Thursday, March 31, 2011 | return to: news & features, local


Demographer: Bay Area–style Judaism has its advantages

by emma silvers, staff writer

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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.”

BACohen, StevenM
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.”


Posted by Jordan
04/10/2011  at  08:02 PM
Shalom All,That which used to

Shalom All,

That which used to be the sole provenance of non orthodox synagogue membership is available for free, online or ala carte at far less cost. Other than for a life cycle event, or an occasional high holiday worship service, most non orthodox Jews couldn’t care less one way or another about a synagogue as a place that provides the opportunity for Jewish community, whatever that might mean.

Other than political liberalism (a standing joke about Reform has been to say that its theology consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in), anti anti semitism and an accident of birth, there is no meaningful agreed upon articulation of non-orthodox Judaism. The non orthodox movements and their synagogues and their Judaism will eventually go the way of the Catskills and the Jewish Deli, sadly for the same reason: irrelevance. The further away we get from the Eastern European immigrant experience, the more irrelevant Jewish ethno-cultural markers become for most Jews. Quite simply, nostalgia is insufficient as an engine for Jewish continuity.

Clara Peller zl’ of “Wendy’s” fame had it right when she famously asked:

Non Orthodox Judaism, its leadership and its institutions ought to be answering her question. For, “In the absence of vision, people will be unrestrained.”
Mishlei (Proverbs) 29:18

The irony is not lost on me that a Pastrami sandwich from the slowly dying Jewish Deli:

juxtaposed with Clara Peller’s question (which clearly, crisply, concisely and compellingly frames the non Orthodox status quo), represents a metaphor for what needs to be rediscovered in order to create a meaningful contemporary non Orthodox Judaism. Her last line “I don’t think there’s anyone back there,” is spot on. Based on measurable results, the status quo is broken and beyond repair, and visionary leadership toward a passion producing picture of a preferred future of non Orthodox Judaism (not to be confused with peoplehood /ethno-cultural Jewishness),is nowhere to be found.

Non orthodox Judaism must be re-envisioned, retooled, and re-engineered to become a relevant, practical, application oriented way of life that is consonant with the 21rst century reality that Jews find themselves a part of. Rabbis and other Jewish teachers must let most non Orthodox Jews know through bimah teaching, other educational efforts and experiential opportunities that indeed, they have walked or are walking in their prospects’ moccasins. They must give folks answers to the questions, “Why Judaism? Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish?”

Then and only then can one even begin to think about an effective delivery system. Will this be the non orthodox synagogue? Who knows?



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