Jewish Journal


July 11, 2012

The Rosner-Cohen ‎Exchange Part I: So, how many Jewish people are there exactly?‎



This is the first part in a dialogue with Prof. Steven Cohen, following the ‎publication of the New York Community study. We will be discussing many ‎issues over the next couple of weeks, and readers are more than welcome to ‎weigh in, send questions or comments, and take part in this conversation about ‎Jewish life in America today.

Rosner asks Cohen: So, how many Jewish people are there exactly?

Dear Steven, ‎

A couple years ago, you made a name for yourself by provoking the Jewish ‎world to consider the possibility of a growing divide between two Jewish ‎people, the in-married and the intermarried (see: A Tale of Two Jewries). ‎Not that you didn’t have a name before this much talked-about study, but ‎the provocation was noted, debated, criticized. Of course, no consensus was ‎ever reached on the matter – yet consensus is hardly a Jewish value. ‎However, your description of the matter stuck and is still quoted in articles ‎and discussions. ‎

Enter the latest New York Jewish community study (that you wrote together ‎with Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller) with its many details, and it seems to me ‎that a new Jewish divide should be considered. Yes, the study still points to ‎the many differences in Jewish practice and beliefs between the in-married ‎and the intermarried. However, to me the most notable gap manifesting ‎itself in this study is a much more tangible gap - one that is dividing the New ‎York Jewish community, but is also dividing the Israeli Jewish community. ‎Hence, this is the real significant Jewish divide of our time.‎

If you haven’t yet understood where I’m going, permit me to provide some ‎detail:‎

One the one side - the progressive and secular Jewish world with its many ‎components: A community that isn’t always much connected to Jewish ‎identity and practice, but is educated, affluent and quite successful, ‎economically speaking. They have less by way of daily Jewish life, but more ‎resources with which to make Judaism available for all.‎

On the other side - the Orthodox Jewish world: Fast growing, vibrant and ‎highly affiliated, Jewishly educated, well-connected to Israel, with a very ‎low rate of assimilation and very high number of children. And it is ‎relatively poor. The more they are affiliated, the less they have the resources ‎with which to support the high cost of Jewish life.‎

Can this divide be bridged? Can we find a way to somehow overcome the ‎seeming contradiction between affiliation and financial resources? ‎

I’m not sure this description of your findings holds any water. But it’s a way ‎for me to start this ongoing discussion by talking about the parts of the ‎study that seemed to disappear from the public’s view faster than others - ‎those dealing with poverty among New York’s Jews. I’m trying to create a ‎real discussion about the seeming connection between Orthodoxy and ‎poverty.‎

So I’m turning it over to you…‎


Dear Shmuel,‎

Many thanks for providing this opportunity for examining some of the ‎implications of the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, that I was ‎very pleased to co-author along with Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller.‎

Your call to focus on the divide and differences between Orthodox and non-‎Orthodox Jews is, indeed, well-placed. As our study amply demonstrates – ‎and as your comment underscores – Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews differ ‎on so many dimensions of Jewish engagement, demographic patterns, and ‎worldviews. ‎

But I think it would be a mistake to ignore another critical divide (as maybe ‎you are suggesting) among the non-Orthodox: that distinguishing the ‎intermarried or the children of the intermarried from the majority of non-‎Orthodox Jews who are the children of two Jewish parents and are either non-‎married or in-married. In other words, rather than divide the world into two ‎‎(either Orthodox/non-Orthodox OR in-married/intermarried), I prefer to ‎divide the world into three (Orthodox, in-married or unmixed ancestry non-‎Orthodox, intermarried and mixed ancestry). The differences across these ‎boundaries are real, even as the groups do bleed into each other.‎

For example, how wide, in fact, is the difference between the Modern Orthodox ‎parent of a Ramaz Yeshiva student, and the Sabbath-observant parent of a ‎Schechter day school student? Or, for that matter, who is likely to be more ‎engaged in Jewish life: the non-married Reform-identifying young adult or ‎his/her intermarried parents who belong to a thriving Reform temple? In short, ‎the divides I (and you) are suggesting do make sense, but they need to be ‎qualified with a consciousness of their imprecision and fluidity.‎

In fact, each of the three camps I’m suggesting itself may be divided in two. ‎Among the Orthodox, we found incredibly large differences between the ‎Modern Orthodox and the Haredim, especially with respect to participating in ‎the larger Jewish community. Among the in-married non-Orthodox, we found ‎substantial differences between Conservative and Reform Jews, especially if ‎affiliated, countering the widely held notion that the two venerable ‎denominations are no longer meaningful. And among the intermarried ‎population (be it by ancestry or current circumstance), Jews divide ‎significantly between those who see Judaism as their religion and those who do ‎not.‎

In short, Orthodox/non-Orthodox obscures and distorts reality too much. It ‎leads you to obliquely characterize the non-Orthodox Jewish world as ‎‎“progressive and secular,” and to speak of the Jewish community within it in ‎the following way: “A community that isn’t always much connected to Jewish ‎identity and practice.” The data that Jack, Ron and I analyzed in depth say ‎otherwise. The (non-Orthodox) Jewish community – those who are engaged in ‎Jewish life but do not identify as Orthodox – is very much “connected to ‎Jewish identity and practice,” sometimes “progressive,” and does not see itself ‎very much as “secular.” ‎

In short, the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide, when unqualified, leads even ‎some very smart, sympathetic and experienced observers in Jewish life in the ‎United States to downwardly biased assessment of Jewish life and vitality ‎among the non-Orthodox.‎

This leads me to my last point. As much as I value the focus on the ‎demographic issues of in-marriage and birthrates for analytic and policy ‎purposes, I believe we need to see Jewish demography and Jewish communal ‎vitality as related but distinct dimensions. As important as is population ‎growth/decline, it is not the total measure of cultural, communal, and spiritual ‎success (or failure). From a policy point of view, we cannot assume that ‎inspiring communities automatically promote in-marriage, high birthrates, and ‎Jews (or non-Jews) choosing Jewish engagement. Just as we need policies and ‎practices that strengthen Jewish communities and life, so too do we need ‎SEPARATE policies and practices that improve the likelihood of Jews ‎marrying Jews, Jews parenting Jews, as well as Jews and non-Jews engaging in ‎Jewish life. ‎

In short, we need to think of at least three population segments, not two; and ‎two sets of policies, not one. The Orthodox, in-married, and intermarried merit ‎our distinctive attention. So to does Jewish vitality and Jewish demography. ‎

‎(Last, I need to note, that the views I expressed above are my own, and ought ‎not be attributed to the UJA-Federation of New York, the sponsor of the ‎study, or to Dr. Jacob Ukeles and Prof. Ron Miller, the two other authors.)‎

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