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Conversation with Professor Arnold Dashefsky

Demography is destiny, says the co-editor of American Jewish Year Book 2015. A point the leadership of our Jewish communities would do well to remember.

By Cindy Mindell

HARTFORD — The North American Jewish community has been documented in encyclopedic form since 1899, when the first volume of the American Jewish Year Book (AJYB) was introduced by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). Subtitled “the annual record of American Jewish civilization,” the book has provided a major resource for academic researchers, researchers and staff at Jewish institutions and organizations, Jewish and secular media outlets, and libraries.

In addition to social-scientific and demographic statistics reflecting the changing nature of Jewish North America, the AJYB has served as the premier vehicle for leading academics to publish long review chapters on topics of interest to and about the North American Jewish community.

The book was edited and published by JPS until 1908, when the American Jewish Committee (AJC) assumed responsibility for compilation and editing, while JPS remained the publisher. From 1950 through 1993, the two organizations were co-publishers, and from 1994 to 2008, AJC became the sole publisher. Over the years, the book has been shepherded by a parade of illustrious editors, including Cyrus Adler, the first recipient of a PhD in Jewish Studies, a Smithsonian Institution librarian, and a chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Since 2012, Springer Publishing Company has put out the AJYB as an academic publication. The book is published in cooperation with the Berman Jewish DataBank, housed at the University of Connecticut, and the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.

This month sees the publication of the 115th AJYB, supported by the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut and the Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami.

The 2015 edition includes regular articles on national affairs by Ethan Felson, senior vice president and general counsel, Jewish Council of Public Affairs, formerly of West Hartford – joined this year by Prof. Mark Silk of Trinity College – and Jewish communal affairs by the AJC’s Lawrence Grossman. Topical articles include Jewish campus life and adaptation patterns of Jewish immigrants to the U.S.

The book is co-edited by Arnold Dashefsky, PhD, and Ira M. Sheskin, PhD, who also co-wrote the chapter on the U.S. Jewish population. Dashefsky is professor emeritus of sociology at UConn, where he also served as the inaugural Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies. The founding director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn, Dashefsky is director emeritus and current senior academic consultant of the Berman Jewish DataBank. At the University of Miami, Sheskin is director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and professor and chair of geography.

As part of the Mandell JCC Jewish Book Festival, Dashefsky will participate in a panel discussion, “The Legacy of the American Jewish Year Book: Implications for the Future of American Jewry,” on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford. He spoke with the Ledger about the hot-off-the-press edition.

Q: What are some of the more interesting findings this year?
A: We hear a lot about the American Jewish population declining. While there are more and more Jews who define themselves as secular, in actual fact the adult Jewish population is maintaining its degree of stability. One of the pieces of evidence [Ira Sheskin and I] point to is from a recent Pew survey that shows a modest increase in the share that Jewish adults represent of the entire U.S. population. It’s not a statistically significant increase, so one can’t conclude that the Jewish population is increasing its share of the total American population, but it certainly points to a degree of stability that heretofore we haven’t really heard about. The share that Jews represent of the total American population – approximately two percent – has declined since the 1930s, when it was 3.7 percent. But based on the Pew study, the Jews seem to be holding their own.

In another Pew survey, they asked a representative sample of Americans to rate different religious groups on a kind of “thermometer scale” from 0 to 100, how warmly they felt toward them. The group that got the highest score – 69 out of 100 – were the Jews. That’s quite a startling reversal from what surveys might have shown at the middle of the 20th century. Then, if you looked at 20 or 30 different ethnic and religious groups, Jews would tend to be in the middle of the pack, and Jews are now regarded most warmly of all the different religious groups.

Another interesting finding comes from the world Jewish population survey. Our colleague, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola [Israeli demographer and statistician, and professor emeritus of Israel-Diaspora Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem] reports that, in the boundaries of the State of Israel as well as the whole territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – what is equivalent to the contested territories between Israel and the Palestinians – Jews represent a bare majority of the total population, 52 percent. I think that’s a relevant demographic finding that has policy implications, very much like the finding that we suggest, that the stability of the Jewish population that seems to be emerging also has policy implications and how to think about American Jewish life. Likewise, Sergio’s finding about the bare majority that exists between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has political and social-policy implications.

My demographer colleagues like to remind me that demography is destiny. We can’t ignore that the basic demography of a population – its size and composition – has significant social, economic, and political implications, and I think it behooves the leadership of the Jewish communities to be cognizant of these demographic facts.

Q: How has the Year Book been received over time?
A: In 2000, on the occasion of the Year Book‘s 100th anniversary, Prof. Jonathan Sarna wrote, “Whatever its imperfections are, it serves as an invaluable guide to Jewish life, especially American Jewish life, in the 20th century. It is an unparalleled resource for those studying the history of American Jewish life.”

As of June 2015, we have some quantitative evidence that supports this assertion that the Year Book is an unparalleled resource. According to Google, more than 150,000 citations of the Year Book – including 6,700 in scientific publications – have been documented since 1970, across its 114 volumes to date. For example, our editor, Springer, reports that there were 2,800 downloads from the Springer website of the first volume that we edited in 2012 and over 2,600 chapter downloads in the second volume of 2013.

