On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Chancellor Eisen in Haaretz: New Pew Report, “Reengaging American Jews—Before They Drift Away”

I was warned a few weeks ago that the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews would be cause for depression, if not alarm. The warning reminded me of the old Jewish joke about the telegram sent by one Jew to another: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Now that the details of the study are in front of us, there is certainly cause for renewed concern about the Jewish future in this country. The Pew findings do not come as a surprise, but they certainly constitute an urgent wake-up call.

The first step, of course, is to identify what is wrong, and to my mind it is not the growing percentage of Jews who identify themselves as having no religion (22 percent, similar to the figure for religious identification in the American population as a whole) or the smaller number of Jews who currently join a synagogue (under 40 percent) or even the significant spike in intermarriage. The problem is the rising number of Jews drifting away from any substantive Jewish attachment whatsoever and deciding not to raise their children as Jews. The question is whether this trend can be reversed and how.

There are several grounds for optimism. The great bulk of American Jews (94 percent) say they are proud to be Jewish. Seventy-five percent say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Seventy percent remain “strongly” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. What is more, if the negative trends on view in the study are proceeding more quickly and powerfully than we had expected, the reason is in part the vast changes taking place in every aspect of American life, and in part the Jewish community’s slowness in adapting to those changes. The fact is that while some Jews are fleeing the community, others are joining it. Many synagogues are bursting with new members, especially young families. Some camps and schools are at full capacity, with waiting lists for admission. The past few decades have seen a spurt of innovative programs and initiatives. This gives promise that more such efforts and others as yet untried, reaching more Jews with passion and depth, have the potential to stem or reverse the present decline.

In several areas, our institutions have not yet absorbed lessons that have been staring us in the face for some time. I will address two of them: the declining interest in Judaism as religion, and the exploding numbers of intermarriages.

If Jews do not want to define themselves by religion, let’s meet them where they are and recognize that they are in good company. Mordecai Kaplan wisely insisted 80 years ago—as did every Zionist thinker I know of—that we stop thinking of Judaism exclusively as a religion, and instead conceive and live it as a civilization or culture. The greatest religious thinkers of our day (Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Isaac Kook, for example) have likewise insisted that Judaism is meant to be lived in this world rather than apart from it. One does not serve God (or embrace Judaism) by withdrawing from the so-called “secular world.” Many American Jews have not gotten this message. They have never experienced high-level and exciting Jewish learning or reaped the tangible benefits of strong community or seen Jewish wisdom shaping social policy—all blessings that came my way via Conservative/Masorti Judaism. They think the point of Judaism is to be “more religious,” and have too often experienced religion as boring and removed from the life they lead. That language, and the focus on prayer, chases them away. We need more synagogues with vibrant prayer and a range of communal activities beyond prayer. And we need institutions that offer what Kaplan called “maximalist Judaism” in nonreligious forms.

We also need a new way of thinking about intermarriage. My concern on this subject is not so much that Jews marry non-Jews, but that so few young Jews are involved with Judaism and Jewish life enough to insist that the person with whom they share their lives share that commitment. I worry, too, that so few couples—whether inmarried or intermarried—want Jewish tradition and community for themselves and their children. The only means of persuasion is Jewish experience of meaning and joy, whether in camp or school, synagogue or JCC, Shabbat table or text study, in service to the neighborhood or in support of Israel. We spend too much time counting Jews, I think (numbers have never saved us), and too little time (and money) making sure that high-quality Jewish experiences are widely available in forms attractive to millennials and baby boomers, singles and couples, Jews who want spirituality, and Jews engaged by pursuit of social justice. Let’s also not be embarrassed to direct major resources toward helping Jewish 20-somethings meet one another in contexts where they fall in love with being Jewish at the same time as they fall in love with one another.

My father often repeated the witticism, “They told me to cheer up because things could be worse. So I cheered up—and, sure enough, things got worse.” The Pew report is not occasion for cheer. But neither should it cause despair. Let it remind us, once again, that old strategies will not suffice in circumstances that are unprecedented. We need a degree of resourcefulness worthy of our tradition and our people. The next population study might well bear the mark of our success.

Originally published in Haaretz.

