The Future of the Jews

The Future of The Jews, panel discussion, Brandeis University, Nov. 17, 2015

The Brandeis University Community Discusses the Future of American Jewry

The future of the Jews has worried us for centuries, said Professor Jonathan D. Sarna, Chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, at a recent Hornstein-sponsored panel discussion titled “The Future of the Jews: One ‘Statement on Jewish Vitality,’ Six Brandeis Opinions.”

“That fear of disappearing is a good thing,” he said. “It motivates us, generation after generation, to innovate and work hard.”

“The Future of the Jews” panel discussion was held in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall at Brandeis University on the evening of November 17, 2015. It was organized as a follow-up to the controversial publication, “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action,” with support from the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, Hillel at Brandeis and the Brandeis Seminar in Contemporary Jewish Life.

“Strategic Directions” was itself a follow-up piece, written by its authors in response to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans.

“The Pew portrait tells a particular story,” said Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and one of the authors of the “Strategic Directions” document. “It focused on comparing Jewish American millennials with non-Jewish millennials.”

“The authors and signatories of ‘Strategic Directions,’ in contrast, focused on what the Pew data reveal about the internal quality and vitality of Jewish life,” said Professor Fishman. “The Pew data showed that Orthodox Jewish life is robust, but the ‘center’ of the younger Jewish community is challenged. With each generation of American Jews, there are more who identify themselves as Jews of no religion than the generation before them, with 32% of Jewish millennials in 2013 identifying as non-religious.”

“‘Strategic Directions’ was written to create a sense of urgency around the goal of creating meaningful Jewish connections for Jewish millennials and other Jewish Americans, and revitalizing the center of American Jewish life,” said Professor Fishman. “Our goals in writing it were to work to expand the community and to improve the quality of Jewish life.”

But not everyone agrees that the Jewish community is shrinking. Perhaps the numbers depend on who’s counted as Jewish and who’s not, and how much religion matters. Some say that focusing on the numbers is itself misguided, and doing so ignores more serious spiritual issues.

“Right now there are a lot of people outside the hall milling around in the ante-chamber,” said Professor Jon Levisohn, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University. “They consider themselves Jewish but they're not very well-connected to the Jewish community. But they're still there. They're not running away.”

“We do need bold visions,” added Professor Levisohn, “but we should not imagine that if we can just get the right formula, we’ll prevent people from leaving. Because they're not leaving. That’s not the correct story.”

“The Future of the Jews” event provided an opportunity for further discussion. It provided panelists, some of whom were signatories to the document and some of whom were not, with the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns, provide context or tempered agreement, or respectfully disagree.

It also gave members of the Brandeis community, of which there were at least 100 in the Treasure Hall and nearly 150 in the virtual audience, a chance to ask questions or challenge rationales. They took their turn at the microphone in the middle of the dimly lit hall and addressed the panel.

“[‘Strategic Directions’] didn’t go far enough,” said Diane Troderman from the audience. “There was so much more that needed to be said about change.” Troderman is a former chair of the Jewish Education Service of North America and cofounder with Harold Grinspoon of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the umbrella organization for the popular PJ Library. 

“How can we employ language or change language in a way that brings children of intermarried couples into situations that we now see has a statistical likelihood to engage them in a way equal to children of inmarried couples?” asked Mollie Feldman, a first-year student in the Hornstein Program who is pursuing a double master’s in Jewish professional leadership and Near Eastern and Judaic studies. 

“My question,” said Sho Greenberg, a dual-degree master’s student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, “is how does the vision for the future address the LGBTQ community; and when we look at the changing nature of family, does that also change the way we measure things like birth rates?”

“What values about class and the role that money plays in Jewish life are we teaching our millennial children?” asked Professor Jonathan Krasner, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Education Research at Brandeis, who was surprised by the little being said about class and money.

“What is the definition of Jewish?” asked Rabbi Peretz Chein, executive director of Chabad of Brandeis. “It’s a simple question,” he said, smiling. “And let me perhaps direct the question a bit more: Is there an association between Jewish and Judaism?”

Speaking to the audience, Professor Sarna said, “If all we achieved by signing this [‘Strategic Directions’] statement was bringing you all together so we could have a conversation on these matters, dayenu.”

To students, he said, “In reality, the future of the American Jewish community will really depend upon you and your ideas. Over and over again, young Jews have transformed American Jewish life by turning established ideas and wisdom on its head. Whether it's day school, or the women's movement or even Zionism in its day, these were all not continuities, but discontinuities that paradoxically promoted Jewish continuity.”

In closing remarks, Professor David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University who moderated the panel had this to add: “We have seen tonight that this [‘Strategic Directions’] document has stimulated a genuinely vital conversation about all kinds of directions that currently mark the American Jewish community.”

“The reality is that North American Jewish world is a voluntaristic one where there is not going to be one answer that can resolve all the challenges the Jewish community faces. However, we can still hope for the creation of a common landscape for all Jews, even if different paths are followed by diverse individuals and groups. What we have seen tonight is that this [‘Strategic Directions’] document has stimulated a genuinely vital conversation about different kinds of directions in the contemporary American Jewish community.” 

Last update: December 21, 2015