Ethnicity, Geography and Jewish Community

by Sherry Israel

From The Reconstructionist, Spring 1995
Reprinted with permission.

In any discussion of community and contemporary American Jewry, it is essential that we pay attention to the wide context in which we live. Too often, we seem to forget that the complex realities of Jewish life today did not arise in a vacuum, that we are profoundly influenced by the currents of modern American culture.

Twenty years ago, Daniel Elazar characterized the American Jewish community as a series of concentric circles of participation, ranging from the “Integrals” at the center (those for whom Jewishness is the central factor of their lives, whether as religion, nationalism, or involvement in Jewish affairs) all the way out to “Peripherals,” “Repudiators,” and “Quasi-Jews.” In this voluntary society, boundaries between categories are fluid, with considerable movement in and out of the categories. More to the point, he noted that “what characterizes a society composed of concentric circles is precisely the fact that there are no [imposed] boundaries; what holds people within it is the pull of its central core.”

Elazar likened the action of that core to a magnet. How strongly the magnet can maintain the system, can pull individuals in toward the core of Jewish participation, depends on the magnetic strength of the core itself and on the degree of the “iron filings of Judaism” in each individual. What Elazar did not much discuss was the competing forces pulling individuals away from the core, but even as he wrote, these were intensifying.

For most of the twentieth century, America’s Jews concentrated on becoming Americans. It was a Jew, after all — Israel Zangwill — whose play “The Melting Pot” introduced that term into the vocabulary of American ethnic discussion. Our parents and grandparents, and the institutions of the Jewish community devoted to helping them learn the ways of America life, did not worry much about also staying Jewish. That was a given, enforced by the ethnic divisions and religious separation taken for granted by the rest of America. There may not have been any formal external boundaries, but there were strong exit barriers.

By now, we have succeeded terrifically in becoming Americanized. At the same time, the externally-imposed walls of separation have come down completely. What of community under these circumstances?

Ethnic Options

What we must take not of is that the walls have come down not just for Jews, but for white Americans in general. In 1990, Mary Waters published a fascinating book about the changing patterns of ethnicity in America. It is a study of the patterns of transmission and expression of ethnic identity among white Americans today. To be blunt, if the Italians of Irish or Scotch were Jews, they would be wailing about Italian or Irish or Scottish continuity. The weakening of communal ties, in the form of group distinctiveness, is not just a Jewish phenomenon.

The title of Waters’ book, Ethnic Options, should strike us as ironic. How can ethnicity be an option? Isn’t it a given, like the year you were born? The short answer is, no. Using data from the 1980 US census question on ethnic ancestry and following up with extensive personal interviews, Waters found that today’s Americans of white, European ancestry pick and choose their ethnic identities — taking on, giving up, combining. The operative principle is personal preference, not inheritance.

Here is the flavor:

Q. 1What about your husband’s ancestry?’

A. “He would have answered Russian Jew and English and Scottish on the census form. He really likes his Russian Jew part. We have a mezuzah on the front door. He converted to Catholicism when he married me. He grew up with his mother, and she was Baptist, so he was kind of raised in that tradition. But he likes his Russian Jew part more, he feels closer to being catholic, and that part goes together more. They are kind of similar.

I won’t go into the details here, but as this excerpt suggests, religion has also participated in this transformation, with individual choice now very much the norm.

Waters’ respondents did not disavow their ethnicity. They wanted to have an ethnic identity. But it is identity without obligations. It functions in what I would call a decorative way. It gives a sense of belonging to something besides the great mass American culture, but in a way that does not violate the principle of individual choice. The cultural practices associated with this new kind of ethnicity are selective, intermittent, and largely, symbolic. They make little claim on the person’s basic American life style.

We can hear in these words the echo of Marshal Sklare’s work on the Jews of Lakeville in the 1950’s, who chose to maintain the forms of Jewish expression that were capable of redefinition in modern terms, not demanding of social isolation, and intermittent (and also child-centered). Jews are now, and then, reflecting the larger trends of American culture. And any responses we make must reckon with this reality.

Weakened Bonds

The trend to symbolic, or, as I prefer to think of it, decorative ethnicity, already visible in the Jewish life of the 50’s, is even clearer now. In response to a question in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey about how they define being Jewish, more Jews said the meaning of being Jewish in America is “ethnic” or “cultural” than agreed to “religious.” Subsequent analyses of the NJPS data by age cohorts show that the “cultural” label is even stronger for the younger groups. “Culture” provides a much more open, less binding parameter for defining a group than does religion, or even ethnicity. The bond it offers is not mutually exclusive. In this respect, these Jews are just like Waters’ respondents. This is a new kind of ethnicity — not the kind that emphasizes the separation between Jews and non-Jews, but one having to do with cultural variety.

We know what follows. Given this approach to ethnicity, intermarriage is not a rejection of one’s original heritage. It is just the meeting of two individuals, who can make a perfectly compatible home involving the blending of their respective cultural heritages. Indeed, they now have a wider playing field, more lovely customs and ideas from which to choose.

They can keep being Catholic, and Scottish . . . and Russian Jewish.

Ethnic borrowing and recombination are not what happens only to Jews raised by Baptists. We served East African groundnut stew in our sukkah this year, and Thai noodles at last Shabbat lunch. For us, they were just interesting food. But it is the young man at Kripalu who chants Buddhist mantras regularly, but calls himself a Jew, also just borrowing? The line between the incorporation of elements from others’ heritages and the blurring of one’s own identity is not always so clear.

Jewish ethnicity in this new American version gives us Jews who feel themselves part of the community but who cannot distinguish between attitudes, activities and rituals that are Jewishly grounded and those that are not — and who do not even know they are failing to make such distinctions; and Jews who slide imperceptibly out of the Jewish and into the majority community, or whose children do. If the Jewishness of large numbers of our Jewish people (whose religious civilization define Judaism) is merely decorative, I submit that we have a problem.

Core and Periphery Today

So the forces operating against the magnetic pull of the core have increased. What of the core itself? Here, there is countervailing good news. As I read it, all the evidence suggest that we have a very vital core these days. It comprises some 20 to 25% of Jews who are deeply involved in some variety of Jewish life, usually religiously, but in other ways as well., These are our current “Integral Jews” and “Participants.” They include the readers of this journal. In this core, Jewish life is thriving, and there is, as Elazar submits, a magnetic effect. But the survival of a viable Jewish community must also include the other 75 to 80%. Is it possible, given the new facts of American ethnicity?

There is a piece of Waters’ work that may be helpful here. Some cultural markers of identity seem to have special appeal — especially language, food, life cycle celebrations, and some values. And there is particular susceptibility to engaging in ethnic choice at times of the threshold life- cycle events. I suggest that all of these represent opportunities, all of very different sorts. They fit the American pattern, so we can use them, and they can be entry points for connecting Jews more authentically to Jewishness.

There is another piece of information we need to pay attention to, one that is also working to weaken the sense of actuality of Jewish community: the break-up of Jewish population concentrations. America’s Jews are increasingly mobile. They have been leaving the cities of the Northeast and the Midwest for the Sunbelt, moving away from families, kin, and early friends. They are also scattering, leaving the cities for the far suburbs and what Elazar has dubbed “rurban” American. When they arrive where they are going, they are likely to live far apart from other Jews. The organic Jewish neighborhood which can serve as a source of Jewish awareness, values, and connections — that is, as a grounds for Jewish cohesion — is as far from the experience of most Jews today as the shtetlach of Eastern Europe.

What we now have instead is Jews who are all over the place, religiously, culturally, ethnically, and geographically. Most Jews now live low-density Jewish lives.

The Institution Aspect of Community

Up until now, I have been using the term “community” in its social-psychological or affective sense, referring to groups of people connected by interpersonal bonds and shared perspectives. But “Jewish community” has another set of meanings. It refers not just to people, but also to the complex of organizations that represent, serve, and offer avenues of participation to those people. The ability of these organizations to do their job well is another factor in the vitality and meaningfulness of Jewish life. One kind of community needs the other. Or, as the jargon would have it, the expression of Jewishness is a function of both identity and opportunity, both personal and institutional factors.

