Of Pizza and Pie Charts

There has been considerable hullabaloo in the Jewish media of late over Jewish demographics, much of it bewildering (and ultimately saddening), some of it strangely invisible.

First there was the study claiming that 60% of children in Boston’s intermarried homes are being raised as Jews, which advocates of aggressive outreach to the intermarried seized upon to bolster their cause. Prominent demographers like Steven Cohen raised incisive questions, however, about the study’s methodology and about what conclusions could reasonably be drawn from the data.

More recently, there’s been the dust-up over newly released studies that found another million Jews that the NJPS of 2000 had apparently misplaced. A huge sigh of relief could be sensed in the coverage of that story — no more need to agonize over the Jewish future, we’ve found an extra million Jews to join the millions already disappearing into American society, so all’s well on the Jewish front.

What has gone almost totally ignored, however, so far as I can tell, is a report released at the beginning of November by Synagogue 3000 and authored by the above-mentioned Mr. Cohen, which found, according to an article in the Forward (the only one I found on the report), that “the Orthodox movement has the most children affiliated with its synagogues, setting the stage for a future shift in the balance of American Jewish power.” Or, as Cohen himself put it: “Non-Orthodox Jews ought to think about their relation to the Orthodox. . . . The growing number of Orthodox Jews means they will play a much more central role in defining American Jewry in the years to come.”

In other words, part of the Jewish establishment, at least, seems prepared to acknowledge the demographic truth already arrived at by those employing the thoroughly unscientific, but true, axiom of the Rabbi Nosson Sherman school of Jewish sociology: surveys and studies lie, but pizza shops don’t lie.

The reason for these new findings is that unlike previous studies that asked what denomination people identify with — which was sure to include large numbers of people for whom “Reform” is a synonym for negligible commitment and “very Reform” for even less than that — this one asked what synagogue respondents belonged to, and of the 68% of kids under 18 who are affiliated with a synagogue (a far greater percentage than adults, whose synagogue affiliation stands at 43%), 37% are with an Orthodox one (and that doesn’t even include Pupa and Spinka).

The study also found that while the Reform movement attracts more young families than Conservatism, few of these families stay on as members after their children reach 13. In the Conservative movement, however, more than half of its members are older than 45 and have no children, and, Cohen observed, there is “evidence of a Jewish brain drain from Conservatism to Orthodoxy.”

I didn’t see this study trumpeted all over like the other ones; did you? I didn’t think so. In fact, a quick Google search for even passing references to this report drew a virtual blank; I hope that’s because I’m not computer-savvy, although I wonder. . . (Although perhaps our pseudonymous resident demographer/commenter has an explanation).

Finally, there is the new paper out from, once again, Steven Cohen, entitled A Tale of Two Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews. No need, however, for Al Gore to have his attorneys threaten suit for copyright infringement; Cohen’s script is unlikely to win any Oscars in the Jewish community anytime soon.

Anyone interested in perusing the paper can access it over at the website of Michael Steinhardt/Irving Greenberg’s Jewish Life Network, which sponsored it. In a coming post, I hope to provide a bit more in-depth analysis of its findings.

In the meantime, suffice it to say that Cohen’s thesis — that intermarriage constitutes the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity, both on a communal and individual level — is bringing down upon him the wrath of both the “outreach” community, who are invested in the legitimization of intermarriage, as well as sociologists like the Mandel Foundation’s Bethamie Horowitz who called Cohen’s study “tendentious.”

I actually agree with Ms. Horowitz that, to some extent, the paper is indeed less than fully truthful, albeit for reasons that are undoubtedly different from those of Ms. Horowitz (and which I’ll detail in that forthcoming post).

More telling, for me, however, was a comment by Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, who along with right-of-center figures like Jack Wertheimer and Steven Bayme, are supportive of Cohen. According to a JTA report, Fishman commented that his findings “should not be put into a moral realm. He’s not saying there are good Jews and bad Jews, he’s simply describing the way things are, according to his research.”

The underlying point of Ms. Fishman’s comment seems clear. She’s trying to have this debate over the Jewish future proceed based on dispassionate reason and accurate facts, rather than on emotion-driven responses by people who process Cohen’s thesis with their hearts, not brains, where it registers as “he’s saying I’m a bad Jew.”

In other words, it’s the same scenario we’re all familiar with from other areas of life, like relationships, where unspoken and unaddressed emotions get in the way of reasoned discussion and forthright communication. Pointing out this fact is taken as condescending and serves only to further inflame matters, and so one tries to walk the tightrope of acknowledging the other’s distress, while gently arguing for the primacy of reason.

Except that in this case, it’s not a relatively petty domestic spat. It’s the future of the whole Jewish family that’s at stake.

