At the Lemonade Stand

In an opinion piece in the Jewish Week, the three co-authors of the recent study of New York’s Jewish population cheerfully report on why their findings are so promising:

Much has been written about the somewhat surprising results from the “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011.” Probably the most noted developments were the explosive growth of the haredim, the sharp surge in poverty, and the increasing number of non-denominational Jews.…But…we were most struck by the incredible — and expanding — diversity of New York Jewry in so many dimensions.… This diversity is healthy. It makes this community stronger and more interesting. It provides individuals with multiple stimuli and options for Jewish living.…

Along with all this diversity in age, ideology, national origin, culture and social class comes diversity in approaches to life, Jewish life and Jewish engagement.… To some, the sheer diversity translates into polarization and disunity. To us, the diversity poses a remarkable opportunity: to enhance personal and communal creativity, to build patterns of mutual enrichment, to celebrate difference while building bridges across difference.  Ultimately we can develop a new model of Jewish collectivity that celebrates diversity while seeking integration

It’s got all the stock buzzwords: “multiple stimuli and options for Jewish living,” “building bridges across difference,” “new model of Jewish collectivity.” Welcome to the oh-so-predictable sociology-speak that reigns supreme in secular-Jewish America. One has to assume that the newspaper’s proofreader could easily have switched a couple of these phrases —  substituting, say, “multiple options for a new Jewish collectivity” and “new model for Jewish living” – without even the authors themselves noticing. The irony is that the very way they discuss their study’s findings, using the tortured, antiseptic, hyper-intellectual verbiage that puts everyone but themselves to sleep —  and the ossified approach to Jewish living that it symbolizes — goes a long way toward explaining the hemorrhaging of non-Orthodox life depicted in their study.  

But apart from their style, they’re also mistaken in their substance, with their Pollyannaish musings about the opportunities for “celebrat[ion] of difference” — another sleep-inducer. But Jack Wertheimer is having none of it.  Every movement needs someone who brings hi-falutin’ academics like these back down to earth with one “Get real.” Wertheimer, a serious historian and provost at the Conservative seminary who can’t be easily dismissed, has been doing that for years now with a series of devastating, truth-telling pieces about American Jewry in Commentary. In his latest offering, he reviews the same UJA-Federation study:

In light of the many fissures that have opened on the Jewish scene, the mantra of Jewish life over the past decades has shifted from proud assertions of Jewish unity to less convincing rhetoric about the joys of intra-Jewish diversity. In an act akin to making lemonade out of lemons, communal leaders have taken to celebrating diversity now that it is clear that differences cannot be bridged. But even if valuing diversity is a worthy goal, it is of limited help when trying to build a community. As Eli Lederhendler, another leading historian ofNew York’s Jews, has observed: “Internal diversity in a social system is a historical fact of life. But the sine qua non in the process of community formation is the predominance of collective commitment over sectoral and private self-definitions.” 

What that last quote means, translated into plain English, is that communities are always diverse, but what makes them communities is that this diversity takes place within a larger context of an overarching commitment that its members have to a certain set of ideals and practices. That’s a perfect description of the Orthodox community, which features so much more diversity in every way imaginable than its non-Orthodox counterparts could possibly hope for, all within a larger context of shared beliefs and actions. 

And while he’s at it, Wertheimer has some choice words for the Forward, which editorialized when the survey was first released about the need to deny poor Orthodox children — the “undeserving poor” — their milk subsidies:

[A]n editorial published by the Forward … stigmatized Haredi families as “undeserving poor” because their poverty is based on their own bad choices to bear children they cannot support, even as they allegedly fail to acquire an education that would help them enter the labor market. Before tarring an entire community, it might have been prudent for the editors to learn about the actual lives of these people, the sacrifices they are prepared to make for their large families, and the luxuries they are happy to forgo in order to transmit a strong Jewish identity to their children.

If, however, one insists on indulging in the dubious exercise of identifying types of Jews who are “undeserving,” it behooves us to ask who, in fact, is most worthy of communal support: those who are failing to raise and nurture a successor generation of Jews or those who are producing and educating enough Jewish children to make up for the indifference of the rest? If nothing else, the New York study should drive home the realization that Jewish life in this country, and in most places around the world, is now being played according to new ground rules, since the once dominant non-Orthodox sectors are failing to reproduce enough of their own and are thereby relying on the Orthodox to ensure a viable Jewish future. 

