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.

Friday, November 23, 2001

Hit and Run Judaism

Smart people know that instant gratification is stupid, that a quick pay-off that provides fleeting satisfaction is far less desirable than the lasting benefits that accrue through extensive work, commitment and investment. Instant gratification is, in short, for losers. We Jews are obviously smart so instant gratification is not for us.

Smart or not, in an escalating fashion American Jewish life is characterized by a ton of activities that are transient and ephemeral, that give an immediate high and then are gone with the wind. I call this phenomenon hit and run Judaism.

An obvious example is the scholar-in-residence game that abounds in congregational life. For a couple of thousand dollars or so, synagogues invite outside rabbis or academic types to come for a Shabbos, to speak and teach a bit and to entertain. When the Sabbath departs, so do these ersatz residents, either with a check in hand or a promise that it will soon be in the mail. These exercises are popular not because they result in any real benefit – that isn’t their goal – but because they are trendy, the thing to do.

Admittedly, except for the cost, these visits are generally benign, although they can engender kvetching spells by congregants who compare their Rabbi unfavorably with the hit and runner. They want to know why their Rabbi isn’t as learned or as good a speaker or as friendly as the fellow who has already skipped town. Sic transit gloria. While the regular rabbi is being pummeled, likely as not he is comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick, giving counsel to those in distress, attending a communal meeting.

There are able Rabbis who have abandoned the draconian life of the pulpit and enlisted in the greener pastures of the hit and runners. The more we esteem and reward those who make life a fleeting stage, the more we create disincentives for talented people to stay on for the long haul in positions that are vital for the well-being of the Jewish people.

A different variety of hit and run Judaism is found in outreach activity where the tendency is to rely on transient experiences to draw the uncommitted or marginally religious closer to Judaism. There are quickie courses, visiting teams of yeshiva students, occasional drop-ins by an outreach maven and once-a-month classes. For all of the good intentions that motivate these activities, they scarcely allow prospective returnees to appreciate the glories of religious commitment. Is it any wonder that outreach is in crisis, unable to build on the advances of a decade or two ago?

This isn’t meant to denigrate those who toil in the field. They are dedicated and there are solid accomplishments. There also are activities that are more permanent and therefore more effective, such as Beginnings Services in synagogues. My point is to suggest that certain tactics widely employed by the kiruv movement cannot counteract the powerful assimilatory forces that every day permeate the lives of nearly all American Jews. A smart man said to me recently that Chabad is succeeding in so many communities because when its people come, that’s where they stay. There are no greener or other pastures. Where they are today is where they shall be tomorrow.

The most pernicious hit and runners are the educational experts who have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves that is fed by gullible foundations and private philanthropists. The donors have bought hook, line and sinker the ridiculous notion that the best way to support or improve Jewish education is not by providing support to schools and faculty but to fund projects that are conducted by outside experts. As a consequence, teachers continue to be woefully underpaid and, except for those that serve an affluent clientele, day schools are forced to provide a dual educational program on a shoe-string.

What qualifies this arrangement as hit and run is that the experts manage to squeeze into their sterile schedules of endless conferences, conventions, meetings, etc. quick visits to Jewish schools. They arrive with their handbooks of cliches and depart by making a contribution of their checklists of things that school officials should do. Some of what they suggest is plain wrong or stupid; nearly all of the rest cannot be done because our schools are generally small and remarkably under-funded. There is also the problem that the experts are usually inexpert on the institutional culture that drives so many of the decisions that may appear errant to outsiders. After all, a school must accommodate the diverse needs, aspirations and ideologies of students and parents.

Unlike the congregational scholars-in-resident, the educational hit and runners can cause serious damage because their advice may well undermine parental or lay leadership confidence in the educators who are on the firing line. One of the remarkable and frightening developments in Jewish education in the recent period is the astoundingly high turnover rate among Jewish school principals, too many of whom are forced to leave. Actually, some – and they are among the best – leave willingly to seek employment in the growing array of organizations and projects that are looking for Jewish educational experts. This has exacerbated the leadership crisis in Jewish schools.

Admittedly, there is a parallel development in public education, as the tenure of too many able principles is short-lived. The effectiveness of educational leadership is curtailed when outside experts and consultants tell school officials who are bereft of the necessary resources that they must implement the vision of the outsiders.