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20 Responses

  1. Ahron says:

    >“Cohen’s thesis—that intermarriage constitutes the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity…is bringing down upon him the wrath of both the “outreach” community, who are invested in the legitimization of intermarriage, as well as sociologists…”

    It is practically hilarious that so self-evident an observation is met with paroxysms of horror by ‘Jewish’ professionals whose job it is to care about the wellbeing of their constituents. Meanwhile any logical grade-schooler could deduce exactly the same conclusion: If members of a group marry outside of that group, their children are unlikely to be raised as involved members of that group. Therefore their children and all future progeny will likely be lost to that group. (It’s an intricate argument, I know.)

    That so much of the Jewish Establishment (all hail!) reacts with pique and anger to this astonishingly basic tautology speaks far more deeply about their profound existential and emotional unease than it does about their (perhaps impaired?) powers of logic. But the central point is ultimately this: The Jewish nation will survive, and has already survived much worse. The question is not about the survivability of Am Yisrael–as Mordechai emphasizes to Esther in the Megilla, that is not truly in question–the question is only about whom will be part of the nation. While the nation is obviously hurt whenever any member is lost, the central issue is simply whether each particular individual member will continue his/her attachment to the larger Jewish people and everything that attachment means.

    The Jewish people will survive even if we are weakened, even terribly weakened, no matter what. The only matter in question is whether each individual Jew will treasure and maintain his and her link to Am Yisrael and the Tree of Life.

  2. Jonathon Ament says:

    To set a few matters straight:

    The Synagogue 3000 report written by Steven Cohen can be downloaded from its website at http://www.synagogue3000.org/.

    That said, the report was not based on any new study. The study that Steven used did, in fact, ask respondents what synagogue they belonged to. That study was none other than NJPS 2000-01.

    With all modesty aside, I should note that much of what Steven wrote in that report had already been published by UJC in its NJPS Special Report on Religious Denominations. That report, which I authored, can be downloaded at http://www.ujc.org/njpsreports.

  3. Loberstein says:

    I asked famous demographer Calvin Goldscheider ( who was sitting shiva in baltimore for his brother recently) about the famous graph that shows how many descendants there will be in future genrations for various groups, reform,conservative,etc. that shows that the orthodox are the only ones actually growing and he said that the scientific term is “narishkeit”. How do we know that current trends will continue unabated, he asked.
    i am reading Heilman’s book “Sliding to the Right” about the hareidization of American Jewry, (to his great chagrin). I asked Calvin why demographers invent words like “contrapuntalist’ to decribe “modern orthodox’ and he said that terms like “modern” have prejudice in them and they use non judgemental terminology.
    I was explaining his term to my 17 year old daughter who goes to bais Yaakov. She got a phone call from a friend and she asked her”are you a contrapunctualist? and started laughing.
    In short, who knows ?

  4. Bob Miller says:

    “Contrapunctualists” are the ones who show up late.

    Anyway, if the described demographic trend toward Orthodoxy is happening anyhow, do we really care what biased observers are saying or thinking or ignoring about it? If they’re smart, they’ll get the drift sooner or later. For now, this is a new reason not to fund their studies.

  5. de la costa says:

    the idea that the haredi community will ‘step into the breech’ of the communal functioning that is currently secular, is somewhat fanciful i think. certain communal [federation ] functions would remain assur— interfaith, providing leftist type community support [abortion, sex-ed, feminism, egalitarian issues etc- will haredi communal leadership meet with female reform rabbis?}. the secular funding would be expected to decrease in proportion to their perception that their money is going to right wing and fanatically jewish causes…..

  6. Bob Miller says:

    There are also many local organizations known as Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC) designed to promote a left-liberal political agenda as if it were quintessentially Jewish. We won’t need these.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    It’s not intermarriage that is hurting the heterodox movements, it’s apathy. Intermarriage is just a symptom that is easy to measure. The apathy, which is the real issue, comes from not seeing any reason to stay Jews in any meaningful way.

    Why should we be Jews? The Orthodox answer is that we are Jews because our ancestors promised G-d to follow the Torah. The Heterodox answer is that we are Jews because our ancestors were Jews, and it’s our heritage. Looking at both answers through the lens of a late 20th or early 21st century American, neither works. Both answers assume that people are different from one another because of who their ancestors were – a belief that is anathema in the society where we live.

    If you want to help keep heterodox Jews Jews, find an answer to “why should we be Jews” that will be meaningful to early 21st century Americans. It may result in less intermarriages, or in the non-Jewish partner of an intermarriage understanding why Judaism is important and converting.

