The Kids Are Alright


Published March 06, 2008, issue of March 14, 2008.
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Fears of American Jewry disappearing, drifting into a velvet oblivion of assimilation, have given rise to a cottage industry of research, outreach and alarm-ringing in recent years. Most of this activity is aimed at maintaining the loyalty of the next generation of Jews, to save them from vanishing from the fold. It’s a complex job; it entails measuring the pace at which young Jews are truly bolting the barn, diagnosing the sources of their malaise and finding creative new cures. Practitioners generally view their enterprise as a rear-guard action to delay the inevitable disappearance.

For all that, measuring the Jewish attachment of the young has become one of the primary arenas of organized Jewish activism, second only to defending Israel. To community insiders, this activity is the sacred call of history. To outsiders, it often looks like a mob frenzy as staged by the Keystone Kops.

The latest example of this ongoing panic is the recent release of two new studies, both measuring the attachment of young Jews to Israel. The two studies were conducted separately by two different groups of researchers at the same time, probing the same topic, asking the same questions, using the same sets of statistics. Both purport to be objective, scientific analyses of the numbers. And yet, curiously, they reach opposite conclusions.

As reported this week by our Anthony Weiss, both new studies seek to explain the steady decline in Jewish attachment from oldest to youngest Jewish adults. Both studies rely heavily on the annual survey of Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee. Both ask what causes the generational decline in attachment.

Is it a long-term decline, propelled forward by the weakness of each new generation’s identification with the Holocaust and Israeli independence? Or is it a reflection of the modern Jewish life cycle, in which engagement with Judaism and Jewish affairs goes up as adults grow older and settle down?

The truth is that there’s evidence in both studies to support either conclusion. Both teams, one from Brandeis University, the other from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, marshal impressive numbers to disprove the other’s thesis.

The Bronfman team, led by Steven M. Cohen, believes the decline is a long-term historical shift. Intermarriage and greater societal acceptance lead to more personalized forms of Judaism that have little room for ethnic loyalties.

The Brandeis team, led by Len Saxe, notes that the gradations of attachment, from young to old and low to high, remain steady over the decades. The disengaged 25-year-old of 30 years ago is now a highly involved 55-year-old. There’s nothing, they claim, to indicate that this year’s disengaged 25-year-old won’t be a highly engaged 55-year-old in another three decades, as past generations have found.

There’s one correlation that isn’t mentioned in either study: the link between the authors’ conclusions and their temperamental dispositions. Cohen has emerged in recent years as a leading voice of caution and pessimism regarding the future of American Jewish identity. His pessimism is shared by many of the most visible and prolific students of Jewish belief and behavior.

Saxe, by contrast, is developing a reputation as a leading debunker of Jewish doomsday scenarios. It was his team that produced last year’s study of population trends, indicating that the much-publicized American Jewish population estimate of 5.2 million was off by at least a million, and that American Jewry was increasing, not disappearing. His new department, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, is fast becoming a leading redoubt of optimism in a field of Jewish population studies that generally seems to be dominated by alarmists.

Only time will tell who is right, and we’ll all be gone by then. In the meantime, there’s enough work to go around for everyone. For some, it’s bolstering programs like Birthright Israel, which have a proven record of strengthening participants’ emotional ties to Israel and Judaism. For others, it’s building a welcoming community, so that those disengaged Jews who are truly drifting away can find their way back.

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