Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The Numbers Game

The New Republic no longer features the journalistic oddity of two newspapers – at times the same newspaper – publishing on the same day conflicting headlines on the same story, something along the lines of “Economists See Deepening Recession” in the New York Times, while the Washington Post reports “The Economy is on the Mend.” There is more important business to attend to these days.

I wonder what the editors of this newspaper were thinking several weeks ago when the front page headline declared that “Jews Turning from Judaism” and “Those choosing other faiths doubles in a decade, poll shows.” The subsequent story filled in the lamentable details, including the astounding statistic that 1.4 million American Jews who say that they are Jewish by parentage now align themselves with another religion. An equal number say that they have no religion. Put simply, probably fewer than one-half of American Jews now say that they are Jewish by religion.

This is more bad news, following more than a decade of depressing data about Judaic abandonment and intermarriage. While page one of the Jewish Week proclaimed that Jews were turning away from Judaism, on page ten there was another story telling us that outreach programs aimed at the intermarried and their non-Jewish family members were showing positive results. The two stories add up to the bizarre and absurd proposition that while we are failing to retain American Jews, we are succeeding among interfaith couples. To add a bit of spice to this nonsensical brew, one of the “scholars” who conducted the first study is a participant in the second. There is an old saw that seems especially appropriate here, something like, “counters don’t think.”

There is more to the funny numbers. Barry Kosmin, another of the researchers for the bad news story and the director of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that gave us the 52% intermarriage rate, has concluded that less is more, that there is actually good tidings in all of those Jews who live with persons who are not Jewish. When Jews intermarry, there is an increase in the number of so-called Jewish households, they being places that contain at least one identifiable Jew. As there are more intermarriages, there is a corollary increase in the aggregate number of persons living in such households. According to Kosmin, there are perhaps ten million Americans living in Jewish households, so instead of wailing about Jewish loss we should be celebrating the ever-growing number of outreach opportunities afforded to us.

Taking this illogical notion to its logical conclusion, if American Jewry continues on its present course, in a couple of generations there will be tens of millions of Americans who can somehow be included on our population rolls. We ought to beware of demographers who come bearing statistical gifts.

Hopefully, the much-delayed National Jewish Population Survey 2000 will not play as loose with numbers. From what we have seen so far, this crucial project has been devised and administered with much care. Hopefully, as well, NJPS 2000 will avoid the hype and super-heated claims that characterize most of contemporary American Jewish demography. Our demographers are headline grabbers who too often impose their own biases on the data.

I believe that more than half of American Jews have abandoned any meaningful sense of Jewish identity. Israel scarcely resonates in their lives, nor do they pay attention to our activities or messages. While a tiny number will return to Judaism, usually because of serendipitous circumstances and not planned activities, overwhelmingly these Jews are no longer part of the glorious story of our people. They are, as I have written previously, our lost tribes.

More shockingly, not far behind these Jews who have abandoned Jewish life even in an ethnic or secular sense, there is much of the remainder of American Jewry that is heading in the same direction. These are persons who consider themselves Jewish, care about Israel and Jewish identity, contribute to our causes and participate to some extent in our activities. They are endangered as Jews because they have tossed aside nearly all of what can preserve them as Jews, the traditions and practices and beliefs that made us into a distinctive people and ensured our survival even under the harshest of conditions. When we look at the data or listen to what these more than two million Jews are saying about intermarriage or religious commitment, we can understand why more terrible news lies ahead. No sugarcoating by demographers can counteract this reality.

Our primary strategy for preventing additional defections away from Judaism is to define Judaism downward, to legitimate that which is alien to our heritage and has proven in the past to be of no avail. As I wrote in Tradition this past summer, most of American Jewry is evolving into a membership group, with the option to leave or to stay in and to invite non-Jews to join under conditions to be determined by the individual members. Barry Kosmin said something along the same lines and this should frighten us. After writing that “Jewish identity must be seen in consumerist terms,” he urges that “American Jews today should be regarded as a loosely linked affinity group, one having a clear brand, a widely recognized logo and a known address.”

There is admittedly a certain transient efficacy to this approach because there is a large critical mass of Jews who embrace it and this attenuated view of Judaism is being abetted by a massive institutional infrastructure that gives comfort to de-Judaized Judaism. The truth remains that we are not going to salvage remnants of American Jewry by saying that anything goes, so long as it comes with a label that says “Jewish”. The demographers can say otherwise but they are no more than false prophets.