Tales of Two Jewries Don’t Tell Much Anymore

By Shaul Kelner

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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If you happen to have missed the latest round in the debate over interfaith marriage, outreach and in-reach, fret not. This dog has been chasing its tail for nearly two decades, and shows no sign of tiring or jumping out of the deep groove it has cut as it runs in circles.

The latest go-around was sparked when an analysis of the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey was thrown onto the field. Titled “A Tale of Two Jewries,” the research by sociologist Steven M. Cohen shows that, on an aggregate level, higher proportions of the in-married are Jewishly engaged than the intermarried. Proponents of in-reach and of outreach have, predictably, responded to form.

It is a sterile debate. As the committed pluralist Cohen has himself often acknowledged, one would and should expect that the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements will each adopt policies tailored to their particular constituencies and ideologies. The same goes for the federations, Jewish community centers and other agencies.

One size does not fit all. In practice, this is precisely what has been happening. Why, then, isn’t it reflected in the debates that play out in the press?

Ever since the so-called “continuity crisis” was declared in the early 1990s, intermarriage has been treated rhetorically as the hot-button boundary issue portending the demographic decline of American Jewry. Intermarriage has since become a normal part of most American Jews’ friendship and family networks, but the conceptual frameworks that policymakers and expert observers offer seem strangely frozen in time, as if the experience of the past 17 years has meant nothing.

There are two major problems with the communal discourse on intermarriage: the assumption of communal decline, and the notion, to borrow Cohen’s title, of “two Jewries.”

The bottom line of the “vanishing American Jew” argument is that intermarriage — independent of low Jewish fertility — will lead to a much smaller Jewish population. The prediction has been made now for several decades. The fact that it has not yet been clearly borne out tempts one to ask Hillel’s question, “If not now, when?”

Of course, the prediction may eventually be validated. But does a shrinking population imply communal decline? Is the vitality of Jewish life primarily a matter of numbers? Most observers, Cohen among them, agree that is not.

In 1990, many read the famous, but exaggerated, 52% intermarriage rate as evidence that the community was collapsing. Instead of decline, the 1990s brought massive institutional growth: day schools, university Jewish studies programs, and even many of the family foundations whose investments of billions into Jewish life are helping set the communal agenda today. The Reform movement, the denomination where intermarriage is most common, did not face institutional decline but rather saw a 13% growth to 896 synagogues in 2007 from 790 in 1985.

American Jewish life has institutional, political and cultural dimensions, each of which are distinct realms that operate by their own rules. As sociologist Calvin Goldscheider has taught us, demographic determinism has been a poor predictor of the Jewish future.

The debate over outreach and in-reach will continue being rehashed as long as we continue to think in terms of a sharp disconnect between two highly differentiated populations. As the lived experience of most American Jews attests, the in-married and the intermarried are not two distinct groups. Social scientists may place them in different categories for analysis, but in their actual lives the intermarried and in-married remain connected to one another in extended families, friendship circles, workplaces and, yes, in Jewish institutions.

The fact that these connections remain is what makes intermarriage so transformative for American Jewish life. And it is precisely this fact that both sides in the debate over outreach and in-reach have missed.

The debate over intermarriage has been focused on how “we” should deal with “their” potential absence. Accept or fight? Ignore or welcome? All the while, those American Jews who are intermarrying have remained decidedly present, maintaining social and familial ties and introducing religious and ethnic diversity into communities that have few established frameworks for even thinking about diversity, let alone dealing with it.

Critics of intermarriage offer dire warnings of its implications for the Jewish future. But look around. American Jewry is already more heterogeneous. Its boundaries are more fluid than previous generations could ever have imagined. The community has not disappeared, though it is different.

In other words, the future is already here. If only our communal conversation could catch up.

Shaul Kelner is an assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.


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