Demographer: Bay Areastyle Judaism has its advantages

As director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU, Steven M. Cohen found himself in the middle of a generational conundrum a few years ago.

“I was in my late 50s, and I had a 24-year-old staff member and 90-year-old donor,” said Cohen, also a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “I was running an institution, and it became clear that I needed to learn from both of them in order to be effective.”

Steven M. Cohen

The question of how to engage with multiple generations of American Jews simultaneously is at the center of Cohen’s most recent study, an eye-opening look at the differences in how aging baby boomers and their children express and relate to Judaism.

Before a talk at the Osher Marin JCC on “Shifting Jewish Identities,” Cohen sat down to explain what’s changed over the past 20 years, and where we might be headed.

“With my generation of Jews, there was always an assumption that along with being a good person comes a variety of institutional commitments,” said Cohen, now 60. “And now the younger generation is saying, ‘You cannot expect us to automatically buy into Jewish affiliation unless there’s some other purpose.’ They don’t automatically buy into being members of a synagogue, or a JCC, or the federation, or in-marriage, or the concept of a Jewish neighborhood, or support for Israel.”

Taking into account these indicators of “institutional commitment,” Cohen said that in San Francisco, in particular, modes of affiliation are weaker than in any other major Jewish center in the world.

“There’s nowhere else where you have as many Jews who are spread out, where you can’t find a Jewish neighborhood, where there’s a very low percentage of the population belonging to a synagogue,” he said. “It’s no surprise it’s been a seat of contestation around Israel … and it’s a city with an emphasis on multiculturalism, so it follows that Jews here give very little premium, if any, to in-marriage.”

While that assessment might sound like a doomsday scenario to many older, traditionally observant Jews, Cohen said members of his generation — and of his parents’ — are missing out if they think the lack of formal affiliation means young people are turning away from Judaism.

On the contrary, he said, younger Jews in places like San Francisco might be rejecting traditional institutions in favor of more creative means of Jewish community.

“There is a real warrant for innovation among the younger generation. And particularly in the Bay Area, you see so many areas of newness in Jewish life,” said Cohen, naming examples like Mission Minyan, a community-led, non-denominational Jewish community centered in San Francisco’s Mission District, and Nita, a project by Congregation Rodef Sholom’s Rabbi Noa Kushner to introduce non-observant, “Gen X” Jews to the principles of Shabbat.

“There’s an independent Jewish spiritual movement that’s growing right alongside these weaker-functioning, established Jewish institutions,” he said. “And the reality is, at this point, we may need both.”

Cohen acknowledged that one reason some young Jews haven’t felt the need for traditional synagogue or JCC affiliation may be a thoroughly positive one: there’s a decreased sense of need for the security those affiliations provide.

“Younger Jews have much less of a sense of being threatened, both in terms of Israel and social anti-Semitism,” he said. “Social science evidence does suggest that the weakening threat removes one prop to Jewish engagement … but obviously, I would not wish for the threat to return.”

Additionally, Cohen said the number of generations that are active in Jewish life is at the highest it’s been since biblical times: With people living longer, it’s now possible for a family to include 95-year-old great-grandparents and 15-year-old kids.

If anything, he said, that should serve as an impetus for figuring out how to talk to one another about what Judaism has meant, and what it will mean for the next generation.

“What do we really care about?” Cohen asked rhetorically. “Do we care about Jews joining synagogues, specifically, or do we care about Jews being part of sacred communities?

“A lot of what we’re seeing is that lack of conventionality and discipline leads to the possibility for creativity and innovation,” he added. “Part of what I want to do is to simply spread the word that Jewish innovation is taking place, and that it ought not be seen as a threat but an opportunity.”