25 Comments

  1. Lawrence Rosenwald says:

    As a Jew married to a Quaker, I’m grateful to Chancellor Eisen for not vilifying intermarriage. What I wish he’d do, though, is take one step further, and ask why some intermarried couples – my wife and I among them – have wanted “Jewish tradition and community for [ourselves] and our children,” have offered “jewish experience[s] of meaning and joy,” and others don’t and haven’t. I also wish he’d consider the consequences, for the Jewish community, of the often quite nasty hostility towards intermarried Jews and their children, and the denial of their Jewish authenticity. If he and others interested in these matters were willing to investigate that question and denounce that hostility and denial, I think they’d be taking significant steps towards revitalizing the broader American Jewish community.

  2. Deborah Davis says:

    The positives in Judaism, and there are many, must be emphasized. Jewish emphasis on social justice and ethics, the beauty of the Hebrew language and its Biblical literature, the joy of Jewish holiday observance and our rich heritage should be stressed

  3. Soli Foger says:

    In line with your article, and especially triggered by your sentence: “…this is no longer our grandparents’ Jewish community…, I want to bring your attention to a series of interviews that I have conducted, with top rabbis of our generation. I try to extract their Zeideh and Bubbe’s love for Jews. I am trying to create an edu/inspiration program.
    would appreciate your thoughts and ideas.
    Yeshar Coach
    Soli Yisrael Foger
    Englewood, NJ
    201-871-9353

  4. Common sense at its best and more evidence that JTS made the right choice in choosing its chancellor. Arnie, my beloved wife, Arlene, was working on a Ladder approach she wanted to turn into a slender book for intermarrying and gradually involving Jews — a one step at a time approach starting with, for example, simply lighting candles on Friday night. This may already exist, but if it doesn’t I’d be happy to work with anyone you would suggest — perhaps as a rabbinic ed school project — to help in the writing and financing. Or you may have a better idea that needs doing.
    Best,
    Howard Eisenberg

  5. Foster E. Kawaler says:

    I am of the opinion that the whole thing is societal. The Catholics are having the same problem, as are most of the “mainstream” religious institutions. Our Orthodox movement is growing, not just the mitzvah of P’ru v’Urvu is taken most seriously. but because it provides a level of spirituality through observance that they find important and comfortable. On the non-Jewish side, it is very similar with a twist — a more “spirutal” approach to life in general provides easier answers to life’s questions than picking through difficult philosophical nuances to find it. It’s a defined way of life, with procedures for everything. Also, there is a feeling of comfort in conformity. Orthodox Jews spend most of their time together, as do fundamentalist Christians, so it is easy to practice their own brand of “religiosity” in comfort, with minimal interruptions from the surrounding society. More liberal/worldly relilgions don’t have this, and in an increasingly complex society, Therefore the “more religious” gain members from those who find that easy answers and set procedures look mighty good. There is also an element of joy — real joy — in the worship of our the more observant religions/movements. I’ve always felt that Simchas Torah and Purim in the Conservative movement were “pushed,” — a kind of manufactured gaiety. Can we, as a movement, restore that joy? Can we “sell” Conservative worship and religiousity with joy? And given the societal and economic climate in our country today, can we survive as a Movement of learning, practicing Jews as a painfully small minority? Therein, I feel, is the challenge.
    How we are to do this has to be left to smarter people than I.
    Sorry if I offended anyone with this response.

  6. Ronnit Palley says:

    There aren’t enough good programs out there and I certainly believe that our focus needs to be 13-25 year olds: post bar mitzvah youth groups, college life, and early professional life. An interesting statistic can be found on college campuses. At Johns Hopkins 60 students show up when they have to pay the $15 fee for Friday night Shabbat dinner and 200 show up if dinner is free. Give them free food and they will come. Also, a shout out to Town and Village Synagogue, Rabbi Sebert and Cantor Postman, who host a large and well attended 20s and 30s Shabbat with food, comedians, lectures…We need to make our synagogues, JCCs, and even bars and restaurants the place for Jews to get together and have fun. How about theatre groups–pass along the group discounts.

    On a second note, what scares me is not just losing our kids to intermarriage, but also losing them to the ultra-orthodox who entice our college age kids with free food, payment to study, and low cost trips to Israel (all of these things happened with our child and in each situation we felt as if we narrowly averted disaster). On college campuses, there are entire groups of students who get together in anticipation of Birthright. What about Birthright for those of our children who have been to Israel? What about sponsoring classes on university campuses where we subsidize tuition for classes about Judaism? Our Conservative Jewish young people need options that are inexpensive and engaging.

