remain unemployed even when others return to work. As Jewish professionals continue their work over the next months and years and lay the foundation for rebuilding some of what has been lost, they will need to address pressing issues with more limited resources. This endeavor requires a clearer and more nuanced understanding of the ways that class affects people in both obvious and subtle ways.

Social class is one of a number of social characteristics by which people in society are hierarchically organized. Introductory sociology classes tend to identify class, race, and gender as the three most fundamental characteristics in organizing society, often referred to as axes of inequality because of the hierarchical nature of their organization. As fundamental organizing categories, race, class, and gender cut lines through every subcommunity in the US. The sense of Jewish peoplehood created by an understanding of Jewish history and being part of a group subject to prejudice, discrimination, and violence, and the tight-knit nature of many Jewish communities that has resulted, can belie deep divisions within the community and feelings of exclusion among Jews who are not recognized as part of that peoplehood. This is certainly not news: Jewish organizations have been forming for years to tackle such divisions and create more inclusive communities. These organizations work on inclusion around a range of differences, including race and ethnicity (e.g. JIMENA, the Jews of Color Initiative), sexuality (e.g. Keshet), and ability (e. g. Yachad, RespectAbility), and have taught us much about the ways that Jews who do not fit particular molds are excluded. Many Jews whose constellation of identities transcend the imagined norm of a middle-class, white, straight Ashekenazi are not represented in communal or religious leadership, in publicized materials, or in accounts of history, and issues that impact them in particular ways are often not recognized as issues that are ”important to Jews.” For instance, Supreme Court decisions around LGBTQ+ discrimination issues, or issues of anti-black or police violence – issues as serious as life and death to those who face them directly – may not seem relevant to the lives of Jews who fit mainstream norms and thus often go unrecognized. These insights can be a guide to thinking about the ways that poor, working-class, and lower-middle class Jews may also be and feel excluded.

Class is notoriously difficult for Americans to talk about. This is in part because it represents a hierarchy that rubs uncomfortably against cherished convictions about the fairness, justice, and meritocracy of U.S. society. In large part because of those convictions about the meritocracy of our society, Americans tend to see class position as the result of individual choices, assigning a degree of ease to social mobility that is mostly imaginary. Sociologists generally recognize class as a flexible yet fairly enduring structure into which people are positioned based on four primary factors: income, wealth, education, and occupation. While we tend to think of social class as about how much money people have, this multi-factored definition already implies that there is much more to it than simply money – class status becomes linked to identity and perspective through lifestyle and systems of meaning that both express and maintain class boundaries and are passed on through class-specific socialization. Additionally, the practices, attitudes, and values of different social classes are relational and oppositional. This is to say that the practices valued by one class are often scorned by the other, and part of the making of class identity involves opposition to and refutation of other class identities.

Why does this matter in Jewish communities? If we overlap this understanding of class onto what we know about Jewish communities in the U.S., we see that class may shape Jewish communities in particular ways, and that Jewish identity itself can be understood to be classed: that is, Jewish identity comes to be associated with being upper-middle class. Ultimately, this can result, as with understandings of Jewish identity as white, with an inability to “see” Jews who do not fit our expectations of what Jews look like – or speak like, or eat like, or walk like, or dress like, or think like. Or where they work, how they worship, or what their relationship to Jewish texts or history are, or what their relationship to Hebrew or to Israel is. All of these traits and characteristics are also impacted by class, so Jewish communities must understand how Jewish life in the U.S., particularly formally organized Jewish life, has been shaped by class and whom that excludes.

A few months ago, in an interview with a Jewish member of an interfaith couple (part of a Rosov Consulting research study), I heard an anecdote that perfectly illustrates the way that Jewishness is implicitly classed: at an event for interfaith couples, a man met a couple in which one member was a lawyer and the other was a police officer. Without thinking much of it, the man made a quick assumption that the lawyer was the Jewish person in the couple and was surprised to find out it was in fact the police officer who was Jewish. The quickness of the assumption and the surprise at being wrong reveal that Jewish identity has a class element, and those outside of that class identity have a more difficult time being recognized by others as Jews. In another interview, a participant who grew up in a working-class household described always feeling a little separate in Jewish spaces, including camp, and only coming to understand as an adult the degree to which social class shaped those experiences. And in an anecdote revealing the way class structures Jewish organizations in ways that can feel uncomfortable and even demeaning, a Jewish educator with a Masters in Jewish Education recounted being asked to work extra time as event staff for a donor gala and being told by an attendee as she picked up trash afterward that he would never work so hard for such little money. While such comments may seem minor, they create an environment that is not welcoming and respectful to all.

Recognition is extremely important, but it is not the only important consideration when thinking about how class organizes Jewish communities. How members of the community are valued and included in a community is also important and is a focal point in the community needs assessment work undertaken by Rosov Consulting. The offerings of the organized Jewish community are highly dependent on the generosity of the wealthiest members of the communities. This philanthropic base of Jewish communal offerings, an incredible triumph in so many ways, can create an uncomfortable balance of power that can devalue the contributions that those without much or any disposable income are able to give. Lastly, both the economic and cultural dimensions of class difference create obstacles to building Jewish capital for poor, working-class, and lower middle-class Jews. For instance, both the cost and the class environment of many educational offerings are obstacles to acquiring increased knowledge of Hebrew and Torah.

Jewish communities committed to building and maintaining engagement and vibrancy will need to better include those with lesser means and to look to them as leaders as well.  The ability to contribute financially to the community will be strained by the pandemic for many, potentially for some time. There is a need for creative ideas around Jewish education, for both children and adults, that can sidestep some of the class and financial issues that present obstacles to those who are not upper-middle class. Based on interviews with one of the founders and several participants of Ammud: The JOC Torah Academy, for example, there is an indescribable value to having space to study Torah and learn Hebrew that is not marked by the racial and class norms that exist in many Jewish spaces, and that lead many Jews to feel those spaces are “not for them.”  Interventions that examine some of the specific ways that poor, working-class, and lower-middle class Jews are excluded from organized Jewish life, as well as careful self-reflection on the part of those involved in programming and in leadership of Jewish institutions and agencies may open further avenues for inclusion of all Jews, and the expanded participation in and vibrancy of Jewish communities.

Annie Jollymore, MA, is a Project Associate at Rosov Consulting, a mission-driven company that works with funders and grantees to inform and improve Jewish education and engagement.

Am earlier version of this article was published in the Forward.