Jewish people have become polar opposites

Jewish people have become polar opposites

Sociologist to discuss ‘tensions,’ concerns for future, at Diamond Memorial Lecture

Steven M. Cohen. Photo by Marion Lev-Cohen
Steven M. Cohen. Photo by Marion Lev-Cohen

He may not have a crystal ball, but sociologist Steven M. Cohen is a go-to source on the present and future of Jewish peoplehood. 

Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, will deliver the Rabbi James S. Diamond Memorial Lecture on Thursday, Oct. 19 on the subject of “Polarization and Alienation in Jewish Life Today.” Dr. Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences and director of the Princeton University Center on Religion, will serve as respondent.

Speaking on the phone with NJJN from Israel, Cohen discussed the polarization between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, between conservatives and liberals, and between hawks and doves regarding Israeli politics. “There is more tension across these boundaries than there used to be, and they are overlapping,” he said, adding that people on both sides “have negative stereotypes of the other.”

One reality that may be feeding polarization between religious and secular Jews is a demographic shift that, over the next few decades, will increase the numbers of Orthodox Jews while decreasing those affiliated with liberal movements. 

Citing a Sept. 13 article in The Forward that Cohen cowrote with Mickey Gussow and Edieal Pinker, “Does Orthodox Explosion Signal Doom for Conservative and Reform?,” Cohen spoke about the “problematic age pyramid.” 

Based on the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of Jewish Americans, there are fewer Jews under age 50 than in the 50 to 69 age bracket, suggesting a “weakening of the Jewish middle” in coming years, according to Cohen. 

Data on the age distribution of Reform and Conservative Jews is startling: the number of 30- 39-year -olds in these liberal movements is about half that in the movements’ 50-59 or 60-69 age groups. 

Also feeding polarization is the huge growth in the Orthodox Jewish population, with 230,000 under age 9. 

The article predicts, “If current trends continue, then, in 30 years, we’ll see about half as many Conservative and Reform Jews age 60-69 as we have today.”

Cohen also addressed the decline in young family membership in Conservative and Reform congregations. “It’s not like temples are turning them off,” he said. “They are not present because of years of intermarriage, late marriage, and low fertility,” plus some liberal Jews remain single. 

Asked about the role of new, independent minyanim in drawing young, liberal Jews away from established congregations, Cohen said the demographic numbers are “very small.” “I wish they were larger. They are culturally significant but not demographically significant.” 

Turning to the polarization among Jews regarding Israel, Cohen cites intermarriage and politics as critical components. 

Jews with a non-Jewish parent or spouse “are much less connected to Jewish life and especially to Israel,” he said. “If there is intermarriage in the family, the presence of non-Jews brings about or indicates a conception of being Jewish that has little place for the concept of Israel because there is no parallel in the larger culture.” Christians, he explained, do not have a connection to a national homeland with a diaspora as central to their identity. 

Regarding divergent viewpoints on Israel, Cohen said perpetuating the polarization depends on “what the center of the Israeli public will do — continue to lean right or allow for a more liberal political policy to take hold.” If it leans right, he said, “liberal American Jews will find Israel illiberal and inconsistent with their values.”

Cohen’s lecture is in memory of Rabbi James S. Diamond, the former director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, who was killed in March 2013 when a speeding driver lost control of his vehicle on a residential street in Princeton. The Center for Jewish Life and the university’s Program in Judaic Studies are cosponsoring the program.

Cohen grew up in Brooklyn and attended Columbia University where he studied as an undergraduate and earned a doctorate in sociology in 1974. He was a Zionist activist and member of Beit Ephraim, or the Bayit, a pluralistic Jewish community of Columbia students founded in 1972. 

He taught at Queens College until 1992, when he and his wife, Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen, made aliyah, and he joined the faculty at Hebrew University. (Lev-Cohen is the director of community support and Israel engagement initiatives at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.) In 2005 Cohen was named research professor at HUC-JIR. His books include “Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experience” (with Charles S. Liebman, Yale University Press, 1990) and “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America” (with Arnold M. Eisen, Indiana University Press, 2000). 

The interweaving of polarizations around denomination, Israel, and political affiliation, Cohen suggested, is why some Jews are separating from the Jewish community at large. 

“The Jewish establishment is religious, conservative, and hawkish on Israel, and that alienates people who are secular, liberal, and dovish on Israel,” he said. “And they tend to absent themselves from traditional Jewish life.”

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