We feel that we have an historic responsibility. Fifty years from now, somebody will want to know something about the Jewish population or about an organization and it’s true that you can find a lot of these things on the Internet. But as far as the infrastructure of the American Jewish community – the 400 or 500 pages that we have listing all the organizations, press, scholarly contributions, transitions in terms of the awards that people have won, and obituaries – you won’t know that 50 years from now, except if you look at the Year Book. It’s a continuous record of what has been going on and we think that, in the future, people trying to understand the American Jewish community at the beginning of the 21st century, will find the articles, population figures, and organizational listings that we’ve included a valuable resource for documenting where they were 50 years ago and where they are in 2065.

Q: How have you calculated the Jewish populations of the U.S. and of the world?
A: The estimate for the world Jewish population that contributor Sergio DellaPergola uses is 14 million. Ira and I disagree with Sergio, as he has a rather narrow definition of the Jewish population. His estimate for the U.S. Jewish population has traditionally been around 5.7 million and our estimate has been about 6.7 million; this year, 6.8 million. The difference is using the Pew’s understanding of “partly Jewish:” people who have partly Jewish backgrounds and don’t disavow that Jewish background. Historically, we’ve always had a mixed bag of people who were in the community, from the point of view of some, and out of the community, from the point of view of others.

The permeability of boundaries is a major change in Jewish life that emancipation wrought. Not everybody has been happy with the idea of emancipation and the choice that it gave to individuals of whether or not to be a part of the Jewish community. The more the boundaries have become porous, the more we have blurrier definitions of who’s part of the community and who’s not part of the community. The 2013 Pew study found that 94 percent of American Jews were proud to be Jewish and 97 percent of Jews who took on a religious definition of themselves were proud to be Jewish. But among those who were just Jewish but had no religious affiliation – the so-called religious “nones” – five-sixths of them were proud to be Jewish. So clearly, despite the fact that they don’t avow any kind of religious definition to their sense of being Jewish, they are not disavowing it and they’re still taking pride in it, even if it’s in a more secular way than one might expect or think.

Q: How do you interpret the increase in intermarriage among American Jews?
A: In 1971, there was the first national Jewish population survey and the overall rate of intermarriage was relatively modest. But the researchers were clever enough to inquire about recent marriages, and they discovered that one-third of recent marriages were mixed marriages. Somewhere in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the United States was going through a Civil Rights revolution, barriers were already breaking down between Jews and Christians; the barriers that were restricting Jews from country clubs and from holding positions in the financial and insurance industries, for example. Alongside of that, Jews were becoming more accepted — and accepted as marital partners. From that time, you see the rising trajectory of Jews: by the 21st century, Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in the country.

That can have a bearing on the whole question of interfaith marriage. When interfaith marriage took place in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when it wasn’t very common, the Jews were not so highly regarded. Now, it’s not just that Jews may be attracted to people who aren’t Jewish, it’s that people who aren’t Jewish are attracted to Jews as suitable marriage partners. But the difference in the equation now is that Jews are regarded very warmly, as opposed to 50 years ago, when they had a middling kind of reputation. Some research is showing that the majority of children in mixed marriages are being raised as Jews, with some degree of Jewish identity. These are all rather complicated issues that research needs to examine and it’s something that excites us as social scientists who understand the current contemporary situation of Jews in the United States.

Intermarriage is a mixed bag – it could produce a negative consequence; it could produce a positive consequence. At the beginning of the 20th century, a classical American sociologist, W.I. Thomas, wrote a very famous dictum: if people define a situation to be real, then it is real in its consequences. That’s the origin of the notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Then, later on in the middle of the 20th century, a very distinguished American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, wrote an article in response and said that if we’re talking about Abe Lincoln, we say that he was industrious and he worked hard into the night. But if we’re talking about Abe Cohen or Abe Kurokawa working hard into the night, we say they are grinds trying to undercut the system.

So, how you interpret behavioral experiences or outcomes depends on the particular mental cast you approach it with. I think you have to weigh what the positive interpretation of intermarriage is with the negative interpretation; weigh the opportunity and the challenges that are presented. All too often, I think we’re quick to jump on the negative outcome because it doesn’t fit our more traditional views of these matters. I’ve evolved my views based on looking at the data and I know what the traditional take is on intermarriage: it’s a betrayal of the Jewish people, and very strong traditionalists probably continue to see that. But most Jews who are intermarried don’t think they’re betraying the Jewish people.

That’s what I like about sociology: it allows us to pull the wool from our eyes. Without being too self-serving, I think social scientists, in studying the Jewish community, can serve a prophetic function — like the way in which the prophets in the Tanakh didn’t always come along and give the good news. [As Amos said], “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” I identify with that prophetic strain in Judaism and in a way, I think that contemporary social science serves a kind of prophetic function, interpreting the events of the day and offering some implications for the future. I have personal feelings about these matters and it’s important to try to suspend them in terms of trying to come up with a balanced understanding of the current trends that are affecting American Jewish life and approach it in a kind of rational way.

“The Legacy of the American Jewish Year Book: Implications for the Future of American Jewry” book launch and panel discussion: Tuesday, Dec. 8, 8 p.m., Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Moderated by Prof. Jeffrey Shoulson, chair, Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn, with Prof. Arnold Dashefsky; Ethan Felson, senior v.p. and General Counsel, Jewish Council of Public Affairs; Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and research professor in the Public Policy & Law Program at Trinity College; Len Saxe, director of Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University; Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. For information: mandelljcc.org, (860) 231-6316.

 

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