    Parent of teens

    • elisadiaine says:

      I totally agree with your comments. In college, students feel lonely and they could reconnect with their roots through the Hillel or the Chabad Shabbat diners. My daughter is a student at University of Miami. She attends those diners but is very disappointed by the lack of knowledge her fellow jewish classmates have!! At least, some can be “saved” by bringing them to Israel through Birthright or by instilling a little bit of Judaism while they are studying away from their family

    • tuviya says:

      I find your comment about a “crisis averted” very problematic. It speaks to one of the American Jewish community. We have start thinking outside of the denominational box. Conservative Judaism alone can not save American Judaism. Let kids experience all kinds of approaches. Dont limit them in what is acceptable and whats not. In my rxperience there is something to learn from each and all denomination.

  7. Stan Futterman says:

    Congratulations on such a wise and perceptive commentary. I would add that decrying intermarriage is not likely to dissuade any couples interested in it; it is likely to send them away. Part of the Jewish tradition is to welcome the stranger; how can we do less with someone whom our child has chosen?

  8. Joyce Weinstein Binstock says:

    Kol Hakavod! However, I feel as though my husband & I are right in the midst of your excellent article. We have been involved in the Conservative Judaism thru our participation in the programs of our Synagogue. We are observant, & love to pray together every Shabbat with our congregants. Our children have all experienced every Shabbat,Festivals & Holidays observed in our home. I was always active in the USCJ,WLCJ,& their programs. Our children were acitvly involved with advanced rel. high school, USY, CAMP RAMAH, from camper to staff, for many years.My daughter’s 3 daughters spent the same program (at least 8-10 years). They made up 2 generations at Ramah Canada. etc….Then they both got married. For some reason their children were not motivated to continue to enjoy the synagogue programs. Our hearts are heavy, my son’s 2nd wife is not Jewish. Though he specified that their home must be Jewish, Kashrut, observance of holidays, etc.
    I wish that children born to Jewish parents observe a Jewish home as theirs, with her respect for us & our tradition. Their two boys were converted halakhakly with the Brit Milah,& concluded with the Mikvah & last blessing. From our 7 grandchildren, 3 have married non Jews, one just became engaged, non Jew. one claims not to marry, one wants to marry a Jewish girl, & the youngest has been living together under one roof for 6yrs. He’s in residence (to complete his medical degree) at Hospital. We’re holding our breadth until they marry. HE’S JEWISH! All the married grandchildren observe Kashrut, their spouses respect us & their respective parents. For us it is difficult to tolerate these situations. We don’t want to alienate our children & grand children. Your article did indeed touch us. L’Hatslikha..Joyce W. Binstock

  9. David Teitelbaum says:

    It has been obvious to me for some time that one of the main reasons Jews stay away from synagogues is that they identify the synagogue and religion with a supernatural God, which they reject. Jewish prayer, which presupposes such a God doesn’t make sense to them. We need Kaplan’s orientation of Judaism as a religious culture which invites various ways of thinking of God and provides a wide tent under which Jews can gather and pursue their identity and heritage. More…

    • Arlene Kurtis says:

      My question is –I understand that you can believe in God without being in a religion. But can you have religion without God? Is that Jewish Humanism, Ethical Culture? Can we learn something from those practitioners?

      Arlene

  10. Donna Grossman says:

    Whole your article is true. I have learned not evertto use
    The word Culture associated with our Jewish heritage a d traditions as my children now refer and rebel against this and say the it is a Cult! So now I sadly avoid that word. No matter what my husband and I have done through traditions and teaching GS them with love they are rejecting Judaism. Please try rouse our history and traditions.

  11. Dear Cahncellor
    As an Israeli scholar of Jewish thought and graduate of the JTS Jewish Philosophy department (1997 commencement)I appreciate your pioneering article which calls to bring back Kaplan’s ideas to the core of conservative Judasim.We have to develop the idea that the Jewish people has developed a whole civilization, historical, changing, pluralistic – the historical creation of a living ancient-modern people.

    I am the chair of the Jewish philosophy department at Oranim College in Israel where we try for many years to develop the idea of Judaism as a civilization and I wish we could revitalize the historic dialogue between the JTS and our College which serves secular parts of the Israeli society.

