Friday, December 28, 2007

The End of Jewish Demography?

At the doorstep of 2008, it appears that there will not be a 2010 national Jewish population survey in follow-up to the studies conducted in 1990 and 2000 and earlier efforts to determine the number of American Jews, as well as their circumstances, behavior and beliefs. It takes years to prepare for a survey and also much money and both time and funding are in too short supply to undertake a comprehensive project two or three years from now.

Funding is only one reason why NJPS is heading toward the history bin. Another is that United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for the Federation world and the past NJPS sponsor, is in crippled condition and scarcely able to get its act together. It also doesn’t help that the last NJPS received withering criticism, with both its methodology and key findings coming under fire. No one seems to have the stomach to try again. A final nail in the coffin is that the spreading use of cell phones has made population studies more difficult.

If NJPS is a thing of the past, Jewish demography is very much alive, although not necessarily well. It is like an obsession that we cannot shake off. We will continue to receive a flow of statistical claims regarding this or that aspect of Jewish life, some based on local surveys and others on broader research that purports to capture the full spectrum of our behavior and beliefs.

Because NJPS has come to reflect a narrower view of Jewish identity than is favored by certain demographers who are now in favor and because many in Jewish life have a stake in claiming higher numbers, the apparent decline of NJPS dovetails with the advancement, even domination, of big-tent Judaism, its notion being that we should include as many as we can, irrespective of how negligible their association with Jewish identity may be. I wonder whether NJPS’ fate would be different if it had announced that at the turn of the century there were as many as ten million Americans who may be counted as Jews rather than the five million that was its announced statistic.

It apparently does not matter any longer that many who are identified as Jewish say that they are not Jewish or that they practice another religion or that their children are being raised in no religion or another religion. A Jew is anyone we can claim by birth or marriage or household. The big-tenters are in the driver’s seat.

This is in a way good news for Israel, at least for those Israelis who believe that their country’s security depends on support from Washington and Washington’s support is likely to diminish if the number of American Jews diminishes. I think otherwise. It’s also good news for those who believe that intermarriage, advanced assimilation and even Judaic abandonment are no more than inconvenient circumstances that do not radically affect the statistics of American Jewry. In the new arithmetic espoused by the big-tenters, intermarriage means more and not fewer persons who identify as Jewish.

This attitude is consistent with the American ideal of tolerance and the right of people to choose how they are to be identified. It is reinforced by a huge emotional and financial investment by organized American Jewry which for communal and personal reasons is inclined to buy into an expansive definition of Jewishness. The process is not new. I identified it in the 1980s in a series of articles and have discussed the phenomenon many times since, arguing that while ultimately this house of cards will collapse, it is a condition that will remain critical in American Jewish life for the foreseeable future.

What is perhaps surprising is the creativity and boldness of the advocates of this form of Judaism. They were originally defensive, as if they were saying that though what we represent departs from communal norms, this is the best that we can achieve under current conditions. The contention now is that the departure from norms is itself a legitimate Jewish norm. This process has legs and it will almost certainly be with us at least well into this century.

There is, in short, increasing congruence between our demography and our communal activity, a development that is not seriously challenged by those of a religious orientation who believe that what is being supported in the name of Jewish continuity is bogus. The likely feeling is that they do not have the ability to counteract this process. It is also true that they – including some fervently Orthodox – have a comfort zone with those who are nearly 180 degrees away from them on the religious spectrum. As for Chabad, the fastest spreading American Jewish experience, in many localities it feeds off this phenomenon, something that it is loathe to acknowledge.

Given the huge emotional and financial investment in the notion that labeling something as Jewish is sufficient to make it Jewish, the prospect is for Judaism to be defined further downward.

What is happening is not entirely unique in Jewish history. What makes the contemporary Jewish experience distinctive is the scale, the number of persons who accept the view that the label alone can serve as a surrogate for Jewish substance. Aside from halachic or Jewish legal considerations, this is a fascinating sociological development. It also poses a challenge, intellectual and practical, to those who continue to believe in what Judaism has meant over the centuries.

