Three Cheers for the Jewish Vitality Statement – and Three Qualifications

By Jon Levisohn

When I was asked to join the distinguished group of signatories to the Statement on Jewish Vitality, I was pleased to do so. I am not, by disposition, a hand-wringer. If anything, I tend towards optimism. But I agree that the American Jewish community faces a set of significant challenges that we should not ignore.

This, I think, is the main message of the statement. Many of the signatories differ about the specific policy recommendations, the most obvious being the one about tax policies related to day school tuition – a recommendation that is surely far too tentative for some, and wholly anathema for others. And as some have already noted, these ideas are hardly revolutionary. But that’s the point. We already have a toolkit of well-developed and well-documented ways to build stronger Jewish communities. What we seem not to have is a communal and philanthropic commitment to support them, or a sense of urgency in doing so.

I was pleased that the invitation to sign the statement also included the encouragement to offer commentary or additional perspectives. The goal, in other words, is to provoke discussion. In that spirit, I offer three caveats:

One:

Nathan Glazer wrote about “survivalism” in American Judaism back in 1957, and the term itself may be even older than that. But survivalism doesn’t work for many young committed Jews, including young Jewish leaders. Nor do tribalism, or arguments for “continuity.” In fact, any conversation about numbers seems to generate a predictably alienated response from younger Jews. I think it’s worth thinking about why. Are they simply naïve, indifferent, or unwilling to face facts? That’s uncharitable. A better explanation is that young committed Jews want to stand for something rather than just standing against something. They want Judaism to be meaningful, to be aspirational, to have something to say to the world. The ongoing existence of Jews is not enough.

Mijal Bitton and Steven M. Cohen recently tried to address the question of why quantity is important. They argue that quantity is a prerequisite for quality: “More engaged Jews means stronger communities able to mobilize more people and more resources, critical to achieving political influence, social diversity, cultural creativity and religious vitality.” The point is well taken.

But too many of the conversations in the Jewish community are only about quantity. Too much funding is driven by the desire for numbers – numbers of participants, or numbers of Jews – rather than the pursuit of cultural creativity and the aspiration for renewal. Too frequently, the focus on numbers ends up alienating some segment of the community. While it is true that Jews are marrying later or not at all, how is that objective statistic heard by single people in their 40s? Demography is one lens to understand the vitality of Jewish community and Jewish culture. It should not be the only one.

Two:

I find the metaphor of a “loss” of some number of Jews to be problematic. Some may recall a recent aborted ad campaign in support of Masa, in which Israeli TV commercials featured “missing person” posters about “lost” American Jews. That campaign was offensive in its assumptions about Diaspora Jews. It was also just wrong. Even those who recognize the demographic challenges generated by intermarriage patterns know full well that very significant numbers of Jews who marry non-Jews are not lost to the Jewish community. They, and their spouses, and many of their children, are active contributors and participants.

We should not be naïve about the data, but we should be careful about our interpretations. In particular, the explanation that Jews are choosing to leave Judaism – that there is a movement away from identification with the Jewish community towards something else – is incorrect. We sometimes hear that Jews are “fleeing for the exits.” This metaphor is neither accurate nor helpful.

For a long time now, more nuanced analyses have documented the ways in which the non-Orthodox Jewish community is bifurcating: there is a community of children of inter-marriage and one of children of in-marriage (see, for example, here, here and here). The in-married community has increased rates of Jewish education and Jewish affiliation of all kinds, and intermarriage among the children of in-marriage has plateaued and possibly even gone down. The children of inter-marriage, on the other hand, grow up on average with far less affiliation, education, and practice, and choose non-Jewish partners at high rates. But even that group is not fleeing for the exits. As Ted Sasson writes, “Instead of a growing population of young adults raised in Jewish households opting out, there appears to be a trend of young adults raised in non-Jewish or partly Jewish households opting in.”

Three:

As much as I share a concern about the vitality of the Jewish community, I am also concerned about the instrumentalization of Jewish education that is, sometimes, a by-product of the first concern. Several years ago, at a conference about Taglit Birthright, Steven M. Cohen remarked that we used to send kids to Israel because we thought it was a good idea to send kids to Israel. Now we send kids to Israel because of evidence of the trips’ positive effects on in-marriage many years later.

This shift is visible in setting after educational setting, where the discourse of effectiveness – the search for “what works” – tends to diminish the importance of the work itself. Israel trips, summer camps, day schools, youth groups all become instrumentalized in the service of continuity or identity. Rather than valuing certain kinds of learning, certain kinds of social engagement, certain kinds of cultural achievement, etc., all those experiences become means to some other hoped-for end.

This is tricky. Evaluation and accountability are critical. We should work towards greater clarity about what the goals of Jewish education should be. We have the right and the responsibility to ask why educators do what they do, and to encourage maximal intentionality in educational practice.

At the same time, we should also remember the words of the great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, in his essay on Jewish education titled “Towards a Renaissance of Jewish Learning” almost a hundred years ago. “All recipes,” he warned, “produce caricatures of men.” The only recipe, when it comes to education, “is to have no recipe.”

Rosenzweig’s formulation may be too extreme; of course we need planning and the articulation of desired outcomes. But his repudiation of instrumentalism may be a helpful corrective to our contemporary discourse in the Jewish community. We have to be alert to the ways in which the search for specific effects or outcomes runs the risk of devaluing the very things we claim to value most.

Jon A. Levisohn is Associate Professor in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University.

Cross-posted on “Learning about Learning,” the blog of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.