    Kol Tuv!
    Moshe Shner

  12. Fred Ehrlich says:

    The Conservative movement ignored Kaplan until now. It is about time. I attended for many years a congregation founded by the late rabbi Ludig Nadelman. The services were nve boring filled ith questions discussion & commentary. The typical Conservatiservice is filled with boring repetitions prayers .

  13. Bravo! Best reflection yet on the report! Indeed, we need to engage with Jews “before they drift away …from a substantive Jewish attachment.” Intermarriage can, of course, contribute to the drift, especially since the default for many is to do nothing about religion – easier than persuading a reluctant spouse to abandon his/her heritage or feel marginalized in the family. Those couples whose relationship is based on mutual respect and want to honor (not muddle!) both their traditions urgently need legitimacy and support. The Interfaith Community provides such support; it nurtures strong families and respect for authentic religion while educating children and adults about both Judaism and Christianity. We find that learning about the other deepens appreciation of one’s own tradition. We find that supporting individuals and families as they pursue their own course is good for the marriage and commonly evolves to the Jewish choice.

  14. Amanda Siegel says:

    I disagree with Chancellor Eisen when he states Jews are yearning for Jewish culture and not Jewish religion. I think he misunderstands Mordechai Kaplan as well. Jewish culture does not provide enough grist to sink your teeth in, to engage, educate, and delight. Jewish culture does not lead to Jewish spiritual fulfillment. Challenge people to engage with the religion – maybe not shomer shabbos, mikvah, etc – but on the staircase of Jewish observances that bring meaning and light. Love what you do and others will want to join you.

  15. Nicholas Rose says:

    I would like to echo my agreement to David Teitlebaum’s comment above. The Elephant in the room which nobody is addressing is how does our traditional understanding of God as a supernatural being reconcile with current theories of cosmology which are getting more refined and supported by astronomical observations every year.

    For example, current theories place the age of the Universe at about 15 billion years old, created in a big bang and will likely end up ine an ever accelerating expansion into empty space before fizzling out like the end of a firework display.

    Nowhere have I seen any Jewish Theology which even goes near this question. Which presents our brightest young people (at least those who think about such things) with something of a dilemma. Whose theory to believe…one that originated several thousand years ago when we were trying to make sense of the world without our current level of knowledge…or that supported by the latest scientific knowledge and technology?

    Without addressing this “elephant in the room” we will have no chance of addressing the questions that very few dare to ask.

  16. [...] reflect on these questions and more in my newest article for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, ”Reengaging American Jews–Before They Drift Away“ which can be accessed in its entirety on my blog, On My Mind: Arnie [...]

  17. Laurie says:

    Alas, I think our cries of concern presented by the Pew report are in vain. I do think that this diminution of our numbers in terms of Jews who are interested in all things Jewish is inescapable. I recall in the 60’s while in college – when the American ideal was to accept everyone as equal. What a great philosophy. However, that was the beginning of the end, in terms of bringing home to mom and dad, someone who wasn’t Jewish .. and then repeating the mantra of the day – we are all equal. The movie Look Whose Coming to Dinner, while was based on color, really was a forerunner of the open attitude of religion not taking a front seat in importance any longer. As Americans, the 60’s generation in particular strove to open the door to not making any distinctions between religion, color or ethnicity. It was almost a badge of American Pride to bring home someone “different”. I understand that the church is also facing loss of “religion” amongst their people. Churches are closing, schools are closing, and Christian elders are also biting their nails and pulling their hair. American life, freedom, society, and culture – do not lend themselves to “religion”…. Rituals, rites, services and such cannot compete with modern day values…right or wrong. And, sadly, it was our Jewish values of being democratic, equality for all people, openness to accept people of all persuasions (except our own), that has come to haunt us and bit us in the tuches. Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs

