Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

From a policy point of view, the maintenance of the Jewish middle is highly desirable and its shrinkage is a highly deleterious development. The Jewish middle constitutes the “glue” that holds together the two poles of the Jewish community, the highly committed pole (mostly Orthodox), whose social and cultural life takes place very strongly in exclusively Jewish circles, and the highly assimilated, intermarried pole, whose Jewish values are indistinguishable from general American ones.

This last point is highlighted by the Map. What is important about this Map is not really the division of the space into three regions, but rather the spectrum it represents. What we really have here is a rich continuous spectrum or continuum moving from highly differentiated Jewish practices, which make up a very substantial part of social life, to barely differentiated Jewish practices, which are marginal to one’s social life. One of the key characteristics of American Jewish life is precisely this “thick” fabric of the continuum. Between Orthodox and non-denominational Jews, various Jews occupy all places along the continuum. As one moves along the spectrum, the differences are small and sometimes non-perceptible (ultra-Orthodox – Orthodox-Modern Orthodox – Liberal Orthodox – traditional Conservative – mainstream Conservative – progressive Conservative – tradition-oriented Reform etc.). This contributes to the feeling that despite the great diversity of Jews in the United States, it is one community. Even people at the extremes (whether very Jewish/Orthodox, or not very Jewish/non-denominational) generally know someone further down the spectrum who knows people at the opposite end.

One of the dangers of the shrinking American Jewish “middle” is that the two ends of the spectrum will have fewer interconnecting middle parts, the glue between both ends. Thus, as the middle shrinks, American Jewry runs the risk that it will actually rupture and divide into two camps: a well integrated and “assimilated” sector, which is oriented toward the practices and interactions of general American society and retains those Jewish discourses and interactions that totally fit with them, and an Orthodox sector that maintains highly differentiated Jewish interactions and practices as a substantial part of their social life. Without a middle sector that mediates between these two extremes, ne’er the twain shall meet.

In policy terms as well, the “middle” is desirable. Contemporary Jewish policy and influence depends upon two factors: Jewish identification and commitment and having the financial, status and professional resources to have influence, that is to affect outcomes. Such financial, status and professional resources depend upon integration into the general society. The Orthodox have commitment and affiliation, but the ultra-Orthodox, who constitute two thirds of this population, have relatively low incomes, education, and professional attainment. The intermarried assimilated wing does have high incomes, education, and professional attainment, but their Jewish commitment and affiliation is low. Until now it has been the Jewish middle that maintained both Jewish commitment and affiliation and financial, status and professional resources. Its shrinkage is highly undesirable, and policy interventions to stem and/or reverse it are essential.