Roundtable addresses American Jewish community disengagement, offers solutions

Photo/Jeremy Pearlman

Jonathan Sarna

In light of research suggesting that the American Jewish community is becoming increasingly less engaged, seven Brandeis professors and scholars participated in a public forum on Nov. 17 in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall to identify key issues and concerns and proposing approaches to address them.
David Ellenson,director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, moderated The Future of the Jews: One Statement on Jewish Vitality, Six Brandeis Opinions roundtable discussion, which featured comments from Sylvia Barack Fishman, Jonathan D. Sarna, Jon A. Levisohn, Michelle Shain, David Manchester, and Nathan J. Vaughan.
The evening’s discussion centered on “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action,” a document written by a diverse group of Jewish thought leaders from across the United States in response to a 2013 Pew Research Center study that found the American Jewish community is struggling for identity and engagement.
“We know the issues surrounding the continuity of our American Jewish community and its ability to transmit its values and its legacy is certainly one of the great challenges that has confronted us,” Ellenson said. “The conversation around these issues has become even more significant and more important to discuss as we move ahead.”
Fishman, the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life, opened the discussion by offering a general summary of the document’s text, adding that she signed onto it because it was a communal call for all Jews—regardless of their level of observance—to assess the challenges honestly and act productively in response to the challenges.
Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and one of the world’s most prominent Jewish American historians, examined Pew’s findings from a historical perspective. Levisohn, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought, tackled the issue of Jewish intermarriage. Shain, Manchester and Vaughan, who are research associates with the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, shared their perspectives and personal anecdotes on the primary issues of engagement and inclusiveness.
All of the speakers agreed that the Jewish community needs to refine its approach and that the call to action, despite responding to astonishing and worrisome findings, is a good thing.
“Every generation of American Jews has worried that it would be the last generation of American Jews,” Sarna said. “That’s a good thing—that fear of disappearing is the reason Jews are still here. Generation after generation, Jews have innovated and worked very hard.
“Jewish life in America in many ways is cyclical, not linear. We assume it’s linear— thinking every generation is less engaged than its predecessor—but anyone who properly studies history will actually see that it is not linear at all, as is the case with any other religion.”
Following the panelists’ comments and questions asked of each other, Ellenson opened the floor for questions from the audience. While the questions and comments touched on issues of income and class, family structure, the evolving nature of the synagogue and education, they all touched on what its means to be Jewish in America today.
“You are Jewish, what are you going to make of it?” Sarna responded to an audience member who claimed the community should be showing the younger generation why they should embrace Judaism.
“The question of ’Why be Jewish?’ has led the community astray,” Sarna added. “Asking instead ‘what does it mean to create a great Jewish community?’ would have led us in more productive directions.”
The conversation ultimately led to a discussion on finding a new goal for the next generation of Jews to aspire to achieve.
Vaughan suggested a greater intertwinement of Jewish life and education with everyday life, while Fishman and Levisohn spoke on the importance of continuing to welcome and encourage inter-married Jews to work with their spouses to teach Jewish values to their children. Sarna, meanwhile, posited that the mission of social justice could serve as a vessel for inspiring and uniting future Jews in the next frontier.
“The realization that we face a crisis is necessary,” Fishman said. “That realization is not despair or even pessimism. On the contrary, that realization can motivate us to care enough and to be energized enough to act and repair what needs repairing.”
The event was sponsored by the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis Seminar in Contemporary Jewish Life, Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, and Hillel at Brandeis.

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