One day, long after most of us are gone, there will be greater clarity and it will be obvious that much of what was promoted as legitimately Jewish was a mirage, that inflated numbers and activities not moored in our heritage forged perceptions that distorted the reality. For now, we live in the present and act in the present and the present reality is that the mirage is accepted by most American Jews as real.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Scholarly Abuse

While reading and reviewing two years ago a dreadful book on chassidic life, I came across a footnote citing a remarkably high incidence of sexual abuse among Orthodox Jewish women. The source was a May 7, 2004 article in the Forward reporting on a paper presented shortly before at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. I was jolted and intrigued by the assertion that more than 25% of married Orthodox women participating in the survey said that they had experienced such abuse. The statistic was at once startling and I thought questionable. I contacted the two principal researchers and requested a copy of the paper, only to be told that it was not available and would not be available for perhaps two years.

I did not know at the time that in the same period, a companion – or perhaps the same - paper had been given at the annual meeting of the Orthodox Forum, a Modern Orthodox group, and that it had been sharply challenged, the upshot being that in what I have been told is a rarity for the group, the paper, entitled “Sexual Life of Observant Jewish Women,” was not accepted for publication in the book that includes the 2004 Orthodox Forum papers.

In fact, sexual abuse was a minor concern in that paper. Now, the November 2007 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, certainly a major publication, includes an article derived from the same study that served as the basis for the earlier paper. This one is on the “History of Past Sexual Abuse in Married Observant Jewish Women,” with Dr. Rachel Yehuda listed as the first of five authors and with the highlighted finding that “sexual abuse was reported by 26% of the respondents surveyed, with 16% reporting abuse occurring by the age of 13.”

This is now the definitive word on the subject, to be Googled for nearly all of eternity and regarded as authoritative and cited in books, newspapers and other publications. This newspaper did its part with a badly flawed article headlined, “No Religious Haven From Abuse.”

It is not prudishness that begets my reluctance to write about sexual abuse. I do not want to cover up any form of wrongdoing. My reluctance arises from the likelihood that what I write will engender the false claim that I and the Orthodox cover up all abuse. We Orthodox live in a real world and there is sexual abuse in our community and while its incidence is, I believe, significantly below what it is in the larger society, what occurs is a serious issue that must be confronted. Any who protect a sexual abuser is guilty of a great sin.

There is a huge gap between acknowledging this truth and accepting the reckless scholarship and statistics of Dr. Yehuda, et al which constitute a form of group libel and severe cruelty toward observant Jews. They have an obligation, scholarly and ethical, to calculate how their presentation of their findings will be interpreted and distorted because of their flawed use of statistics. At the end of the day, we are left with the statistic that one in four married Orthodox women has experienced sexual abuse and this statistic is false.

Sadly, claims of abuse of one kind or another among the Orthodox have become routine, as if “Orthodox” and “abuse” are like love and marriage in the popular old song, you can’t have one without the other.

The Survey
The AJP article does not include the questionnaire, nor is it available online, which is surprising. The questionnaire is important because it indicates why I believe Orthodox women in droves refused to participate in the survey. A half-dozen polite requests to Dr. Yehuda for a copy were to no avail. Nor have I been able to access the promotional material that was utilized to attract participants. Dr. Yehuda acknowledges that while the survey was once online, it “is no longer on the website.”

A substantial effort was made to publicize the survey and to encourage self-identified Orthodox women to participate. As the AJP article puts it, “subjects were sought across a large range of religious Jewish communities by advertising through synagogue bulletins, Jewish organizations, newspapers, Jewish-oriented websites and listserves, and a network of medical professionals…whose practices consisted of sizable numbers of Orthodox Jewish women.”

This extensive and doubtlessly expensive effort, conducted here and in Israel, resulted in 380 completed questionnaires that constitute the survey. The authors acknowledge that they cannot “estimate the number or characteristics of women who heard about the study and refused participation.” It is a fair estimate that this number dwarfs by a hundredfold and probably much more those who participated.

Methodological concerns alone raise serious questions about reliability. While there is research on the sexual activity of American women, what Dr. Yehuda et al report is the first study of its kind on any ethnic, religious or nationality group or subgroup. As they write, “there are currently no statistics regarding the life-time prevalence of sexual abuse within religious communities,” and, “we are not aware of any other study examining sexual abuse…in any similar insular religious society.” Inadvertent as it may be, there is a sensationalist quality to what is reported in the AJP. Once more, we Jews – and, once more, just the Orthodox - are the chosen people. I wonder what the reaction would be if research based on a comparable approach reported that one in four women in other ethnic and religious groups had experienced sexual abuse.

