It's been 10 days since the Pew report on the state of American Jewry and I can't help but wonder: has anyone changed his mind based on this vast new pool of data? Has anyone admitted to having been wrong? Has anyone chosen to abandon debunked beliefs? Has anyone learned anything except that his beliefs were right all along? Is anyone ready to admit that his recipe for a thriving Jewish America was probably flawed?
Having read the Pew study twice and then some, having read many dozens of articles analyzing it, responding to it, commenting on it, I’ve yet to see its impact on the way people view the Jewish community. I’ve yet to see a mea culpa, I've yet to see a high-level mugged-by-reality confession. Imagine that: the Pew study has enough material for everyone to be able to reaffirm their previous beliefs.
It is almost as if the study never happened. “There is certainly cause for renewed concern about the Jewish future in this country”, wrote JTS’ Arnie Eisen. Oh, really? The Forward’s J.J Goldberg found, in the same study, “a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected”. Here’s one of those ever-optimistic fellows: “Pew’s findings allow us to reject the bleak narrative of Jewish life that has dominated communal discourse”, wrote Prof. Len Saxe. And yet, reading the exact same numbers, Jonathan Tobin of Commentary concluded that “if these trends continue or worsen, Jewish life and Judaism will not die in America. But it will be smaller, less diverse, and be increasingly unable to support the institutions that have been built here”.
There are many typical responses to the Pew study:
Celebration: we are proud and diverse; we are politically engaged and highly moral; we are growing in numbers and feel at home in America. What’s not to celebrate?
This is the type of response you’d find mostly among Reform, young, liberal, Jews.
Mourning: we are a borderline extinct species, intermarrying in droves, drifting away from religion, losing the young, unable to foster identity in the next generation, unable to rejuvenate our institutions, unable to breed. What’s there to celebrate?
This one is common among older, devout, Conservative Jews.
Denial: the study wasn’t done right; the selection of interviewees was based on false premises; the comparisons to previous studies were bogus; we need to expand/narrow the definition of “Jewish”; we have to have more studies.
This response is common among Jewish smart asses (namely, the entire community).
Gloating: we told you this wasn’t going to work; we told you there’s a need for more/less outreach; we told you that Orthodoxy/Aliya/Birthright /you name it is the only answer. You weren’t listening and this is the result.
You find this mainly among the Orthodox, and especially Orthodox Israelis.
Condescending\Repressing: study? What study? The Jewish people have survived for three millennia without studies. Let us just do our thing. We don’t really care for studies.
That would be the typical response of a Chabad rabbi.
Forward looking: Have you read the study? So here’s what we need to do…
This is a typical response among Jewish professionals, and you wouldn't be surprised to discover that what we “need to do” largely depends on what the professional has been doing all along.
Maybe such responses to a study of such magnitude are inevitable. Changing one's mind is a process- coming to terms with reality is a process. It doesn’t happen after the publication of one study. It doesn’t happen within a week. And of course, all the above-mentioned commentators are smart and thoughtful, and all of them have reasonable claims to make based on the study. Yet one has to wonder: if all such studies can do is to merely strengthen previously held beliefs - who needs them? If the community can’t look collectively at this study (the key is doing it collectively) and agree on at least one or two main implications of it – then what’s the point?