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Can the Continuity Agenda Be Saved? Should It Be?
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Editor's Desk

Can the Continuity Agenda Be Saved? Should It Be?

Young Jews find the emphasis on “marrying Jewish” anti-feminist, elitist, parochial, heteronormic and even a bit racist.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

A detail of artist Jennifer Kopping’s many-branched family tree, from "Scattered Breath: The Red Thread, 
A Visual Family Narrative," a 2019 exhibit at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. (Courtesy of HUC)
A detail of artist Jennifer Kopping’s many-branched family tree, from "Scattered Breath: The Red Thread, A Visual Family Narrative," a 2019 exhibit at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. (Courtesy of HUC)

I have been in Jewish journalism long enough to have reported on the early days of the “continuity agenda.” And to realize that what was important to one generation is anathema to another.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, here’s a refresher:

After the National Jewish Population Survey of 1991 found that 52 percent of Jews were in interfaith marriages, the organized Jewish community went into shock. Concern that non-Orthodox Judaism wouldn’t survive and that American Jewry would lose its diversity and vitality, Jewish philanthropists doubled down on “continuity” – that is, getting young people to “engage” with Judaism and, yes, marry other Jews.

The “smart” money went to day schools and summer camps. Birthright took off, with the stated goal of connecting young Jews with Israel and the not-so-hidden agenda of connecting young Jews with each other. Survey after survey was commissioned to gauge Jewish involvement. New organizations sprang up, like the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which issued reports on a “nightmare” future of fewer and fewer Jews with less and less political power and influence.

The “continuity” agenda had its critics, mostly families and advocates for the families actually involved in interfaith marriages. They argued that the emphasis on numbers was not only insulting but counterproductive: The stigmatizing of interfaith families was only driving them further away from Jewish life.

In the last few years, with the original proponents of “continuity” either approaching retirement age or speeding past it, another cohort of dissenters has emerged. First and foremost are women scholars, who say the continuity agenda’s emphasis on fertility and “natalism” – promoting population growth — is misogynist, since it is women’s bodies you are talking about. They have been joined by Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and a generation of young activists who find the emphasis on “marrying Jewish” exclusionary, parochial, heteronormative and even a bit racist.

The debate coalesced around the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, after several women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Cohen was the most prolific and influential of the men and women studying Jewish affiliation and demography — although hardly the first or only one. He also made policy proposals pointing out the consequences of low birth rates and waning engagement.

As three women scholars — Kate Rosenblatt, Lila Corwin Berman and Ronit Stahl-– argued in the Forward: “[T]hese allegations reflect the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival, the focus of Cohen’s work. American Jewish communal institutions have become reliant upon a form of knowledge about Jewish life that hinges upon sex and statistics—specifically, how many Jews are married to Jews, and how many children they have.”

In short: Sexist men come to sexist conclusions.

That was 2018. Cohen is back in the news following reports that he had met privately with Jewish scholars who apparently still value his expertise despite the scandal. That angered the Women’s Caucus of the Association for Jewish Studies; after they objected to the meeting, the president of the AJS, Noam F. Pianko, stepped down and apologized “for my lapse in judgment in participating in this meeting.”

No doubt, this is a story about #MeToo, and cancel culture, and “wokeness,” and all the buzzwords that do more to cloud than illuminate our public and private discourse. But it’s also about clashing visions of the Jewish future, with the “continuity agenda” still very much at the center of the debate.

The AJS Women’s Caucus described the meeting with Cohen as “re-hashing old ideas about Jewish continuity in an effort to capture philanthropic funding.” That refers to an allegation that establishment charities prefer to fund research that confirms their concerns about intermarriage and about waning attachment to synagogues and Israel.

This week, Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, perhaps the preeminent American scholar of Jewish history, pushed back against the Women’s Caucus and Pianko’s resignation. “Just because somebody committed a vile act,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to Cohen, that doesn’t mean “their scholarship should henceforward be maligned and removed from the scholarly canon. Nor is it self-evident to me that just because one individual committed to Jewish continuity seriously misbehaved, the whole enterprise and all those whose scholarship touches on the subject of Jewish continuity should be relegated to the ash-heap of Jewish Studies.”

