HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Pluralism: The Demographic Reality

by Barry Kosmin Issue: Pluralism
TOPICS : Pluralism

Pluralism as a goal or even an acceptable societal manifestation is an essentially liberal concept. It suggests the recognition of variety and diversity in the world. In contrast, those disposed to an authoritarian personality and fundamentalist views prefer uniformity and do not welcome intellectual and theological pluralism since they believe they have discovered “truth.” Nor do they desire much social pluralism if it involves the endorsement of relationships and behaviors that are not sanctioned by their ideology.

The “Jewish Nones” is a constituency that needs to be served educationally, but so far, little effort has been made to include this population.

This culture clash is not unique to the contemporary U.S. Jewish community. What is unique to American Jewry today is an abundance of diversity across the three “Bs” of worldviews: belonging, belief and behavior. This is a rather unique situation in terms of Jewish history. Historically the Jews placed a premium on unity and conformity. As an oppressed, pariah people, we showed a preference for the unified kehillah, the Einheitsgemeinde, and tended to deride or be suspicious of the Austrittsgemeinde. Nevertheless, all the social surveys and recent research shows that in the U.S. in 2009 / 5770 there’s an enormous variety of types of Jews with a huge range of attitudes, opinions and lifestyles out there in the cities, suburbs and towns across this vast country.

In recent decades the response to this burgeoning of varieties of “Jewishness” and new ways of being and “doing Jewish” has been an efflorescence of new and refurbished organizations, institutions, and communities each trying to cater for a niche market. Since the 1980s American Jewry has been transformed internally. National bodies have lost power and authority to local and “parochial” ones as the felt need among the Jewish public for standardization and homogeneity in Jewish life has attenuated. The community at both national and local level has moved from the department store to the boutique approach to meeting the Jewish identity needs of its constituency.

In terms of measuring the extent of pluralism in the Jewish population it very much depends on one’s definition of “Who is a Jew?” The more halakhic the definition the less pluralism manifested by the enumerated. Of course, the corollary to this is the more exclusive the definition the smaller the size of the population. A preference for Jewish pluralism means more Jews and more pluralism. However, the extent of the social transformation means that we have gone beyond the old retort that it’s not really a “Who is a Jew” question but “Who is a rabbi.” The situation has gone beyond the power or influence of rabbis of any or all synagogue groups to determine the boundaries of American Jewry. The decisions are made by the mass of sovereign individuals, the consumers of Jewish services.

In a modern, free society the wider the boundaries and the more inclusive the group the greater the sheer numbers and the different sorts of persons that will be involved. The more fringe Jews one recognizes as potential members of one’s institution or organization then the greater the variety of Jewish types there is and the less traditional it will be appear in what we might call normative or historical terms. This is particularly true for Jewish demography. When we exclude self-reported Jews on the basis of ancestry or birth (half a million report a Jewish mother) who follow other religions—BuJews, Messianic Jews and all those who claim two religions and/or syncretistic forms of Judaism—who number in the millions (see http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/reports/AJIS2008.pdf) we are left with a total of 5.2-5.4 million people.

What is unique to American Jewry today is an abundance of diversity across the three “Bs” of worldviews: belonging, belief and behavior. This is a rather unique situation in terms of Jewish history.

This 5.4 million is the population comprising individuals who either claim that their religion is “Jewish” and those who say they have no religion but consider themselves Jewish (i.e., cultural Jews). Yet even then there is still a lot of variety present in terms of socio-demographic and sociological characteristics. For instance, as a result of immigration, conversion and adoption 10 percent of this population is made up of minorities (i.e. people who identify as other than Non-Hispanic White and so are Asian, Hispanic or black). Minorities are more likely to be found among the younger child population than among the older Jewish people. So educators (outside of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas) are more likely to meet Jews of different hues than nursing home directors. They are also more likely to meet Jews with non-Jewish grandparents and relatives.

Jewish couples of different heritages (Ashkenazi-Sephardi, American-Israeli, etc.) and national and linguistic backgrounds are not a new phenomenon but they are more frequent today. From a sociological point of view there is also increasing pluralism when it comes to family and household structure among contemporary American Jews. A heterosexual Jewish couple in their first marriage both born of Jewish parents with their own biological children is a decreasing proportion of the married population. Divorce and family break-up produces lots of blended families—with “yours, mine and our” offspring. Intermarriage produces three possible types of outcome: conversionary, mixed religion, and no religion (neutral) couples. So even the so-called “intermarried” are diverse.

American Jews tend to be social innovators. For instance they were the first population group to adopt family planning and limit family size already from the 1920s. So it’s not surprising that there are more adoptive families and gay families than average. Gay families come in different forms. They can have either two mothers or two fathers and the couple can also both be a Jewish or a mixed couple. Single unmarried Jewish women are also more likely to choose to have babies through artificial insemination by anonymous donor than other middle-class Americans. So we now have more Jewish one parent families that do not result from divorce.

What of religious trends? American Jews are becoming more diverse and polarized between the Orthodox and the other synagogue groups. The middle ground is eroding so the Conservative movement is in decline with the result that there is less kashrut and more glatt in most communities. And practices and rituals are changing. There are more sukkahs in non-Orthodox congregations but fewer keeping two days during the chaggim. Denominational loyalties are in decline and there is a kind of cafeteria, pick-and-choose Judaism emerging across the spectrum.

However, today the largest and fastest growing group of Jews, comprising 37% of the total population, is the non-religious segment. These “Jewish Nones” or cultural Jews are largely missing from the organized Jewish community and particularly Jewish education. This is obviously a serious threat to the long-term demographic, social and economic viability of American Jewry. It is a constituency that needs to be served educationally, but so far, despite all the innovation in other spheres, little effort has been made to include this population. Yet Jewish communities in Latin America today and in Europe between the wars managed to do this successfully, so there are models available. But it will require Jewish schools that respect the ideology and wishes of these Jewish parents.

Of course there is a tendency for different types of Jews to cluster in certain localities and neighborhoods. The strictures of Shabbat travel for observant Orthodox and Conservative Jews has residential implications. So the proportion in any one particular location of all or any of these varied types and combinations of Jews is very locally specific. But clustering is also true for other social characteristics. The teacher in San Francisco may have more children from gay families in his or her class while the teacher in Miami may have more children with a recent immigrant background whose first language is Spanish. This is more important for educators than other types of Jewish professionals because schooling is delivered locally, i.e., the catchment areas tend to be smaller in size. And since social change occurs over time and most often among younger age cohorts it is people dealing with the younger generation who will or should meet change first.

If you are an educator that can identify with the social reality that I describe then you have a hard task ahead of you, for dealing with pluralism and all its manifestations for education and socialization is not an easy challenge to meet. On the other hand if all this pluralism is unknown to you and seems to be taking place in a parallel universe then your school is not reflective of contemporary Jewish society and it obviously does not recruit students from across the full spectrum of the Jewish community.

In higher education we are constantly reminded that a plural society should have a diverse student body. Is this a valid goal or a necessity for Jewish day schools? ♦

Dr. Barry Kosmin is Research Professor of Public Policy & Law at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He can be reached at Barry.Kosmin@trincoll.edu.

Go To the Next Article

Tolerance: For a Minimalist Definition...

My daughters go to an intentionally pluralistic Jewish day school. This means that there are children from Orthodox,......


Log in or register to post comments


Pluralism is central to the mission and self-understanding of many community day schools. The questions of what that term means, and how it is implemented in the policies and educational practices of the school, are difficult to answer and require reflection and discussion among all stakeholders. Explore larger perspectives on, and disagreements over, pluralism and ways to approach Jewish study with pluralistic methodology.

Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion