Steven Cohen illustrates a point at the learn-in with young leaders. Photo by Meryl Schenker Photography
Last week, the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington held its annual Stroum Lecture series. This year Jewish Studies hosted Professor Steven Cohen, a sociologist from Hebrew Union College in New York. He has spent his time as a public intellectual blurring the lines between the academy and the community, studying issues central to Jewish identity, particularly vis-à-vis the State of Israel.
Professor Cohen gave two public lectures on Monday and Wednesday night, titled Jews in the Borderland: The Complicated, Fluid, and Episodic Nature of Jewish Identity (for Some) Today, and Devotion, Distancing and Disloyalty: The Diversity and Complexity of American Jews’ Relationships with Israel Today, respectively. In addition, he spoke at a young adult “learn-in” as part of a Jewish Studies initiative to broaden the Stroum audience and better engage with young Jewish professionals in the Seattle area. Initiated with Stroum lecturer Ilana Pardes three years ago, the idea behind the “learn-in” was to create a bridge between the academic topics at hand and young community leaders in Seattle. This year, dedicated community members, representing shuls across denominations, leadership from Hillel, Jewish non-profit organizations, as well as Jewish members from (non-religious) non-profit organizations gathered for an evening of food, conversation, and, as it turns out, intense interrogation.
Professor Cohen argues that his research, which he presented during Monday and Wednesday night’s lectures, demonstrates a causal relationship between intermarriage and a decrease in connection to Israel. A self-proclaimed Zionist (he made Aliyah in 1992, and “believes in such a thing as the Jewish people whose expression is in the State of Israel”), he made quite the persuasive point: young people who marry Jewish raise their kids Jewish. The decision to inmarry today is a far more intentional act than it was some years ago. As such, it reflects both Jewish residential density and Jewish commitment. Their kids then grow up Jewish, go to Jewish summer camp, go to Israel, and engage with/support Israel. Children of intermarriage, on the other hand, are only 25% likely to identify as Jewish.
The decline in young people’s connection to Israel seems to be one of Cohen’s principle research interests. He finds it highly problematic that young people are now less interested in, or to use his term, less engaged with Israel than ever before. Acknowledging that his research has occasionally been misconstrued to mean that young people are “disillusioned” or “sick of Israeli politics” because of “Israel’s human rights issues,” Cohen declared that that is not the case: the causal factor is intermarriage. (As an aside, I had the opportunity to ask Cohen a burning question at the end of Thursday’s event. I wondered how distance from the Holocaust affects engagement with the State of Israel. Cohen said he wondered the same thing and will include these questions on his next set of surveys.)