Women scholars have also defended the continuity agenda from a feminist perspective while decrying Cohen’s behavior. They include Sylvia Barack Fishman and Harriet Hartman, two professors who have been publishing since the 1980s, and Dr. Michelle Shain, a younger social policy analyst at the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research. “[I]mplying that all researchers who discuss Jewish continuity are sustained by patriarchal and sexist ideologies, erases much important published research, and is dishonest and shortsighted,” they wrote me in a letter after a version of this essay appeared in my newsletter. “Female scholars and non-predatory male scholars have published extensive foundational work on Jewish continuity, as we have definitively documented.

So the battle lines have been drawn. An earlier generation of influential Jewish scholars, clergy and communal professionals regards continuity as an expression of vitality. They unapologetically ask what will make families and households value their culture and pass on its traditions as a family inheritance. They consider that a worthy enterprise for any ethnic group seeing its traditions slipping away — the Jews no less than Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians or Palestinians.

A younger generation insists that Jewish scholarship and organizational life has for too long been dominated by males and is consciously or unconsciously misogynistic. They too love Judaism, but not to the degree that it conflicts with deeply held values about diversity, women’s agency and the feminist standpoint. Others see “continuity” as a way to enforce obedience to obsolete or irrelevant ideas, including a familial attachment to Israel, or to promote the values of an older, richer and predominantly male donor class.

So the question becomes (for me, anyway), Can continuity be saved? That is, can we aim to create a vital future for Judaism, expressed in the lives of families and in the communities where they live, in a way that doesn’t look sexist or feel exclusionary? Can we talk about Jewish norms like child-rearing without treating women like data points while welcoming people who either can’t or don’t want to have children? Can we celebrate the Jewish “people” without implying that Jews by choice or Jews of color are not part of it?

Some people are trying. Mijal Bitton, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, wrote an important essay recently asking, “Could Jewish pro-natalism and feminism be ethically reconciled?” A sociologist and self-identified feminist, she noted that most American Jewish women want to have children. And for many, given the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, “the very personal act of pregnancy and childbirth has taken on intense collective significance as a mitzvah for the sake of God and the Jewish people.”

Can we create a vital future for Judaism, expressed in the lives of families and in the communities where they live, that doesn’t look sexist or feel exclusionary?

She acknowledges and accepts the feminist critique of the continuity agenda. But, she writes, “Jewish community can honor female agency and treasure Jewish continuity as part of a broader celebration of traditional Jewish values in a 21st-century context.”

How? For one thing, Jewish communal organizations could promote paid family leave, childcare and other policies that lift the burden on parents, women especially. In addition, the “broader discourse around Jewish continuity must be attuned to the family needs of single parents and new and diverse family structures.” That’s only part of Bitton’s comprehensive and nuanced argument.

I am closer in age to the “continuity” crowd than its critics. For most of my adult life, it was a given that a goal of Jewish community was the generational transmission of its values. Having Jewish kids was considered a response to the devastating losses of the Holocaust; later, the emphasis became parenting in a way that taught kids to value the Jewish past, love the Jewish present and build a Jewish future for their, and its own, sake.

This wasn’t just men saying this, or deluded Jewish women. For over 30 years I have been part of egalitarian communities (and an egalitarian marriage) in which continuity has not been an icky natalist goal but a life-affirming commitment to a Jewish future.

As important, these are liberal Jewish communities, worried that if their kids don’t in turn create liberal, egalitarian Jewish communities of their own, the Jewish future will be an Orthodox one that is seldom liberal and rarely egalitarian.

But humans plan; God laughs. Our kids aren’t growing up in ghettos. Their world is more diverse than ours, and old assumptions are being overturned, as they always are. But I can still hope that my kids and, one day, their kids find Judaism worth loving and cherishing and keeping alive.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week. Subscribe to his Sunday newsletter here.

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