  8. Medny says:

    The following story about intermarriage, and Rebbetzin’s Jungreis’ approach to the problem appeared on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    No-one disputes that the number of Orthodox is rising. The question is how many other Jews (Len Saxe claims it’s non-Orthodox Jews) who are not being captured by conventional survey methods–i.e., what is truly the denominator of the total US Jewish population. Saxe believes that many younger Jews in their 20s and 30s are very hard to reach by phone surveys (not at home and/or have cell phones; some with no land lines). Saxe argues that since younger Orthodox are much more likely to be married and with kids, that there’s a greater chance of capturing them.

    I myself have some issues with Saxe and his report–I’m simply spelling out the claim (or a part of it) that he makes.

    In terms of communal cooperation–it’s happening. With Katrina relief, with the Israel-Lebanon fighting last year….Federations and UJC worked with all segments of the community to collect and distribute resources. There have been increased efforts by the national federation system to engage with Orthodox partners like Chabad.

    On the local level, in most communities (outside New York) the Orthodox of all stripes work with Federations that provide some of the funding for the various day schools and yeshivot. While more support is needed, the allocations for day schools and participation by most to all segments of the Orthodox community have been on the rise.

    There is much more sensitivity over the past few decades to issues like kashrut in Federation buildings and functions, and having divrei Torah before Board meetings. I can also tell you that one of the main findings that arose from the 2002 New York study was to increase engagements and Board participation among the growing FSU and Orthodox populations in the NY area.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Ori Pomerantz-there is an answer to your challenge. If Orthodox leaders and an educated laiety can show a heterodox Jew that there is depth, sweep and profundity in the study of Torah and in living a Torah life,as well as being paragons of ethics, as opposed to either caving in to the extremes of yielding to all aspects of the surrounding culture, being involved in scandals that affect how Orthodox Jews are perceived by the general public or issuing cherems, etc, then Orthodoxy might have a fighting chance. RYBS felt that this was the proper approach back in the 1970s and one can argue that it is still a proper approach, especially in the US.

    I think that there is some of evidence that this approach is still being utilized and has much value as a kiruv tool. For instance, for many years, R Scherman of ArtScroll learned Gemara with Mr. Thomas Tisch in Mr. Tisch’s office. NJOP’s Shabbat Across America offers Shabbos hospitality for its weekends, but does not turn down anyone who might have showed up via a car, especially at a heterodox house of worship.In a recent Aish film on kiruv, I noted that many kiruv activists invited first time Shabbos guests and offered hospitality, but did not object to their guests parking their cars around the corner and walking to their houses. NCSY’s Friday Night Lights also works with C and R affiliated teens whose initial Shabbos meal may have begun with a drive to their local C or R house of worship.

  11. SM says:

    Fascinating post. In the UK marrying out is still not ok (in the sense that even those doing it are aware that they are giving something up and that children will not be normatively Jewish if the non-Jewish partner is the woman) and promoting seminars and outreach for intermarried couples is very much a minority activity.

    It seems fairly clear that a Jew who marries out is in one of two states of mind. Either his/her Jewish identity is unimportant or centred on something other than family life. Or the urge to be with someone they love overcomes the need to marry in, however strong their Jewish identity may be in the abstract. In either case the commitment to the collective is weaker than the commitment to the individual’s perceived happiness. It is hardly surprising, then, that Jewish affiliation is also weaker in such a case than in the case of someone whose choice has been different (or who has never considered the matter as a choice).

    But, ultimately the issue is not “retention”. It is how completely Judaism is integrated into the everyday lives of its adherents – whether via study, prayer, or consciously Jewish ethical choices. We have searched for a definition that can replace those imposed from the outside for the last 200 years and the problem in finding one which is neither too restrictive, nor so inclusive that it unacceptabley dilutes what Judaism is has got no easier over time. Unfortunately, too many groups have stopped looking and simply adopted their own definition. The consequence is a likely split in the Jewish world.

  12. howard says:

    American Jews will continue to walk out the door until we demonstrate why being Jewish matters. For most Jews it’s just a matter of identity and self definition, not a moral/philosophical system.

    To quote the intro to the first Mishna at PirkeAvos.Com:

    The burning question among American Jews today is “How do we insure that our grandchildren will be Jewish?” The question isn’t a new one. Yet the question presupposes an even deeper one: Why should we care?

    In previous generations, Jews faced the threat of physical annihilation. Today, we confront the more subtle threat of absorption into the larger community. It’s not as if your intermarried cousins have suddenly been zapped into oblivion; they merely won’t be Jews. And if they’re perfectly happy, comfortable middle-class Americans, how can we call their fate a “tragedy?” After all, they’re living the American Dream!

