The Young American Jewish Elite

by Matthew Ackerman

It is (or should be) a truism of media and academic culture that what deserves the least attention often gets the most of it. In “Good to Great,” the obsessively researched management book, Jim Collins aimed to find companies who had demonstrated consistently superior performance relative to their peers for at least 15 years. He came up with a list of 11 companies, every one of which – companies like Walgreens and Kimberly-Clark, a paper company – was decidedly un-sexy. Even more telling, they were all led by extraordinarily effective leaders who had received far less media attention than their less successful peers.

So, too, of course with much of the Jewish world, a significant segment of which has been obsessed in the last decade with identifying and understanding younger Jews. From the American side this obsession grew out of Jewish population studies conducted in 1990 and 2000-2001, which revealed for many Jewish leaders what they should have known long before: that many young American Jews were alienated from Jewish life, which meant they were increasingly marrying non-Jews, which meant the Jewish population was stagnating or even shrinking. Of late Israelis have become no less concerned in this regard, as they see their country’s international standing sinking ever lower and point the finger, at least in part, on young American Jews less committed to Israel’s security.

This led to the commissioning of many studies on young American Jews as the established community sought to understand what had gone wrong. A revealing interview about this work with Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York who has written many of the most important studies of this kind, was published recently by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

These Jews, Cohen says, are “alienated,” don’t feel comfortable around “upper-middle-class, in-married, middle-aged, family people,” and dislike distinctions being drawn between the Jewish and the non-Jewish. Israel is, at best, a place to support if it meets standards of “tolerance,”“human rights,” and “women’s rights” that it is supposedly lacking in. For these Jews, to even define oneself as “pro-Israel” is to buy into the “sometimes immoral policies of the Israeli government.” (Then again, any label is supposedly anathema for this set.) Jay Michaelson, a bellwether of this kind of thinking, recently went so far as to propose that support for Israel is in direct conflict with American Jewish identity.

The crucial question, though, is who exactly Steven Cohen is talking about. In his interview with the JCPA, several times Cohen obliquely noted that his comments were limited to the “non-Orthodox.” He was more explicit in this regard in a 2006 study he wrote on intermarriage, limiting his work and conclusions only to non-Orthodox Jews. So one important thing we know about these Jews is that they are not Orthodox.

The other important thing about the young Jews Cohen focuses on is that they hail from a strong web of Jewish connections. They are fluent in traditional religious practice and familiar with Gemara and other mainstays of Jewish tradition. Despite their aversion to supporting Israel, many have nevertheless spent significant time there and know Hebrew. And they all have lots of friends with similar backgrounds. (None of these traits are odd for people with an Orthodox background. And pushed as far to the “left” as it will reasonably go, the Orthodox label comfortably contains within it many people as conversant in the secular world as the religious.)

The last important thing about them, which again can easily be seen in Cohen’s casual references in the JCPA interview to the havruta movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s and “social justice,” is that they define themselves as a protest against the mainstream, which is both bereft of meaning and corrupt.

So in effect we are looking at a cohort of American Jews under 40 who define themselves against the Jewish mainstream and do not call themselves Orthodox (no labels, remember) yet have the experiences and knowledge of their peers who do. An unusual and small group that Cohen considers an “elite.” And they can be forgiven to a certain extent for thinking of themselves in similar terms, as they have been showered with fellowships, awards, and other euphemisms for money by a Jewish establishment desperate for their attention.

Left entirely unasked is whether or not any of it is worth it. Even the most successful of their generously supported endeavors, places like Yeshivat Hadar, cater almost entirely to the small group of people like themselves who are well-versed in Jewish life but yet cannot bring themselves to rub shoulders with all those annoying middle-aged people and their children. Or commit themselves to substantive support for Israel, the largest collection of Jews in the world and the first independent Jewish polity in 2,000 years (located in the same place as the polities that preceded it, with even the same capital city) that finds itself under increasing assault from an international campaign determined to cast it as fundamentally illegitimate.

If this is an elite, it is a strange one. It shares little in common with the Jews it will supposedly lead who, in any case, it refuses to take responsibility for leading. It explicitly defines itself in opposition to the center of the Jewish community (which nevertheless goes on shoveling it money). And it sees avoidance of the most frightening and important issues affecting the Jewish people as a matter of high principle.

When the story, in some distant future, of our Jewish current is written, one thing we can be near certain of is that these types of leaders will not feature largely within it. For now, it is long past time to look elsewhere for the kind of leadership American Jews need.

Matthew Ackerman is an analyst with The David Project.