Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Conservative Judaism and Mark Twain

Recently I wrote about the recent Pew report on American Jews and what it means for the Jewish community overall. Now I would like to focus on what it means for Conservative Judaism in particular.

Recently there has been a spate of articles reacting to the statistic that only 18% of American Jews currently identify as Conservative, and only 11% of those under 30 do so. This is in sharp contrast to most of the 20th century, when the plurality of American Jews identified with Conservative Judaism. The first study which did not show Conservative Judaism as the largest denomination was in 1990, when 38% called themselves Reform vs. 35% Conservative. So in the 23 years since then, our “market share” has gone down by half.

One of the more interesting articles was by Micah Gottlieb, a professor of Jewish studies at NYU, raised in the Conservative movement but today Modern Orthodox. For Prof. Gottlieb, writing in the Forward, the key failing of Conservative Judaism is its lack of halachic seriousness:

I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic. . .

I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.

I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. . .

Many people are thinking about how to revitalize Conservative Judaism. This is important, as the world needs a vibrant Jewish religious center. From my experience, I would recommend one thing above all else: Support and nurture the most committed Conservative Jews at local synagogues. Give them outlets for their religious curiosity and passion. These Jews may not write big checks. They may sometimes make the less committed members of the synagogue feel uneasy. But they are the future.

There is some truth in what Prof. Gottlieb writes, and in one of my Yom Kippur sermons I recounted the story of one of my friends who left the Conservative movement so that he could raise his children in a Shabbat-observant community. But these kinds of people are not the norm; the Pew report says that 4% of those raised Conservative are now Orthodox while 30% are now Reform and fully another 20% say they are of no denomination or are culturally Jewish but have no religion. I suggest that our survival as a movement depends more on retaining those who have left for Reform or secularism than those who have left to become Orthodox.

Moreover, those of us who are committed to gender egalitarianism don’t see it as a “political” issue but rather a religious, spiritual mandate.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an ordained Conservative rabbi and well-known author who lives in Israel (and with whom I shared an office suite at the University of Judaism almost 20 years ago), wrote an article in the Jewish Review of Books called “Requiem for a Movement.” At least, as one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook, he had the decency to sound sorry that we died.

According to Rabbi Gordis, Conservative Judaism died because

Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address. . .As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.

Gordis’ article is somewhat schizophrenic in that while he pillories the supposed excessive focus on halacha, and our failure to acknowledge that most of our members are simply not interested in living a fully halachic life, he also criticizes our concessions:

They (the rabbis) expected less of their congregations, reduced educational demands, and offered sanitized worship reconfigured to meet the declining knowledge levels of their flocks. In many cases, they welcomed non-Jews into the Jewish community in a way that virtually eradicated any disincentive for Jews to marry people with whom they could pass on meaningful Jewish identity.

I would posit that numbers, market share if you will, is not the main criterion for the “success” of a spiritual community. Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL wrote, in an e-mail which he has given me permission to include in this article:

Enough of this despair: Conservative Judaism won! Everyone today trumpets being for tradition and change and so now we simply need to move up the evolutionary spiral and widen the range of what we mean by both tradition and change and expand our boundaries of who we speak to given a post modern context, a globalized world and an America in which Jews are the most respected group (see American Grace by Putnam)  in the country. Yes our national institutions are going to weaken. But all national legacy institutions are weakening in every domain and business from the government to the NYTimes etc. Yes we have challenges but don't confuse business model changes that challenge our particular institutions and yes jobs with good Torah that is both needed or wanted.

Mark Twain was reported to have once said “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” A little more than a year ago, people were ready to write the “requiem” for Kehilat Shalom, but we are still here, with a brand-new successful religious school, a significant number of new members, and a much firmer financial footing. Yes, we have our challenges ahead of us, and the Kehilat Shalom which emerges at the end of the next few years may look different than the Kehilat Shalom of yesterday.

I agree with Rabbi Kula that the challenge we face is more to our “business model” than to our core ideas. For much of our history Conservative Judaism was sort of the “default” mode. People with memories of immigrant parents or grandparents wanted a Judaism that was basically traditional but adapted to American realities. As those memories fade, tradition becomes less compelling for some.

Beyond that, all sociological research, well before the Pew study, showed that Gen Xers and Millenials are not joiners the way their parents and grandparents were. The challenge to the dues-based model is significant, just like newspapers and music companies are trying to figure out how to respond to the advent of digital media. But we will figure this out. Like Mark Twain, the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Demography and Destiny: Thoughts on the Pew Study of Jewish Americans

“In 1975, when Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators around the world. By 2000, there were over 85,000. If present trends continue, by the year 2019, one out of every three people in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”

    The statistics I quoted above were taken from a reputable academic publication, and they are absolutely correct. But nevertheless they are absurd, because we know that in this case, “present trends” won’t continue. It’s absurd to imagine a world in which 1/3 of the population consists of Elvis impersonators.

