Amer­i­can Jew­ry’s Com­fort Lev­el: Present and Future

Man­fred Ger­sten­feld and Steven Bayme, eds.
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
This is a com­pre­hen­sive and well-craft­ed col­lec­tion of essays and inter­views on major items on the Jew­ish com­mu­nal agen­da, such as fam­i­ly pat­terns, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, inter­mar­riage, edu­ca­tion, region­al dif­fer­ences, changes in the denom­i­na­tion­al mix, and Birthright Israel. The edi­tors, authors, and inter­vie­wees — includ­ing Steven Cohen, Sylvia Barack Fish­man, Arnold Eisen, and Chaim Wax­man — are well-respect­ed.

As I read the book and not­ed some of the bias­es and gaps, how­ev­er, I won­dered whose com­fort lev­el was being dis­cussed. Sure­ly the authors and edi­tors feel com­fort­able address­ing some sub­jects but over­look­ing oth­ers. For exam­ple, arti­cle after arti­cle includes what is by now a para­dox­i­cal mes­sage: a pref­er­ence for endogamy but accep­tance and tol­er­ance of inter­mar­riage. While pre­sent­ing com­pelling sta­tis­tics of low rates of Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity among the chil­dren of the inter­mar­ried, sev­er­al authors are also hope­ful that young peo­ple can be attract­ed to a reli­gion that in many (if not most) cas­es did not mean a great deal to their par­ents. What evi­dence is there that this has occurred? Per­haps this is a case of hop­ing that sym­bol­ic eth­nic­i­ty is more than it is.

While inter­mar­riage is dis­cussed exten­sive­ly, the book hard­ly men­tions an impor­tant force in Jew­ish life: Chabad, whose efforts are reach­ing thou­sands of peo­ple of all ages. What is its impact? The book also over­looks the baal tshu­va move­ment, which is one fac­tor, along with a high­er birth rate, that has con­tributed to a dou­bling in the pro­por­tion of Jews who are Ortho­dox. I would also have liked to learn about the impli­ca­tions of the fact that a grow­ing pro­por­tion of Jew­ish chil­dren are being raised in Ortho­dox homes.

Many trends in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty mim­ic pat­terns in the larg­er soci­ety: inter­mar­riage, increas­ing polar­iza­tion of the reli­gious­ly com­mit­ted and the sec­u­lar, and the trend toward spir­i­tu­al­i­ty rather than orga­nized par­tic­i­pa­to­ry reli­gion are tak­ing place among all reli­gious groups. These sim­i­lar­i­ties, and their pol­i­cy impli­ca­tions, mer­it seri­ous dis­cus­sion.

As a guide to what is cur­rent­ly under dis­cus­sion, this is a fine book. How­ev­er, at a time where there is frag­men­ta­tion, polar­iza­tion, and grow­ing atten­u­a­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, there may also be a need to go beyond the com­fort lev­el and think out­side the box.
Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions