If American Jewry wants to retain its identity and curb intermarriage among the non-Orthodox, it needs to redefine the social network for young Jewish singles living in the city, argues Steven M. Cohen, a well-known professor of sociology.
“People marry people in their same social network and we can help young Jewish people connect,” Cohen told a few hundred individuals gathered at Gratz College in Melrose Park on Nov. 21.
The American Jewish community has been left reeling following the release of the recent Pew Survey on American Jewry, which found that the current intermarriage rate is 58 percent overall and 72 percent among the non-Orthodox.
Some communal leaders have been quick to douse the concerns raised by the numbers, often citing the fact that assimilation is not a “new problem” for Jews. Cohen, though, made clear he believes there’s a real reason for concern.
“I find it bizarre that people say, ‘We’ve lost Jews for centuries.’ What good does that do? It doesn’t make me feel better,” he added.
Pointing to low affiliation numbers, Cohen noted that the synagogue, historically the Jewish social hub, is no longer the place to reach Jews in the young professional phase of their lives.
Synagogues are now “primarily the domains of people who have children or have had children. We need other ways of building community among younger, largely single people.”
The challenge is finding where young people are and adapting Jewish life to meet this new audience, said Cohen, who teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University.
The sociologist, who served as an adviser on the Pew study, put forth an educated guess on where and how to find these young Jews — go to the Internet.
“Social media are critical these days. In fact, we ought to establish a national or global social media laboratory that can devise more and better software and apps to further connect young, and not so young, Jews to one another,” Cohen said.
Other obvious targets are the universities.
Since some universities have larger Jewish populations than others, Cohen said that it would be worthwhile to convince young Jews to attend these schools. This would also allow Jewish professionals — Hillels staffers, for example — to focus their energy and efforts on a smaller number of campuses.
Noting the success of Chabad in reaching college-aged individuals, Cohen emphasized the importance of creating a non-Orthodox option to get young single Jews to meet one another.
“If we don’t do it today, Chabad will do it tomorrow,” Cohen said, making reference to Chabad’s vast financial support.
The Jewish community should be targeting young professionals with fun events like film festivals, music concerts and perhaps the promotion of sponsored Friday night dinners, but there also needs to be an effort to reach young individuals even earlier in the process.
“We know that sending children to youth groups, summer camps and on trips to Israel works,” Cohen said. “These little acts will have dramatic effects years later.”
The audience’s response to Cohen’s proposed solutions was a mixed bag.
Jared Jackson, a 30-year-old child of intermarriage who considers himself an unaffiliated Jew, is a representative of those who argue that the situation is not as dire as the survey says.
“A lot of Cohen’s lecture seemed to be fire and brimstone. I meet more and more people every day who are interested in their Jewish identity and heritage, and find themselves coming back to Judaism,” said Jackson, who is executive director and founder of Jews In All Hues, an organization that supports and advocates for dual-heri-
tage Jews and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” the institutional/societal constructed definitions of “Who is a Jew?”
Jackson noted that one problem with sending children to Jewish summer camps, youth groups and trips to Israel is that many young parents don’t have the necessary funds.
“If you want to provide quality Jewish education, maybe the price needs to go down,” he said. “The higher the price, the higher the price you pay further on.”
Lorraine Linder, 80, who calls herself a secular Jew, served as a director for Jewish camps involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and expressed her belief in the importance of such organizations.
“It was great to get together to bake challahs in your own bunk, to dress in white on Friday nights, for the kids themselves to create their own services and learn about values that were important to them,” Linder said.
She added that she intends to continue supporting groups working to build a Jewish infrastructure for the younger generation.
At the end of his lecture, Cohen said that he hoped his speech would encourage people to step forward and help fund institutions and events geared toward young Jewish professionals.
“The situation is really grim and dire,” Cohen said, “but we have the ability to change the situation individually and as a community — for now and for the future.”