The Data
In fact, the statistics about the Orthodox are distorted – and by a wide margin. The study is afflicted by a severe case of survey bias, by now a chronic problem in Jewish demography and acknowledged as a serious issue in sexual activity research. Survey bias refers to the powerful tendency of quantitative research to attract respondents who are not representative of the entire group and whose participation is enhanced by the nature of the research and the questions asked. Their responses tilt the data in a pronounced way, invariably in the direction favored by the research. There are major articles in the literature on survey bias in sexual activity research, with one review article authored by A. Catania and others and published in 1990 in the Psychological Bulletin stating that the responses tend to come from those who are “more sexually liberal” and “more likely…to report sexual difficulties.”

What percentage of married Orthodox women is represented by these 380 responses? According to the Orthodox Forum paper, “it can be estimated that there are approximately 250,000 to 300,000 women” in the U.S. and Israel who would be eligible for participation in the study. My estimate is lower. Whatever the number, the 380 represent a small fraction of one-percent of the potential response pool and, as will be shown, they are not representative of Orthodox married women. Without any doubt, they are also a tiny proportion of the eligible women who learned of the survey and were invited and encouraged to participate. We do not know how many considered participation and then decided against it, certainly in many instances because they were repelled by the questions that were asked. Yet, we now read unqualified newspaper accounts that one-quarter of married Orthodox women experienced sexual abuse.

If nearly all surveys are prone to participation bias and sexual activity surveys even more so, there is a yet more heightened prospect that Orthodox women will shy away from such questions. According to an item in Science & Theology News about this research, “nearly 25 percent of American women surveyed did not respond” to some of the questions. There is a touch of prurience to certain questions, at least from the perspective of many Orthodox women and certainly those who identify as fervently Orthodox. An example is questions relating to the wedding night experience.

In short, the 380 respondents are an atypical group who represent only themselves. How atypical is indicated by the curious statistic that 53% of those who self-identify as fervently Orthodox attended graduate school, apart from those who went to a religious seminary. Indeed, Yehuda et al note that “the high level of education, even among the ultra-Orthodox, suggests a survey bias that may be associated with a willingness to participate in research.” This doesn’t deter the trumpeting of the 26% abuse statistic.

There are other question marks, invariably with the acknowledgement that they may affect the survey’s representativeness. A bit more than half of the abuse reported in the AJP article involved improper physical behavior that did not include genital contact. In fact, in the authors’ words, “many researchers have historically defined sexual abuse as genital contact.” Hopefully without being accused of excusing wrongful actions, I wonder whether inappropriate conduct without genital contact should be included in the survey of Orthodox women. The issue is relevant because while in the general society standards of physical contact are more permissive and so there is a strong tendency not to regard such contact as sexual abuse, among the Orthodox and especially the fervently Orthodox, in the words of Dr. Yehuda et al, “the threshold at which someone may feel the victim of sexual abuse may be lower for those living in a more restrictive religious community.” It is of note that of the Orthodox women reporting sexual abuse, more than half said that it did not involve genital contact.

An additional area of doubt arises from the extraordinarily large number of respondents – 53% - who have been treated at least once by a mental health professional. This is a sensitive issue and it is sufficient to note that the statistic is substantially higher than what is known about American women and psychotherapy services.

Many of the Women Were Not Orthodox
The greatest flaw in the research and presentation is that 137 or 36% of the respondents were not raised Orthodox, becoming observant later in life, a statistic that is incompatible with the distribution of baalei tshuva or return to Judaism women in the Orthodox population. Of the 96 women who reported abuse, more than half or 49 were not raised Orthodox. The title of the article refers to past sexual abuse among married Orthodox women, the suggestion being that the abuse was experienced by persons who were observant at the time that it occurred. This is how the data were reported in this newspaper and how they will continue to be reported.

This issue is crucial in light of the statistic that nearly two-thirds of those who report abuse say that it occurred before the age of thirteen, when in fact many of the women were not Orthodox. Of note, one-third of the women raised Orthodox say that their perpetrator was a stranger, as compared to but 14% for those who were not raised observant. Contrary to popular wisdom which decrees confidently that the Orthodox tend not to report abuse, 44% of those raised Orthodox reported the incident. The comparable figure for those not raised Orthodox is 39%.

When the women not raised Orthodox are excluded, the abuse statistic declines to 19% and that is the point at which survey bias and other factors come into play, reducing the figure even further and probably substantially, although it is not possible to estimate an accurate figure. In sum, to the degree that this survey has any value, it appears to point to a lower, probably much lower, incidence of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community than in American society as a whole. To put it mildly, the message sent by the authors is quite different.

