Thursday, July 12, 2012

Defining the Present and Future of Non-Orthodoxy

For quite a while, lots of people have been assuming that as the Conservative movement moves left and the Reform movement moves right, eventually there will be some sort of merger between the movements, if not officially, then in practice. So it's interesting to read comments like sociologist Steven M. Cohen's, where he very explicitly draws a line between non-Orthodox Jews.

rather than divide the world into two ‎‎(either Orthodox/non-Orthodox OR in-married/intermarried), I prefer to ‎divide the world into three (Orthodox, in-married or unmixed ancestry non-‎Orthodox, intermarried and mixed ancestry). The differences across these ‎boundaries are real, even as the groups do bleed into each other.‎ 
For example, how wide, in fact, is the difference between the Modern Orthodox ‎parent of a Ramaz Yeshiva student, and the Sabbath-observant parent of a ‎Schechter day school student? Or, for that matter, who is likely to be more ‎engaged in Jewish life: the non-married Reform-identifying young adult or ‎his/her intermarried parents who belong to a thriving Reform temple? In short, ‎the divides I (and you) are suggesting do make sense, but they need to be ‎qualified with a consciousness of their imprecision and fluidity.‎ 
In fact, each of the three camps I’m suggesting itself may be divided in two. ‎Among the Orthodox, we found incredibly large differences between the ‎Modern Orthodox and the Haredim, especially with respect to participating in ‎the larger Jewish community. Among the in-married non-Orthodox, we found ‎substantial differences between Conservative and Reform Jews, especially if ‎affiliated, countering the widely held notion that the two venerable ‎denominations are no longer meaningful. And among the intermarried ‎population (be it by ancestry or current circumstance), Jews divide ‎significantly between those who see Judaism as their religion and those who do ‎not.‎

The one area where I think Cohen may be overstating his case is that at this point, "intermarriage" can mean a lot of things. In the Reform movement, lots of intermarried couples are raising Jewish children within Jewish institutions. Even among the Conservative movement, you have people that intermarry and then later convert. So I'm not convinced that it makes sense to frame the in-married and the intermarried as two entirely distinct groups, or to place the biggest "dividing line" between Jews who marry Jews and Jews who don't (though I should note that in the study the authors comment that they treat marriages where one partner was not born to Jewish parents but consider themselves Jewish--whether formally converted or not-- to be in-marriages). Rather, it seems that the greater divide among non-Orthodox Jews is between Jews who are involved and connected, and Jews who aren't. Connection can come in a lot of ways-- institutional involvement, community involvement, organizational activity, artistic activity, education, even reading! But at its core, the issue of involvement or connection comes down to whether people identify as Jewish intellectually and emotionally and then do something to put that into practice. These people can be contrasted with those that, for whatever reason, don't have or feel that connection. A lot of times these categories are re-cast as affiliated and unaffiliated, but I think affiliation tends to carry too much denominational baggage. If someone isn't a member of a shul but does other Jewish stuff (religious or otherwise), do they count as affiliated? Considering that a huge percentage of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue, this suggests that the term "affiliated" is no longer that useful to measure Jewish involvement, commitment or enthusiasm. (Cohen's study examines issues of "affiliation" as well as "engagement".)

At first blush, I'm also somewhat skeptical of Cohen's comment about "substantial differences" between Conservative and Reform Jews. Glancing through the chapter on engagement, it I think the general gist seems to be that on average Conservative Jews tend to attend services more, keep more Jewish traditions, and may follow or be engaged in more Jewish issues or concerns. Those are certainly fair differences to note, but I'm unconvinced how defining they will continue to be as this generation ages and their children grow into adulthood. To varying degrees, a lot of these differences are cultural and familial by-products, and that means that they can and likely will continue to shift. Also, looking over some of the questions asked in the study, it seems to me that some of the areas they're looking at are either somewhat biased or minor in terms of importance/significance. For instance, asking whether someone's closest friends are Jewish or whether they fast all day on Yom Kippur. To me, these feel very generationally or religiously-tied, and while I won't deny that there can be a correlation between them as data points and painting a larger picture of someone's Jewish engagement, I would strongly disagree with the opposite conclusion, that if someone doesn't do these things they're necessarily not Jewishly engaged. Statistics are important, but only if you're asking the right questions. The other thing that I would note, living in a very liberal area with plenty of liberal congregations, is that sometimes people who come from a more liberal background (say, Reform) are more comfortable seeking out and experimenting with different forms of observance, including more traditional ones, than people who are more ideologically fixed. So if a Reform shul decides that it wants to practice having a Carlebach-style Friday night minyan, it may actually gain more traction among its members who are used to trying different things than a Conservative shul that's more stuck in its ways.