    Before we can get upset about assimilation, we need to understand why it’s important for the Jewish Nation to survive, and why we should want to be part of it. Don’t think it’s about nationalism, or ethnocentrism, racial pride or the unspoken sentiment that “the world would fall apart” without our contributions to science, medicine, charitable works, the arts, or entertainment. The world can do just fine without bagels.

    But it can’t survive without our ethical, moral and philosophical gifts. It can’t survive without God.

    There is one solution and only one solution to assimilation, teach Jews that our ethical, moral and philosophical system has something important to bring to the world. Conservative and Reform Judaism are dying because they teach almost nothing and demand almost nothing.

  13. Charles B. Hall says:

    I’m not so sure that the Orthodox population is growing. The 1970 National Jewish Population Survey reported that 11% of Jews in America identified as Orthodox. The 2001 version of the same survey reported about 13% fewer Jews than 31 years before — and 11% of that smaller number identified as Orthodox. Maybe things have changed in the six years since the survey, but it is still entirely possible that the Orthodox community is still smaller than it was 40 years ago.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Let’s assume that both Dr Cohen and R Scherman are right with respect to the demographic future. Perhaps, we can learn from the example of R H Neuberger ZTL and have more O participation and influence within the Federation world. We night not be able to stop programs that we don’t like, but we certainly would have far more opportunities for Kiddush HaShem, Limud HaTorah, Chesed, etc than we do presently with the heterodox communities.

  15. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Steve Brizel, thanks for your answer. I think that’s part of the puzzle, probably a big part, but not all of it. The reason is that there are two separate issues here:

    1. Kiruv – convincing Heterodox Jews to be Orthodox.
    2. Retention – convincing Heterodox Jews to keep a connection to the Jewish people.

    Obviously from the Orthodox perspective kiruv is the ideal. However, by the number of articles about intermarriage appear on cross-currents.com, I assume that retention is considered as a valuable second best. A Heterodox couple probably violates Taharat haMishpacha, Shabbat, and Kashrut – but they still don’t count as a problem the way a couple with one Heterodox member and one Gentile does.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    For those interested in this issue, Bethanie Horowitz has an article in this week’s Forward. One of her points of criticism is the over-counting in the Orthodox community. Yet, if you have read her articles on this issue, IMO, Professor Horowitz goes out of her way to try to rationalize and justify heterodox and ersatz forms of Jewish identity and implicityly offer no real praise for Orthodoxy or acknowledge its growth.

  17. Jonathon Ament says:


    Your point is well taken. Technically speaking the O population may not have grown since 1970. This is because many of the 1970 O were older Orthodox, some of whom were of the “the shul that I don’t go to is Orthodox” variety. Some of these Jews were still around even as late as the 1990 NJPS

    Many of those Jews have died in the past few decades (and Orthodoxy has suffered proportionally heavier losses here than the other movements) yet Orthodoxy continues to hold its own. It has done a much better job since 1970 (and certainly since before that time) of retaining younger Jews as they age, related in large measure to the ubiquity of day schools, yeshivot and the post-high school Israel experience in recent decades.

    All other factors being equal, Orthodoxy is certainly demographically poised for future growth in the coming decades–it is now a young population. Ironically, Conservative Judaism is now where Orthodoxy was a decade or two ago, in terms of overrepresentation in the oldest age cohorts.

  18. mycroft says:

    I’m not so sure that the Orthodox population is growing. The 1970 National Jewish Population Survey reported that 11% of Jews in America identified as Orthodox. The 2001 version of the same survey reported about 13% fewer Jews than 31 years before—and 11% of that smaller number identified as Orthodox. Maybe things have changed in the six years since the survey, but it is still entirely possible that the Orthodox community is still smaller than it was 40 years ago.

    Comment by Charles B. Hall — March 8, 2007

    IN the past few years I remember reading that 170,000 esrogim were imported into the US that year. Almost all Orthodox males over 13 get an esrog, there is very little domestic esrog production,there is some unused esrogim and a few are used by non Orthodox Jews. For easy calculation lets assume 150,000 esrogim used by Orthodox males-many under 13 get chinuch sets etc-lets assume same number of males and females-obviously incorrect-survived by the wife etc and even assuming 1/3 of population under 13 would yield an approximation of about 400,000 Orthodox Jews in the US. One can argue with the fine tuning of my assumptions and calculations but I don’t beleive with the general magnitude.

  19. Bob Miller says:

    The actual numbers will dictate the results anyway, not any count, professionally done or otherwise.

  1. March 15, 2007

    […] Unsurprisingly, neither the weekly Yated Ne’eman nor HaModia plan issues for Chol HaMoed. Considering the ongoing transformation in American Jewish life, how long will it be before the Forward joins them? Spread the Word | Permalink | Trackback | Comment Feed […]

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