Sprinkled throughout the AJP article are declarations that the responses may not be representative. That isn’t sufficient because it is certain that they aren’t representative. As someone who read the AJP article emailed to me, “I don’t understand a field in which a major journal publishes an article that contains emphatic declarations that its data is utterly meaningless.” Of course, the declarations do not make it into the publications that cite the study.

Whether the substantial deficiencies were inadvertent or not, the authors bear a moral and scholarly responsibility for what appears under their names and for the harm, distortion and pain they have caused. Sexual abuse is terrible and never to be condoned. In condemning sexual abuse, we must be careful not to condone scholarly abuse. Dr. Yehuda and her colleagues should take the morally responsible step and retract their article.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Political Ideology is Not Judaism

It is understandable that Orthodox Jews – of course, not all – have gravitated toward conservative political positions. There is a high degree of congruence between their religious teachings and obligations and conservative opinion on key public issues. This is evident regarding gay marriage and abortion and, more generally, in attitudes toward contemporary culture and societal trends. Our religious life mandates restraint and modesty, while the powerful contemporary tendency is to expand the zones of permissiveness. Social conservatives are the primary force resisting this dynamic development and since Orthodox Jews are traditionalists, it is natural that they be in the same camp.

There is, however, nothing in our religious laws mandating an across the board embrace of right wing views. Environmentalism is one area where observant Jews should feel comfortable with what is primarily identified as a liberal viewpoint, if only because preserving the environment is inherently a conservative commitment. Gun control is another area where Orthodox Jews do not belong in the same camp with right-wingers. We Orthodox should be concerned about global warming and we should support gun control without feeling that it is wrong to reject what most conservative Americans advocate and without feeling that it is wrong to be in the same bed as liberals.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox drift toward right-wing positions seems to bring an instinctive acceptance of conservative political doctrine, as if it is a religious obligation to resist efforts to curtail the availability of harmful weapons or to protect the environment. There are Orthodox writers with no scientific knowledge who apparently believe that it is a mitzvah to accept the debunking of global warming warnings. There is no such mitzvah. Rather, those who cling to all that the right wing advocates are worshiping a false god.

Of course, buying into an ideological label, whether liberal or conservative, makes life easier. There is no need to reflect and choose. A self-ordained pattern of obedience serves as the substitute for a weighing of known information. Yet, allegiance to ideology exacts a cost. A case in point is Iraq. As an aspect of their strong endorsement of President Bush, many Orthodox and, notably the fervently Orthodox, enthusiastically supported the Iraq invasion, although from the outset it should have been apparent that the action would be harmful to Israel. Iraq is the catalyst for what the Bush Administration is intensively striving to achieve in its final year as it pressures Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and to make additional concessions. This upsets many Orthodox who as yet do not recognize that there is a direct linear link between Iraq and Washington’s stance that Jerusalem should be divided.

Religious Jews should stop taking their political cues from conservatives. Nor should they take their political cues from liberals. On some issues we have good reasons to side with one or the other point of view. On the current red hot issue of immigration, including what to do about the illegals who are here, we Orthodox should pause to consider that xenophobia is not a mindset that has turned out well for Jews.

I do not advocate that the Orthodox become born again liberals and I know that there are some who never defected from this camp. Liberalism has been stained and not only by an approach to social issues that too often is antithetical to our religious values. What also undermines liberalism is the foolish notion that Plan A to deal with just about every pressing problem or pathology is to constantly increase governmental expenditures, as if throwing money at a problem solves the problem when underlying social causes continue to fester and even flourish. The throwing around money approach has been tried for decades, at a cost of perhaps trillions, and failure has not induced sufficient liberal reflection on the efficacy of the approach.

Further enervating faith in what liberalism advocates is its antagonism toward what is referred to as faith based initiatives that rely heavily on voluntary activity and have shown significant efficacy in meeting vital needs and ameliorating social pathologies. Too many liberals think that religion is bad and this attitude is bad for the liberal cause. Like it or not, at bottom the liberal attitude amounts to the proposition that it is better for needs to be unmet and pathologies to fester than to recognize the healing capacity of activities that are faith-based.

For the Orthodox, there is the additional factor of liberal opposition to government aid to religious schools, a stance that has harmed Jewish day schools and, probably more critically, harmed hundreds of thousands of minority group school children.