  18. Lauren Grossman says:

    I’d like to offer two comments/suggestions. I was raised in the Conservative tradition in a suburb of Chicago where there was, more or less, an automatic Jewish community available. In addition there is lots of Jewish culture in Chicago generally. We live in Colorado now and it’s not as straightforward for my children to explore and find a Jewish niche. Thankfully, we found a fantastic congregation with a phenomenal Rabbi but those are in short supply here. Furthermore, the public school population is quite ignorant of what Judaism even is–my children have been asked more than once if they believe in Go_. It would greatly benefit us all if there was advocacy for discussion of religion in the public schools. Kids like to fit in and it would be so much healthier to express their Jewish identities if they didn’t feel like such outcasts doing it. My second point is related to how we involve ourselves in Judaism. Three of my four children found their second Jewish home in the Habonim D’ror movement and have attended their camps, trained as counselors and traveled to Israel through them. My oldest even did a gap year between high school and college through Habonim. He even switched his major from Biology to International Relations because he has become deeply involved in pro Israeli political organizations. I know he does not consider himself religious in the traditional way but I can tell you that his identity is firmly entrenched in his Judaism. Camps and other organizations like it need more attention/promotion from the other more traditional venues of religion like seminaries and the like. They also shouldn’t have to necessarily align themselves along specific religious factions–reform, conservative, etc

  19. [...] a part of what Chancellor Eisen had to say.  ”Reengaging American Jews—Before They Drift Away,”  can be accessed in its entirety on Chancellor Eisen’s blog, On My Mind: Arnie [...]

    • Richard Prince says:

      I am neither a scholar, Jewish educator, demographer or sociologist. I am an American Jew, member of a Conservative synagogue, supporter of Camp Ramah and thus a very interested party. Why is our Movement in serious decline? Because, perhaps, we do not represent anything original or authentic. Judaism certainly meets that test but does our brand of hyphenated Judaism? If it does, how? We express fidelity to Halacha but what percentage of our laity remotely follows it? We are socially justice minded but are we any different than our Reform brethren in our passion for bettering the world? Precisely what is our theology, our philosophical credo? In today’s poisoned, dysfunctional, national political debate, there are ideologues on the left and the right representing significant swaths of the electorate. And then there are the “moderates”. What is a political moderate? Someone that is a pragmatist willing to cut a deal for the greater good of the nation, or so they believe. What is a “moderate” Jewish denomination like ours supposed to accomplish?

      Ancient Judaism (1.0) introduced Torah and, significantly, the concept of determinism, the story of Abraham. Our lives matter. Rabbinic Judaism (2.0) was an organic, decentralized response to the sacking of the Second Temple. Our tradition matters, though our methodology for Jewish practice changed. Today, Jews are acculturated, influential and envied on a global scale. Perhaps, today’s Jew is less interested in archaic rituals and structure dating back to Ezra and Nehemiah and more interested in “Personalized Judaism” (3.0), an actuated form of our faith that is inside-out in nature. In this model, affiliation with an institution is less important whereas the affiliation with the larger world is more important … in terms of discussing and transmitting the universalist norms and values central to our faith. This blog is a perfect illustration of the power of global engagement across all lines.

      Religion and science are methods for living: one myth-based and one fact-based. We can choose to be literalists or rationalists. Perhaps, the future for our Movement is to, first, eliminate any false distinction between us and our fellow rationalists (secularists) from a theological perspective. Second, embrace change. Third, spend more confronting our anthropomorphic God (can we ever accept, truly, that our God would sanction or otherwise permit the near extermination of our people.). Fourth, rehabilitate Spinoza by posthumously pardoning him and introducing his “God equals nature” philosophy into our religious canon.

  20. David Bockman says:

    Any ‘one size fits all’ solution is bound to fail. Contemporary Americans like to choose their own path, and every possible expression of Judaism (culture, civilization, religious, etc) is followed by SOMEBODY, but there seems to be no will to do these things IN COMMUNITY. That is what really hurts us as Jews, and particularly as Conservative Jews, whose philosophy so emphasizes understanding the tradition not through the individual prism, nor through that of a rabbi, but through the understanding of community.
    I love Jewish culture (food, music, dance, style, art, theater, etc), but my greatest joys in Jewishness are through study and prayer. I can’t help that I love these things and that they are what bring me excitement and fulfillment. AS a rabbi, must I deny those things that truly speak to me to present a ‘watered down’ ‘service’ that ignores what I find so exciting? I see in my work week to week that there are still congregants who love services, love to sing, love the silences and really get into learning from strongly thoughtful texts, of which we have so many.It’s simply not everybody, however. Maybe we’ll NEVER succeed with everybody, but as Jewish communities we need to hit ALL our Jewish values in the hopes of connecting with each person, to make as many gates into connection as accessible as they can possibly be. Who knows, to borrow a question, who in the next generation will be the One? Every Jewish heart is worth saving, and every Jewish life has value.

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