Hey, I didn’t write that; Jack Wertheimer did. But I suppose I can still be indicted for that high crime in today’s Jewish America called ‘Orthodox triumphalism’ for noticing what he wrote and bringing it to your attention.

This article first appeared in Mishpacha. Comments will be entertained from contributors with real names that can be verified by the moderators.

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10 Responses

  1. Arnie Lustiger says:

    Morally, politically, and even epistemologically, Orthodox Jews have far more in common with Fundamentalist Christians than with liberal Jews. The big tent has blown away. That is the subtext behind the Forward’s hypocrisy. Imagine the cries of racism if we were to advocate denial of welfare benefits to black families because they were “undeserving”.

  2. Ben Maddow says:

    I’ll go ahead and be the Orthodox triumphalist for you. We survived the kusim; we survived the christians; we survived all the false messiahs and shabtai tzvi; we survived haskala; we survived reform; we survived conservative; and we’ll survive the Forward.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Is the author contending that all our Orthodox factions get along well in working toward the common good? Most of them? There seems to be more friction than our common set of beliefs would lead us to expect.

  4. Dovid Friedman says:

    Ben: That is very noble of you. Still, it is remarkable how little you seem to care or realize, that it is not victory for anyone when huge segments of the Jewish population simply stop affiliating and are completely lost–completing your “triumph”.

  5. Isaac Shalev says:

    The new Jewish community described by the study is VERY different. It is less a community and more a network of affinities. And while it may struggle for cohesion and continuity, it appears to be much more capable of spreading Jewish values and ideas to the surrounding culture than Orthodoxy. Will it blow away in the winds of time? Perhaps. Will Orthodoxy isolate itself into irrelevancy? Perhaps. But the above debate over whether or not to look at the bright side of a depressing study strikes me as frivolous.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Arnie Lustiger: That is the subtext behind the Forward’s hypocrisy. Imagine the cries of racism if we were to advocate denial of welfare benefits to black families because they were “undeserving”.

    Ori: The two cases are not equivalent or even similar. Being Orthodox is a choice, being black is not. If you want an equivalence, consider single mothers (where single motherhood is a choice – barring rape, divorce initiated by the husband, and widowhood).

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Issac Shalev: And while it may struggle for cohesion and continuity, it appears to be much more capable of spreading Jewish values and ideas to the surrounding culture than Orthodoxy.

    Ori: I think this is a matter of differing concerns. I’m heterodox, and for me improving the surrounding culture is more important. But I think for Orthodox Jews Jewish continuity is much more important.

  8. Caren V. May says:

    The polarization in Orthodoxy has increased proportionaly, echoing life in Eretz Yisroel. Shuls, yeshivos, beis medresh, day schools, kollels are welcoming participants according to a extremely selective agenda. Doors are closed to any one considered the “other” or “different”. Diversity is a dream and a goal that is possible with the proper chinuch, modeling and desire.

    Personally, I believe that there is a disdain for intergration of diverse groups (from both sides of the coin), complete apathy in confronting or facing diversity and an exagerated fear of the “other” which is growing stronger and stronger.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    Eytan Kobre’s article was an excellent analysis of the much discussed recent survey re the greater NY Jewish population. IMO, the survey is flawed by its definition and focus on NYC, LI and Westhester. One is missing the big story of Orthodoxy is one neglects to discuss the strong MO and Charedi communities that are simply just over the river. OTOH, one can only hope that the Charedi and MO worlds simply appreciate each other’s contributions, strengths and weaknesses -a factor that the Kobre article could have discussed in its analyis of unity and diversity.

  10. Mr. Cohen says:

    Another pro-Orthodox quote from Jack Wertheimer:

    “…the one major exception to the general rule, namely, Orthodox Jews.
    Not only do the Orthodox suffer many fewer losses from intermarriage,
    but their fertility rate is far above the Jewish norm.
    …The statistical evidence behind these birthrates is laid out in the 2000-01 NJPS.”

    Jews and the Jewish Birthrate by Jack Wertheimer,
    Commentary magazine, October 2005

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