Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

In this chapter we continued to examine the state of Jewish identity in American today. We saw that despite the demographic growth in America’s Jews – a quantitative advance – the qualitative view of things is less rosy. Some of the advance in Jewish identification occurred in populations that while willing to identify as Jewish and proud to be such, have weak Jewish commitments and affiliations. Other growing populations, such as the ultra-Orthodox, though heavily Jewishly committed, lack the resources to have an impact on the general society. More worryingly, those populations, such as Conservative Jews, who simultaneously maintain strong Jewish identification with active and successful involvement in general American life seem to be shrinking. This shrinking of the central backbone of American Jewish life, or the Jewish “middle” – between the Orthodox and the assimilated – runs the risk of increasing polarization and, indeed, attenuating communication and solidarity between the Orthodox and assimilated poles.

There are two current strategies for countering these trends. The first of these is based upon solid social scientific evidence that Jewish education and participation in Jewish social networks promote Jewish identity, Jewish families, and the raising of Jewish children. It advocates that the organized Jewish community expand Jewish education and Jewish social network construction in order to increase early marriage to Jews and the bearing and raising of Jewish children. Though this approach advocates pro-natalist and pro-family orientations, which seem to be counter-cultural, it holds up as a model “Partnership Marriages,” which are not gender-stereotyped, and which combine family orientations with those of individual fulfillment. In order for this approach to work, funding barriers must be overcome in order to make Jewish education and identity enrichment programs accessible to broader segments of the Jewish population. (See chapter on Material Resources.)

The second response is that of Chabad outreach. This seems to be congruent with the prevalent individualist milieu and its attendant orientation of symbolic ethnicity. Chabad experiences provide many Jews, including “borderland” Jews, episodic “capsules of Jewish meaning” without demanding arduous commitment or active membership in a Jewish organization. Nevertheless, further research is required in order to more fully understand the effectiveness of Chabad outreach for longer term Jewish engagement (though there is some evidence participation in Chabad experiences promote this) and especially, whether and how non-Chabad Jewish organizations might employ its approaches and strategies.

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