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PEW. What now?

A community conversation with Jack Wertheimer, Dec. 15

By Cindy Mindell

Jack Wertheimer

Jack Wertheimer

WESTPORT – Dr. Jack Wertheimer is known for keeping vigil over the American Jewish community. And he doesn’t shy away from asking tough questions about our convergence with secular American society.

In addition to several books devoted to the topic (as well as to Jewish education), he has been published in several U.S. Jewish and Israeli publications. In response to an unflinching series of articles published in Commentary between 1999 and 2005, which took the organized Jewish community to task on Jewish day schools, intermarriage, the “rabbi crisis,” and the pallid Jewish birthrate, the Jerusalem Post dubbed Wertheimer “the Cassandra of American Jewry,” after the Greek goddess blessed with the power of prophecy and the curse of not being believed.

In “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People?” (Commentary, June 2006) Wertheimer and co-author Steven M. Cohen explore mounting evidence of a weakened identification among American Jews with their fellow Jews abroad, as well as a waning sense of communal responsibility at home. “The End of the Jewish People,” a three-part exchange of letters with Joey Kurtzman of Jewcy.com (June 2007), is a brutally honest look at the factors corroding American Jewish life.

Now Wertheimer tackles the Pew’s “A Portrait of American Jews.” The most comprehensive interpretation of U.S. Jewry since the 2000-01 National Population Study conducted by United Jewish Communities (now Jewish Federations of North America), the new survey has evoked a range of response and analysis, from hand-wringing to shoulder-shrugging, and a lot of debate in between.

Wertheimer will discuss how American Jews can take action in response to the study’s findings, in a community discussion on Sunday, Dec. 15, hosted by The Conservative Synagogue in Westport. The program is co-sponsored by UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk, Temple Israel in Westport, and Congregation Beth El in Norwalk.

Wertheimer is the Joseph and Martha Mendelson Professor of American Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is also former provost and founding director of the Joseph and Miriam Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism. His area of specialization is modern Jewish history, with a particular focus on trends in the religious, educational, and organizational sectors of American Jewish life since World War Two. His book, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life. He was a finalist in 2008 in the category of Education and Jewish Identity for his edited volume, Family Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice.

Wertheimer looks at the Pew survey as a diagnostic instrument, like an X-ray or a CAT scan. “In the course of studying such a diagnostic, one can find both positive and negative things,” he says. “The study helps us gain a better sense about the health of the American Jewish community and can be defined in a number of ways. This range of views accounts, in part, for the discrepancies noted in the study. It depends on what you focus in on, and that will determine the conclusions. What is it that different analysts are looking at? If we look at one aspect of this picture, we come away with one set of impressions, and if we look at it in another way, we come away with a different set of impressions.”

While the Pew data are extremely rich in some areas and help form a picture of the larger Jewish community, Wertheimer says that it’s not enough to merely read the study and draw conclusions.

“To simply say, ‘These are the realities on the ground’ and leave it at that is to do an injustice to the importance of the study and, more importantly, not to build upon the study to improve the situation won’t help anybody,” he says. “The study alerts us to some of the serious challenges facing American Jewish life but also alerts us to areas of opportunity. In seeing the study as a diagnostic instrument, the purpose of drawing some conclusions about the diagnosis is moving on to the next step: how do we proceed?”

Wertheimer will discuss areas of opportunity and explore where the community has gone wrong and recommend the midcourse corrections that might ensure a more positive future.

“Prof. Jack Wertheimer’s work always combines the scholarly with the practical which, in this instance, adds significant value to our discussion of the challenges that face all American Jewish communities,” says Steven Friedlander, executive director of UJA/Federation. “We are not simply exploring theoretical solutions; Prof. Wertheimer’s expertise and insight provides us with a road map as well as an overview of the terrain that is our current reality.”

“What Is to Be Done? The Implications of the New Pew Study” with Dr. Jack Wertheimer: Sunday, Dec. 15, 5 p.m., The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Road, Westport | Info (203) 454-4673.

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