Opinion

How Privileged White Leaders Frame What We Know About Jews in America

The U.S. Jewish future is surveyed and budgeted to fit the biases of married, shul-going, Ashkenazi, heterosexual, Israel-supporting men: We still know next-to-nothing about the 'real' Jewish America. This is why it matters

The Park East Synagogue, Manhattan. February 19, 2015
Spencer Platt / Getty Images / A

You might have thought every ounce of insight had already been extracted, but no: five years after the once-in-a-generation survey of American Jewish life, the Pew Center Portrait of Jewish Americans, its data is still being parsed and its consequences played out. 

And this is why you should care: How that survey is interpreted, and how future surveys are constructed, will affect the organization, funding and character of untold aspects of Jewish life in America for years to come.

You should also care because this is part of an ongoing conflict over who gets to define Jewish identity in America today - a debate in which you have a stake.

The Pew survey was, in many ways, already anachronistic when it was produced. It was written for an imagined 20th century American Jewish community, one largely homogenous and with little to mark it off from America at large save for differences based on religious preference.

Pew's questions, and thus its data, had a sustained weakness on other aspects of communal life, such as race, language, and, especially, culture and the multiplicity of Jewish cultures today. Those omissions obscure some of the most important aspects of 21st century Jewish life. And American Jewish leaders are only just now starting to catch up to the gulf between survey and reality. 

One of those is JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, who spoke to yet another Pew related gathering a few weeks ago. Eisen suggested new ways of thinking about our relationship to worship and religion and about contemporary Jewish identity. 

Happily, the intermarriage scaremongering so prevalent in discussions about U.S. Jewish life is absent from Eisen's agenda. Unfortunately, so are diversity, inclusion, and literacy. 

Nor does he acknowledge how the survey itself fails to provide the data that could support these emerging issues. 

Group of women putting Tefillin on at the Western Wall.
Sebastian Scheiner

As perhaps everyone knows by now, the Pew findings that captured most of the headlines in 2013, and beyond, were related to intermarriage rates. Compared to the previous two demographic surveys in 1990 and 2000, the intermarriage rate had increased, to something like 58% of all marriages, and 71% of non-Orthodox marriages. 

The survey included other shocking numbers, including the 48% of American Jews who didn’t know the alef-bet and scant 13% who could read all or most Hebrew words.

Yet it was intermarriage which was termed a crisis, even though rates of intermarriage had been climbing precipitously in surveys and estimates going back to 1965 while Hebrew illiteracy is a serious stumbling block for most basic ritual competency, access to 2000 years of traditional texts and exposure to modern Israeli culture.

>> How the Jewish-American Elite Has Manufactured the Intermarriage 'Crisis' | Opinion >> A Shul for Secular Jews in America | Opinion >>

But the problem with the Pew study goes far beyond which number we deem a ‘crisis.’ Indeed, crises may be a useful way to organize and legitimize leadership, but they don’t do much in terms of providing insight or new paradigms for inquiry. 

It’s not surprising that there has been little attention to what the survey doesn’t say, given the shock of the data it did provide. The lack of reflection on the survey itself, its inherent limitations, flaws, and biases, mirrors the crucial lack of self-reflection among American Jewish leaders. 

Our legacy Jewish leadership - largely male, white, Ashkenazi, strongly Israel-identified - can no longer assume it is merely a mirror of those they look to serve. They may not be capable of conceiving other ways of being or identifying as Jewish than those outside their bubble. And Pew provides little to no data on the diversity of American Jews and gives them no prompt for reflection. 

Further, the survey reflects the focus of its consultants. Data on intermarriage is abundant and analyzed extensively, reflecting the concerns of Pew consultants like Steven M. Cohen, who has often framed intermarriage as the existential crisis facing the Jewish people.  

Sumud: Freedom Camp in the West Bank, 19 May 2017
Gili Getz

The survey does have a section on race, telling us 94% of American Jews identify as white (non-Hispanic). Considering the vigorous conversation happening right now around race, whiteness and the inclusion of Jews of color, the survey totally fails to give us anything beyond the 7% of Jews identifying as non-white. Were any Jews of color asked to consult on the survey? How might they have constructed questions on Jews and race? 

Questions of Jews and race are thorny for many reasons. For one thing, "race" as a social construct extends farther back in time than our present American black-white binary. 

And from the inside, Jews have their own classifications which are not quite racial, not quite ethnic, not quite nationality based. Surprisingly, the Survey does not contain one question on identifiers like "Ashkenazi," "Mizrahi" or "Sephardi." (The list could be much longer, but you get the idea.)

Eisen does seem to be aware of Pew's problems, even if he references them obliquely. His first point is that we must, "recognize that yes/no questions about belief in God and measures of attendance at synagogues or seders will not get at the important question."

Indeed, yes/no questions about belief and synagogue attendance reflect the biases of a deracinated, synagogue-oriented 20th century American Judaism and its movement-focused leadership. Even if the numbers come out "bad" for that leadership, the construction of the survey still places them at the center of Jewish life, further reinforcing an outdated conception of American Jewish life.

A Jewish man watches voting results come in at Hillary Clinton's election night event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York City, U.S., November 8, 2016.
Win McNamee, AFP

Perhaps Eisen’s most crucial point is that, "It is no surprise that most of the Jews who identify Judaism as their religion say that religion is not the primary element in their Jewishness. It is intermixed with family, tradition, community, history and so much more." 

Eisen is referencing the statistic that 85% of respondents said that being Jewish implicated a mix of religion, ancestry and culture. And yet, as he himself seems to point out, the survey is hampered by a focus on questions about "belief" and synagogue attendance in a population for whom belief and synagogue attendance are, if not irrelevant, perhaps beside the point. 

What might culture and ancestry actually mean? If it means heritage languages like Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic and more we’ll never know, because the only language question in the survey is about Hebrew.

Culture and ancestry aren’t just added value, for the vast majority of American Jews, they are core ways of experiencing Jewishness, a truth utterly irrelevant to the designers of Pew's poll. That should shock all of us.

Surveys like the Pew Center Portrait, large demographic samples looking for big picture information, are by their nature not ethnographic or anthropological studies. They cannot give us the rich narrative contours of contemporary Jewish life that many of us would like to see. 

Nonetheless, there are many concrete ways future surveys can be improved to give us data on the "real" Jewish America. One of the most important conversations happening today is around inclusivity and how the mainstream Jewish community excludes or alienates demographics like the non-white, non in-married, single, non-heterosexual, non-Israel identified, and non-synagogue affiliated. 

That conversation can be strengthened and amplified with data, and that in turn can help us build more inclusive and dynamic institutions and organizations. But it will take a leadership truly committed to uncomfortable self-reflection, and diversity, to get us there.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a cultural critic and playwright, the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. She writes on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life as a blogger and columnist. Twitter: @RokhlK