Conversation with… Dr. Steven M. Cohen

Scholar will discuss new trends in Jewish life and community in Trumbull

Dr. Steven M. Cohen

Dr. Steven M. Cohen

Prof. Steven M. Cohen is an internationally renowned sociologist whose work focuses on the American Jewish community. He is research professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
He will discuss “Jewish Identity: Making Connections for Us and Our Children” at the Third Annual Herbert and Alice Needle Scholar in Residence Weekend, March 8-10, at Congregation B’nai Torah in Trumbull.
Cohen holds a Bachelors degree from Columbia College and a PhD from Columbia University’s Department of Sociology. In 1992, he made aliyah, and taught for 14 years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He is the author or editor of a dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles and reports on such issues as Jewish community, Jewish identity, Jewish continuity and Jewish education.
He is co-author with Arnold Eisen of The Jew Within, and with Charles Liebman he wrote Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences. His earlier books include American Modernity and Jewish Identity, and American Assimilation or Jewish Revival? He was the lead researcher on the Jewish Community Study of New York in 2011.
In 2010, he received the Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry and was cited as one of the Forward Fifty, for the second time. He received a National Jewish Book Award for his book, Sacred Strategies. In 2011, he received an honorary doctorate from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. In 2012, he was elected president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. His current research interests address emerging forms of Jewish community and identity among younger Jews in the U.S.
As a scholar exploring Jewish life, Cohen says that he studies “the recent Jewish past and the Jewish present, with hope for a Jewish future.” He spoke with the Ledger about new trends in Jewish life and community.

Q: What do you see as the biggest issues today in Jewish identity and continuity?
A: The most significant issue is the increasing diversity for Jewish engagement. There are two Jewish population groups growing very rapidly. On the one hand, there are the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. The other group I call “Borderland Jews,” people who are Jewish but who have unconventional identity configurations: They can be Jewish and say they’re Christian, or Jewish and be “partially Jewish,” or Jewish and have no denominational identity.
Those two radically different groups are growing and the more conventional Jews – Conservative, Reform, even secular – are in relative if not absolute demographic decline. This is what’s happened in American society; and what’s driving a lot of this is intermarriage. This trend may reinforce the sectarianism of the haredim, and diminishes the population size of Conservative and Reform Jews, and contributes to the growth of Borderland Jews with all their varieties and complexities
The other challenge I see is international: Non-Orthodox American Jewry remains deeply liberal in its political and social orientation, and Israel appears illiberal. So, the contrast between Israel’s illiberalism and American Jews’ liberalism poses an ongoing challenge to the relationship. The end of that story isn’t yet written; things will change.
In a panoramic way, those are the major sources of turbulence within a vast and varied American Jewry.

Q: Is this a particularly “turbulent” time for the Jewish people?
A: It’s no more turbulent than any other time. At every moment, everyone thinks that the current changes are unprecedented, but it’s not true. The 19th century saw the creation of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative movements, as well as Zionism and Bundism. All those ideologies were newly created within one century, in addition to mass migration. In the 20th century there was huge poverty and class conflict, then the Shoah, and then the founding of the state of Israel. That’s pretty momentous; that’s a lot of change, arguably, more than what we’re going through now, but the history of people in general and of Jews in particular is a history of change. I see it as both dangerous and hopeful in different ways.

Q: What are some effective ways to engage Jews today?
A: The creation of Jewish social networks: we need to create more opportunities for Jews to be engaged with other Jews, and that could mean emphasizing access to Jewish preschools, camps, innovative models of community among young Jewish adults, Jewish studies programs, Hillels – all these are platforms in which Jews connect with other Jews and we have to make available more of them. I think the quality of Jewish education is less important than the quantity of Jews who access Jewish education, and we’ve been emphasizing quality while not dealing sufficiently with recruitment.
The other change I would push for, on the Israel side, is more vigorous and open discussion about Israel and with Israel about its policies. That would create a more exciting discourse in American Jewry and would also signal to a variety of people that their dissident views are welcome and not seen as problematic.

Q: What will you address in your talks at B’nai Torah?
A: In “Expanding Options: Diverging Possibilities for Jewish Engagement Today,” I’m referring to the span from haredim to Borderland Jews and the fact that this list of innovative areas adds to the inherited menu of Jewish possibilities. Now, we have more things that Jews can do and there are still young Jews involved in a Conservative synagogue and a Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee – these organizations are not dying or dead, but they’re not as dominant options as they were in the mid-20th century.
In “From People to Purpose: New Directions for Younger Jews,” I refer to the extraordinary innovation in five areas: social justice, Jewish learning, spiritual communities, culture, and new media. With younger Jews, you have to look at new forms of connection.
A Facebook list around Jewish interest is a different sort of organization than the American Jewish Committee, because there’s been a decline in America of centrally directed hierarchical chapter-based organizations.
Young Jews have innovated in these five areas over the last 15 years or so, and there are different lists than those typically provided by a conventional map of “legacy” Jewish organizations, which don’t line up in that new list. That’s where the action has been for elite younger Jews today.

Q: In addition to helping and nurturing fellow Jews, do Jews have an obligation to nurturing the world at large?
A: My personal point of view is that we should do both: serve Jews in need and non-Jews in need. We have too much specialization in this realm, with Jewish agencies EITHER serving Jews OR serving non-Jews. I would want those Jewish organizations that help non-Jews to engage in addressing Jewish hardship as well. As I learned in the Jewish Community Study of New York, we have a growing, daunting and tragic problem of Jewish poverty with hundreds of thousands of poor and near-poor Jews. We have a direct interest in expanding entitlements: food stamps, affordable housing, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Until recently, Jewish organizations forcefully and unambiguously advocated a progressive economic agenda.
But in recent years, some of the most affluent Jews — who generously give of their time, money and passion to our leading organizations — feel comfortable exerting
a conservative influence on the Jewish organizations they serve, impeding the fight for economic and social justice.
Organizations that used to be generally progressive in their social agendas have gone neutral over time, frankly because wealthy donors are offended when the organizations take a progressive stance on social issues.

The Third Annual Herbert and Alice Needle Scholar-in-Residence Weekend: “Jewish Identity: Making Connections for Us and Our Children” with Prof. Steven M. Cohen will be held Friday-Sunday, March 8-10, at Congregation B’nai Torah, 5700 Main St., Trumbull Mar. 8, 7:30 p.m.: “Expanding Options: Diverging Possibilities for Jewish Engagement Today”; March 9, 9:30 a.m.: “From People to Purpose: New Directions for Younger Jews”  March 10, 10 a.m.: “Jewish Continuity: Creating Jewishly Engaged Children and Grandchildren” All programs are free of charge and open to the community. Info/RSVP: (203) 268-6940 /

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