Here there is a problem. Our institutional framework and cultures presume high-density Jewish lives. Most of the institutional structure of contemporary American Jewish life evolved at a time when the Jewish population was concentrated in the urban and near-suburban areas of the great American cites. Jewish Centers were at the center of some large number of Jews, who would come to socialize or do recreational or cultural activities there. The social service institutions were accessible to people who needed their help. The American synagogue redefined itself as a large institution, with a staff of functionaries and large memberships who lived nearby and would come to its activities; and the training of the rabbinical seminaries, if it responded at all to the new needs of the pulpit, began to reflect a corresponding vision of the rabbi’s role.

But Jews now live scattered all over the landscape. Large and growing numbers are concentrated neither near central cores nor near each other, so this kind of institution structure doesn’t work universally any more. Our institutions have not yet acknowledged these facts, but their doing so is crucial to a viable Jewish future.

To put these ideas together: The power of the magnetic core does not exert itself magically. Jews who are choosing some Jewish options for decorative reasons may be brought to find deeper meaning and connection, to help shape and become part of Jewishly authentic communities — but there have to be institutional frameworks to help this happen and to support and nourish it.

Strategies of Response

One strategy of response to all these changes has been an appeal to exclusivity as the best strategy for maintaining a viable Jewish community. Various authors have advocated swimming against the tide with respect to intermarriage, or concentrating our efforts on those already unequivocally in the fold, to deepen their connections.

I have two problems with this tack as a universal strategy. First, I have observed that such approaches tend to be formulated by deeply-embedded Jews. By this token, I think they are likely to be limited in their impact to those already within the inner circles to Jewish participation or very close to them. By way of illustration, consider this: If I were asked to guess, I would bet that most of the people reading this journal gave tzedakah to one or more Jewish causes in the past year, belong to a synagogue or havurah, are currently engaged in some kind of Jewish study, whether formal or informal, and celebrated Shabbat in some way this past week, just to take a few indicators of Jewish connection. You — we — are a group of insiders, not typical of American Jewry at large. That something seems self-evident to us is no guarantee of wider applicability or success.

I also believe — perhaps a heresy in a journal like this one — that few Jews outside of those who are already denominationally or politically committed drive their lives by ideology or will change their lives because of it. Rather, for most people, ideology comes later, if at all. It articulates and justifies life choices already made. But for Jews whose ethnicity is only symbolic and who live outside the orbits of Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish institutions, the lived experience of their identity is not compelling, so ideology doesn’t (yet) make sense.

I suggest instead a strategy of multiplicity. Institutions and individuals located in different sectors of Jewish life need to approach the Jews they know and can connect with in different ways. I may prefer Torah study, or lively davvening with communal singing, or social action projects with an underlay of prophetic teaching, but I don’t believe the evidence is there to support any approach exclusively. And our Jews certainly aren’t in any one place, psychologically or sociologically, to be so approached. New patterns of communal participation must he nurtured, and we don’t yet know what all of them are, so I am betting on variety: strategies to continue to nourish the core, yes, but also much more.

This is a double-barreled effort, aimed at both kinds of community — of experience and of institutions — at the same time. For this to work, the American Jewish polity must develop different institutional structures. Given the new geographic scatter, they will need to be localized and/or decentralized. The synagogue, given its historically local focus, can play a key role. But it must be a synagogue different from the old large-suburban culture-mall variety, a synagogue that can foster the sense of community, in its micro-meaning, among its members. Our Jewish communal professionals, including but not limited to rabbis, will need to understand life-cycle development, adult learning theory and practice, community organizing, and group facilitation, along with Torah and Jewish practice. And all our institutions will have to support each other in all this variety, and stop seeing differences as threat.

The old melting-pot antagonism between universalism and particularism is passe in the climate of ethnic options. The choice is no longer between being a “normal American” and a “committed Jew.” The new American opposite of “total committed” is not “normal,” but “normal enough.” American life, reflecting these new American conceptions of ethnicity, allows Jews to be different in important ways from other Americans — and still be in the mainstream.

Most Jews are going to stay in that mainstream. The organized Jewish community needs to meet them where they are, in authentic ways. It remains to be seen if we can create a powerful enough sense — and expressed reality — of Jewish connectedness for Jewish identity to have more than a decorative claim on the lives of most American Jews.

Sherry Israel, a social psychologist, is Associate Professor in the Hornstein Program of Jewish communal Service, Brandeis University; and founder and active member of the Newton Center Minyan.