I guess figuring out precisely how many Jews there are in the USA serves an important purpose for funding organizations, bakers of hamantaschen and antisemites… but as important as determining that final number is the fighting that ensues around whether that final number is correct.
His piece is VERY worth reading for the detailed analysis of the numbers and the meanings derived (and mis-derived) from them. Such as…
… Nearly 4% of respondents deny their semitic origins when asked directly by strangers. As Goldberg reports, a simple reordering of questions (leaving, say, “Hey, are you a Jew?” toward the middle) results in higher population numbers!
… Or children of intermarried families identifying increasingly as Jewish because of the perception in Washington DC and Hollywood that Jews are perceived as hip!
… Or Jews who do not identify as believers (and are thus discounted, or should I say “miscounted”?) but do identify themselves as secular or cultural Jews.
Goldberg also capably identifies what is at stake for Previous Jews who not only determine funding priorities but also need to demonstrate that intermarriage threatens the Jewish future. And then there are the Old School Zionists need to demonstrate that more Jews live in Israel as fulfillment of the Zionist vision.
What does this mean for Next Jews?
As I have written here at The Next Jew (and in End Of The Jews and yadda yadda yadda), new, discrete research tools need to be developed to measure identification as opposed to identity. How many candles get lit in my house each Erev Shabbat (FYI, 5!) tells me much less than how much I want to take part in the future of the Jewish people. (Which, incidentally, is also a 5.) It might take a little bit longer to compile data and might require (Previous) Jewish researchers and their personal notions of what a Jew is and does to set those biases aside and be open to the differing and diverse facets of Next Judaism.
The bigger question is: How many more of these kerfufflesargumentsdisputesdisagreements conversations will establishment Previous Jews have about counting before all the folks that are supposed to be counted (read: Next Jews) run out of patience, move on and go off the grid? For many Next Jews, these conversations are symptomatic of much of what is wrong with establishment Previous Judaism – its tendentiousness, top-down decision making and judgmental finger-wagging. And besides, census-taking has never been prominent in the Jewish wheelhouse. In fact, counting (as was the case in 2 Samuel 24) has been a downright disaster…
I have been a bit distracted lately working on galley proofs of End of the Jews and other vanity of vanities… and with the passing of the weeks, I recalled that I have long neglected the unrolling of Thoughts 4, 5 and 6 about “peoplehood.” So, here, in a thought-nutshell, three more thoughts about “peoplehood”:
Not that Rabbi Kaunfer’s op-ed was a mind-blowing polemical tour-de-force, but its context made it important.
Following the verbiage coming out of Denver (including an e-mail which gathered the best tweets from the GA and thus defeated the purpose of twitter), I came across Rabbi Kaunfer’s op-ed, a variation of which he delivered as a speech at the JFNA General Assembly. Though I am sure what he said annoyed some folks in Denver, it is not by any means revolutionary:
[H]ere’s the problem with [continuity] theory: In our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue.
This observation has been said elsewhere before by others. Including this blog.
Nevertheless, it is should be pointed out that for an invited speaker to get up at the GA and basically tell the continuity people that continuity is hollowed out as a galvanizing narrative and funding formula took a lot of chootspah.
And with that, continuity has now officially tipped, toppled over and broken. The continuity people should now be in need of another buzzword, slogan and brand.
May I nominate chootspah? It is topical, short and punchy – and can be branded with the following, compelling image:
We decided not to be the lead agency on a new study, but we haven’t ruled out partnering or sitting at the table with others who are leading a study under the right circumstances. NJPS was very useful for the Jewish community at large, but given limited resources we decided to focus on research that would directly benefit federations.
This is a shame because we will now miss out on all the LULZ! All the compiling of the data (ah, those riproarious evenings with SPSS… good times… good times), the endless arguments about what a “Jew” is for the purposes of the study, and then about nine years worth of subsequent squabbling about interpreting the data.
Why is this suddenly a subject of conversation while #Occupy movements across North America are undermining the very fabric of free market capitalism?! When the Netanyahu government is playing nuclear chicken with Iran and rochambeau with the Palestinians?!
I bring it up because more than 60 researchers and policy professionals gathered at Brandeis University last week to discuss how to study American Jews in a world without the NJPS.
How are we to understand this new post-NJPS reality? How should we interpret the lack of opportunity for interpretation? Does this mean that America’s Jews are in decline? (Cue ominous music.)
David Marker disagrees! He cites a 2010 Brandeis / Steinhardt Social Research Institute report that bean-counts 6.5 million American Jews. That’s up from the 5.2 million tallied in the much-disputed 2000 NJPS report.
But does quantity really matter? Leonard Saxe intimates a need for greater emphasis on measuring quality.
The religious and ethnic identity of American Jews is evolving and capturing a picture of this moving stream, though difficult, has profound implications for how we direct communal educational and cultural resources.
Saxe enumerates (read: bemoans) some of the “problematic trends apparent in the community,” such as an increasingly aging population without a ready cohort of younger Jews to assume the burden of commitment shlepped by their elders and the decline in giving to the dinosaur flagships organizations and institutions that defined the Jewish community in the twentieth century.
Saxe’s diagnosis on communal weakness, afflicting most the disengaged “younger Jews,” is nonetheless undermined by a number of developments he goes on to list: more opportunities for Jewish education, more engaged intermarried families, more Jewish start-ups, and yes, more Birthright!
So is the Jewish community ailing or booming?
It is a shame that there is no new NJPS study to serve as a lightning rod for this debate, but then again, it is a debate as old as the mountains of Gerizim and Eival. Or, from a different, generational perspective, not a debate at all.
I think Leonard Saxe is right. Researchers need to use different tools to understand the Jewish present. Jewishness today is radically different than that of our parents and grandparents. (See Part Three of End of the Jews, coming out in April 2012!) The demise of the NJPS and the (soon-to-be) demise of the big box institutions that used to anchor North American Jewry are only a handful of potent indicators that we need new tools and new places to use them.
According to Abigail Pickus, it’s Jewish camp! Cheaper than day schools (but not by much if you calculate cost per week) yet packs (almost) the same Jewish continuity punch… well, not exactly… although:
The [Foundation for Jewish Camp] plan also references recent studies in the Jewish world that show a direct link between Jewish summer camps and an increased involvement and commitment to Jewish life, practice and leadership roles within the Jewish world.
Strange though… as I made my way through the piece, I was waiting for Abigail Pickus to let us in on her institutional affiliation… as in was she an employee of the FJC? Her piece read like a press release from the Foundation… but apparently, NO. She writes for ejewishphilanthropy.com …
Nevertheless, every time I think of summer camp (and I do think of it sometimes with some wistfulness, longing and sexual frisson as I was a counsellor in Conover, WI @ Camp Ramah), I also recall the words of Donald Glover who said:
Jewish people love summer camp. They all went to the same summer camp. Which is weird, because if I was Jewish I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a camp.
Every two weeks, we look at and discuss a portion of the Tanakh from Genesis to 2 Chronicles.
It might take a while.
Please be patient.