I feel like these kinds of studies struggle with staying relevant; as younger generations continue to experiment with and explore various ways and contexts of being Jewish, older identity issues such as "having close Jewish friends" or even "feel very attached to Israel" cease to be a very good indicator of much.

Just as a test, here are the questions from part of their engagement survey, specifically looking at the non-Orthodox. My answers are compared to other non-Orthodox folks in my age range (18-34) not living with their parents (thank god):

  • Do you usually or always have a seder in your house? YES (58%)

  • Do you usually or always light Hanukkah candles in your house? YES (55%)
  • Are your friends mostly Jewish? NO (I can count my close friends on two hands and my Jewish ones on one.) (30%)

  • Do you give to Jewish charities other than the Jewish Federation? NO, I don't even give to them. Actually I don't even know how to get in touch with them. (28%)

  • Do you fast all day on Yom Kippur? YES (though the two years before the most recent one I was sick and didn't) (52%)

  • Is being Jewish "very important" in your life? YES (38%)

  • Have you been to a Jewish Museum or Jewish Cultural Event in the past year? YES... Young Guard Havdalah  counts, right? (44%)

  • Do you feel "Very Attached" to Israel? Um... (25%)

  • Do you talk regularly about Jewish-related topics with friends? And my parents, and my wife, and my wife's parents... (28%)

  • Is it very important to be part of a Jewish Community? I suppose so, then again I only joined a synagogue a month ago (I actually still need to send them their check) (21%)

  • Do you regularly participate in Shabbat meals? SOMETIMES (curse Mrs. Yid's lucrative job!) (33%)

  • Do you give to the Jewish Federation? NO (8%)

  • Are you a member of a synagogue? YES (sort of, almost) (29%)

  • Has anyone in your house been to a JCC program in the past year? NO (Too far away) (31%)

  • Do you feel part of a Jewish community "a lot"? Which community? My shul? The city community? Sort of, I guess? (17%)

  • Do you regularly access Jewish websites? I'm here, aren't I? (34%)

  • Have you engaged in Adult Jewish Programs in the past year? YES-- go Tanakh class! (28%)

  • Do you study informally, either alone, with a friend, or a teacher? YES-- Parsha study for the win! (35%)

  • Do you usually or always light Shabbat candles? YES-- Havdalah candles are sometimes trickier to get to. (17%)

  • Have you volunteered for a Jewish Organization in the past year? NO (24%)

  • Do you have a kosher home? NO-- but the kavannah is pure! (19%)

  • Do you regularly participate or belong to a Jewish organization? Does the Jewish webring count? No? Then how about shul membership... once that check goes through...? (19%)

  • Do you attend services more than monthly? YES-- sometimes twice a month! (Seriously, we're working on it.) (8%)

  • Do you belong to an online Jewish Group? YES-- and I call it the Judeosphere! (32%)

It's interesting that many of my answers tended to match the study's findings among my age group (it's not surprising that those numbers are significantly lower in many areas than the same demographic that lives with its parents, as those responses are probably skewed from parental involvement): more ambivalence on Israel, less ritual observance, and just generally less interaction with formal community structures, be they financial, organizational, or activist. On the other hand, the top affirmative responses show that holiday rituals, Jewish cultural activities, text study, online communities and self-identification are meaningful focal areas. The good news from this is that it suggests that there's still interest and identification with Jewishness as well as elements of Judaism, but the trick is for the organizations, synagogues and other institutions to find ways to tap into that interest and keep themselves relevant, because clearly plenty of young Jews are perfectly happy creating their own organic and eclectic communities rather than specifically looking for Jewish identity and fulfillment within the traditional contexts of the synagogue or the JCC.

Honestly, I would love to see a study done that focused more on intermarried, unaffiliated and especially younger Jews. Preferably, they'd even get young sociologists to plan and conduct it.

Any volunteers?

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