Although liberals give religious Jews reasons to be upset, there is no justification for the increasingly worshipful attitude toward conservative ideology. We have what to worship in our own tradition and outside ideology is not part of our liturgy. Each issue should be judged separately in terms of our interests and our values and not anyone else’s ideology.

It is noteworthy that on issues that they tend to embrace, liberals and conservatives can show a high degree of affinity. This is true of liberal acceptance of gay marriage and conservative opposition to gun control. Each of these positions is predicated on the notion that people should be free to do what they want to do. They should be free to engage in same-sex marriages and they should be free to walk around with guns.

This is a broad definition of freedom. It happens not to be our religious way. Each of our mitzvahs and obligations imposes restrictions and mandates obedience and these obligations are the primary exhibit of why no political ideology is a code word for Judaism.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Defederate Now

The General Assembly of what is now called the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of perhaps as many as 160 or even more federations, convened several weeks ago in Nashville, although scarcely anyone paid attention or cared. The event was, to be generous, less than overwhelming, with some jokesters wondering who was more dead, whether Elvis or the federations. Let the kibbitzers have their fun. If not well, the federation world is alive and the proof is that preparations are underway for next year’s expensive confab.

Isn’t it time for persons of weight and commitment to weigh in with the suggestion that there must be a better – meaning less expensive and more effective - way of organizing American Jewish life. Federating was the rage a century ago, the notion being that in every North American Jewish shtetl with more than a handful of Jews which means that there certainly were a handful of organizations, it was imperative to establish a central coordinating agency. The idea was compelling and though there was not much coordination as each constituent group had its own machers and did its own shnorring, for quite a while the federation concept seemed to work.

We know how much the Jewish world has changed. Hospitals which in all of the larger cities were the key federation constituents now act entirely on their own, relying on third party reimbursement for operating expenses and their own fundraising for capital needs. The ranks of the Jewish poor have shrunk and they are served primarily by the welfare state. As Jews acculturated, then assimilated and then experienced in droves massive Judaic abandonment, the federation world vanished from their mindset. Why keep a costly relic alive?

Worse yet, with some exceptions federations are arid places, bereft of ideas and creativity and blessed with an abundance of bureaucratic meaninglessness. The federation world is a world of endless meetings, conference-attending, study groups that go nowhere and much more of the paraphernalia of a worn out bureaucracy. In a sad way, the concept of federation and coordination is the enemy of creativity.

The center of vitality, of ideas and experimentation, in American Jewish philanthropy is now in private foundations that have significant endowments and significant excitement. True, as often as not, those who have created these entities were motivated by ambition and ego, by the determination to do their own thing. They wanted their distinctive signature, not federation’s, to be on their philanthropy. In New York and other places where there is an abundance of Orthodox, there are voluntary networks of programs and organizations that dwarf what the federations do to assist Jews in need.

Yet, the federation world churns on, determined in this town to promote the image that vast numbers of Jews partake of its largesse. If this were only true! Of course, no ad mentions the ignoble deed of terminating basic grants to yeshivas and day schools, a decision that was made four years ago. It gives me no comfort that in the recent period Orthodox notables who counseled silence as they negotiated what they believed would be a redress of federation’s wrongful action, now tell me that I was right all along.

The case for federation is often expressed in terms of support for Israel. My view, shared by a minority at the time, is that it was a grievous miscalculation to incorporate the United Jewish Appeal into the federation ambit because it removed from the consciousness of American Jewry a primary identifying link with the Jewish state. Some rent money may have been saved and other expenses reduced. What was lost is far greater.

Fundamentally, the case for federation rests on inertia or, expressed differently, on the inability to come up with an alternative. We have not been able to figure out how to adjust our organizational structure to the contemporary American Jewish landscape, the upshot being that we continue to feed that which we have fed for a long while.

One day, the federation world will come into the 21st century, perhaps first through the closing of some of these dinosaurs where are too few Jews who care about the arrangement. Change will come, though not soon enough. For the present, we are stuck with a system that makes little sense. What is needed is a new culture or ethos to arise within the federation world promoting the notion that it is time to begin defederating. As it was an imperative to federate when the Wright brothers were fiddling around with their invention, in a world dominated by Google, Facebook and exciting technological ventures that capture the attention of nearly all younger Jews, it is imperative to go in the other direction.

It is also time to do away with the United Jewish Communities, a fancy name for an organization that does not unite and has as the main item on its agenda an annual gathering of several thousand at a cost of more than several million. UJC costs nearly $50 million to stay in business. There is no justification for this. I believe that most key federation officials know this.