Steven M. Cohen began life in Brooklyn as someone with a “strong Jewish ethnicity and nominally Orthodox affiliation.”
Today he defines himself as a “progressive Zionist” and a “moderately observant multi-denominational Jew.” Perhaps he would further define himself as being “in the middle,” a segment of the Jewish population he has most recently focused his research on.
Cohen, who has bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University, is a research professor of social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University. He is the author or coauthor of 12 books — including “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” and “Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences” — and several hundred articles on Judaism and Jewish issues.
He made aliyah in 1992 and divides his time between Jerusalem and New York City.
On Wednesday, March 7, Cohen will speak on his latest body of research, “The Shrinking Jewish Middle,” at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. He shared some of the ideas he will discuss with NJJN during a Feb. 15 phone call.
NJJN: What do you mean by the “shrinking Jewish middle?”
Cohen: It is the middle of the Jewish identity spectrum. It lies between the Orthodox on the Right and the “nominally Jewish” on the Left. The middle are Jews who are engaged Jews who are not Orthodox.
NJJN: Who are the ‘nominally Jewish’ on the Left?
Cohen: I am talking about ‘JINOmes,’ Jews-in-name-only. They identify as Jews and are proud to be Jewish, but they may not have a seder at Passover. They may not have Jewish friends or are not raising their children as Jews. The number of them is growing, as is the number of Orthodox. But the number of engaged non-Orthodox Jews is sharply declining.
NJJN: How do you define “engaged?”
Cohen: There are multiple ways: to feel Jewish, to have Jewish friends, to have Jewish practices at home, to be connected through Jewish organizational life either by giving or going to Jewish institutions — and there are fewer and fewer of them.
NJJN: What does the decline of the middle mean for the present and future of American Judaism?
Cohen: There are fewer Jews having Jewish lives and raising Jewish children. Fewer Jews who belong to synagogues. Fewer Jews who belong to support organizations. Fewer Jews who care about Israel. Fewer Jews who give charity to Jewish-sponsored causes. And fewer Jews who send their children to Jewish schools and camps. That is not the future; that is the present.
NJJN: Can you project that situation into the future?
Cohen: There will be fewer active Jews to be found as partners, spouses, and friends. There will be weaker Jewish institutions and a more attenuated relationship with Israel. We need to counter these things.
NJJN: So are you saying all of these trends are bad?
Cohen: I am a Jewish nationalist. I am not committed to one type of Jewish life. I would like to see many types of Jewish life.
NJJN: What is your remedy?
Cohen: We need more Jews involved in Jewish social networks with Jewish content. That translates into things like Jewish camps, travel to Israel, active Jewish life on campuses, innovative activities for Jewish adults, particularly on the Left. We need to create more opportunities and more permission for people to act out their progressive political commitments in a Jewish context. We need more investment in Jewish preschools and make those preschools a birthright for Jewish parents.
NJJN: Your litany of needs is something that has been stated and restated for many years. Is there anything new in what you are advocating?
Cohen: A big problem lies with people who can’t afford these opportunities and because they are less affluent are dissuaded from participating in a community that is heavily populated by affluent Jews. We have to make less affluent Jews socially comfortable.
NJJN: How can that be achieved?
Cohen: We should try to engage philanthropies in the grand mission of rebuilding the Jewish people.
NJJN: How much trouble do you see the Jewish people being in? Are they on the brink of doom?
Cohen: No. We are not talking about the extinction of Jewish life in America outside of Orthodoxy. We are talking about a decline.
NJJN: With more engaged Jews inside Orthodoxy and fewer engaged Jews outside Orthodoxy, will tensions be heightened between the two groups?
Cohen: No. With fewer Jews active, there will be less tension. But the absence of conflict indicates the absence of life. Conflict is the consequence of vitality.
NJJN: When you talk about being engaged as Jews, what does that mean?
Cohen: In Israel, you could be fighting against the occupation of the West Bank or fighting for its annexation — either way. It means supporting the resistance to Donald Trump as a Jew or supporting Donald Trump, as a Jew. It means studying Talmud or fighting for racial justice in America. I am talking about a vast diversity in Jewish life.
NJJN: Is Zionism a prerequisite to being a good Jew?
Cohen: No. There are no prerequisites to being a good Jew. The only prerequisite is being somehow engaged in a part of the Jewish menu.
NJJN: How do you feel about Jews who attend public schools and those who have friends, date people, and perhaps marry people who are Christian or Muslim or some other religion?
Cohen: It’s hard to have an engaged Jewish family if one head of the family is not interested in Jewish life. There are engaged intermarried Jewish families. We need more of them. But if both spouses bring Jewish backgrounds and history into the family, it makes the chances of engagement that much higher.