    I was reminded of this statistic while reading some of the analyses of the recent Pew Forum report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” While to be fair the coverage of the report has been diverse, quite a bit of it has been “the sky is falling,” especially for Conservative Judaism.

    One of the problems of doing Jewish demography is obtaining accurate, consistent data and comparing it over time. The Census Bureau is not permitted to ask questions about religion, and therefore any data is obtained by privately-funded research. Each research team designs its own survey questions and devises its own methodology. It’s therefore important to make sure that when you are comparing figures over time, that you’re not in fact comparing apples and oranges.

    Much media coverage has painted a picture of a community in decline. For example, 22% of Jews surveyed in 2013 report that while they consider themselves Jewish, they have no religion. This compares to only 7% who answered that way in the 2000 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS). The percentage of Jews of no religion has more than tripled in little more than a decade!

    But as JJ Goldberg points out in The Forward, and as those of us who follow Jewish demography know, the 2000 NJPS was notoriously unreliable -- so much so that its release was delayed by two years and the Jewish Federation movement, which funded the survey and its 1990 predecessor, got out of the business of doing demographic studies altogether. That’s why the Pew Study was done by Pew, a general, not Jewish, non-profit think tank.

    In order to understand survey data you need to know the methodology involved. For example, the 1990 NJPS terrified the organized Jewish community with its finding of a 52% intermarriage rate. But this figure was later revised significantly downward, because in calculating the intermarriage rate they counted as a Jew anyone with one Jewish parent, whether or not they were raised as a Jew, whether or not they were halachically Jewish, whether or not they considered themselves Jewish. I have two nieces who are Unitarians with a born-Jewish father and a lapsed-Catholic mother. My nieces would have been counted as Jews by the 1990 NJPS, and should they marry non-Jews would be counted as part of the intermarriage rate.

So to counteract that fairly dubious methodology, the 2000 NJPS set aside those with “weak Jewish connections” and didn’t ask followup questions about Jewish identity. So if you exclude Jews with “weak Jewish connections” it’s not hard to come up with the figure of 7% of Jews who have no religion, and come up with a tripling of that category in a decade. But if you look back to the 1990 NJPS, you had a figure of 20% Jews with no religion -- statistically identical to the current 22% figure when you account for the margin of error.

Far from a community in decline, the American Jewish community is shown to be larger than previously thought. The Pew survey shows about 6.5 million Jews, not the 5.2 to 5.5 million previous surveys thought there were. In addition there are more than a million non-Jews who have some affinity for Judaism, and many attend synagogues or practice Jewish rituals without formally converting.

It would be interesting to explore what the 22% of Jews who claim that they have “no religion” actually mean, because many of them observe practices that most of us would claim are religious in nature. 46% say they believe in God, 24% attend services at least a few times a year. Forty-two percent attended a Passover seder last year, 22% fast on Yom Kippur, 11% have a kosher home. So clearly, being a Jew without religion is a complicated phenomenon.

The survey has been seen as particularly challenging for Conservative Judaism. Whereas once the plurality of American Jews were Conservative, today only 18% are; and only 11 of Jews 30-and-under.

But too little attention, in my opinion, has been paid to one significant figure. Ninety-four percent of Jews report that they are proud of being Jewish. This is quite remarkable. For much of American Jewish history, large numbers of Jews did whatever they could to escape being Jewish. They changed their names, they had “nose jobs,” they converted to other religions or denied their Jewishness. The phenomenon of the “self-hating Jew,” so well-known from American Jewish literature, is clearly no more.

There are lots of other surprising data -- for example, the 1990 NJPS reported that only 28% of children of intermarriage were being raised as Jews, yet the Pew survey shows that over 50% of young men and women who are the products of intermarriages consider themselves to be Jewish. So there is a lot of good news here. Our community will never be able to make any inroads with people who don’t even consider themselves to be Jewish, or who do consider themselves Jewish but wish they weren’t.

Goldberg writes “if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future.” Or as Yogi Berra reportedly once said, “making predictions is very difficult, especially about the future.” In the 1890s everyone “knew” that Reform Judaism was American Judaism, and in the 1950s Orthodox rabbis in droves took Conservative pulpits because everyone “knew” that Orthodoxy in America had no future.

Goldberg’s article is worth quoting at some length:
Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative. It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.
Over the past quarter-century (it continues), the data show a community that has grown in number. Intermarriage leveled off in the late 1990s after rising steadily through much of the 20th century, and has remained stable for the past 15 years.
By some measures, Jews appear to be increasing overall levels of Jewish practice and engagement. Most surprising, significant numbers of children of intermarriage have grown up to become Jewish adults, far exceeding even their own parents’ intentions. . .

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”
In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”
Like I said: Whoops.