Right now, the trend toward hit and run Judaism seems irreversible, especially since it is in tune with the instincts and practices of the philanthropic sector. Instant gratification is venerated in organized American Jewish life.

Monday, November 05, 2001

New York and Jerusalem

Because they cannot know what the next war will be like, generals always fight the last war, if only to protect their rear end if not their rear guard. What is true of generals is true of other government officials who prepare for tomorrow by trying to prevent a repeat of yesterday’s failures. There is, at the least, the advantage of being able to plead not guilty to being asleep at the wheel. Extensive and expensive security arrangements were put into place at the World Trade Center after the 1993 attack. To use the elevators, visitors passed through a security check that included verification that they were expected at the indicated destination. Each visitor was photographed separately and there were other preventative measures. The rest is history, tragic history.

What was missing was intelligence, both in the sense of effective undercover activity and also in the sense of brainpower. The CIA, FBI and other agencies that are supposed to protect us against subversion and terrorism are expensive bureaucratic organizations that are overstaffed by the underqualified. We ought not expect them to apprehend those who plan to attack us when they can scarcely uncover spies who are nesting on the CIA and FBI payrolls. As I wrote after September 11, if Israel’s intelligence capabilities were at the level of America’s, the results for the Jewish State would have been horrific.

In fairness, the FBI is changing. Agents are now outfitted in smart-looking flak jackets with “FBI” emblazoned on the back, presumably to abet the gathering of secret information, along the lines of Poe’s purloined letter. As they walk the streets, they look like extras in a television series. Is it too much to hope that our anti-terrorism apparatus attain the level of competence of America’s enemies, people who apparently know where the White House and Pentagon mail is sorted?

Perhaps we should be a bit reassured because our President, newly anointed with gifts that were nowhere in sight two months ago, has announced that he feels safe when he enters the White House. Our Vice President, however, is not to be found. Osama Bin Laden is more available to the media than Dick Cheney.

As our officials demonstrate that they can undertake the kind of measures that did not prevent September 11, there is the attendant weakening of the economic situation – here and abroad – which is to say that the terrorists have achieved another costly coup. Billions are being spent with little rhyme and less reason and there will be a heavy price to pay down the road.

The situation is especially critical in New York where thousands of businesses have been hurt, many of them gratuitously. I have an office a mile or so north of Ground Zero. Further north is the intersection of Broadway and Canal where police checkpoints stop and examine vehicles. Trucks which are vital to New York’s economy are experiencing long delays, adding to the cost of doing business and diminishing the desire to stay in the city.

I was in Jerusalem days after the Sbarro bombing at what is perhaps the city’s most important cross-section. Traffic moves as before, in line with the attitude that life must go on. A sign at the site indicated that Sbarro would reopen shortly and it has. Although there is much fear in Israel and there have been life-style changes, to the greatest extent possible there is a determination to maintain normalcy. New York should learn from Jerusalem.

There is something else about Jerusalem’s streets and streets throughout Israel. There are Arabs nearly everywhere, some planning or wanting to commit murder and many more willing to assist the murderers. This is an aspect of Israel’s story that the media – especially in Europe – distort as they present a picture of alleged rampant Israeli violation of Arab rights. Is there any other country which in the face of the most serious and proximate security concerns would be as open as Israel is?

It would be nice if the new awareness of the dangers of terrorism would result in greater appreciation of what Israel has endured. Our media proclaim that “America Is Under Attack,” which is true enough, yet nothing to compare with Israel’s vulnerability. Reporters are sympathetic when the U.S. explains that civilian casualties are inevitable in wartime, especially when the enemy hides among children, as the Taliban apparently does. Where are Hamas and other Arab terrorists located, if not among women and children? I imagine that Susan Sontag would describe these murderous cowards as courageous.

It is remarkable how few Arab civilians have been killed during the drawn out Intifada, how much restraint Israeli soldiers and police have shown in the face of severe violence that places them in danger. It is not difficult to imagine how our police and military would respond if they were being shot at, not occasionally but each day and at close quarters.

I do not think that Prime Minister Sharon was wise in his harsh speech criticizing the Bush administration and it certainly was inappropriate for him to raise the specter of Munich and appeasement. Yet, there was a measure of truth in his remarks and there is much to be scared about in what is coming out of Washington. Our concerns are heightened because of the dominance of the Powell Doctrine which proclaims the massing of overwhelming military power, then wimping out and leaving allies to hang and die.