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February 18, 2018 12:00 pm

Is San Francisco the Future of American Jewry?

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin /


An January 2018 event at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, where teens and adults gathered to hear from a dynamic panel of guests on how their identities – Jewish, Queer, and otherwise – have informed their experience. Credit: Facebook. – A new population study on Jews in the United States paints a portrait of vibrancy and diversity, as well as disaffiliation and disaffection from Israel. But what does it tell us about a changing American community?

In the last few decades, analysis of population studies have become the starting points for debate about what to make of a rapidly changing American Jewish community. But the once bitter debate about intermarriage, assimilation, and how best to preserve what used to be called “Jewish continuity” has largely gone silent. Jewish professionals have for the most part stopped trying to alter the trajectory of the community and learned to accept the consequences of demographic change with good grace.

For many, if not most of them, the goal is no longer to attempt to preserve the old paradigm of Jewish life rooted in observance, Zionism, and solidarity with Jews around the world. Now they concentrate instead on celebrating the reality of a community that is less religious, more diverse, and more indifferent to Israel, and largely lacking a sense of Jewish peoplehood. In other words: Welcome to the Jewish community of greater San Francisco.

The publication of a new demographic study analyzing the Bay Area community provides an interesting coda to the Pew Study of Jewish Americans that came out in 2013. The marked population shift towards disaffiliation and a decline in a sense of Jewish peoplehood that Pew confirmed are much more evident in the San Francisco study. That’s hardly surprising given the more youthful and transient nature of the Bay Area Jewish population, as well as its greater diversity in terms of race, religion, and sexual orientation as compared to other communities.

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In that sense, San Francisco has always been considered an outlier — a place that occupies the other end of the spectrum from more conservative communities and those, like New York, with large Orthodox populations. As a rule, it’s not one that tells us much about the rest of the country. But the question, after nearly 30 years of demographic studies, conducted nationally and in various communities, is whether we should stop treating ultra-progressive San Francisco as being out of touch with the Jewish mainstream and start pondering whether it actually does represent the future of non-Orthodox American Jewry. If so, even those who have been sounding the alarm about these trends since 1990 may have underestimated what that means for the Israel-Diaspora relationship and prospects concerning the organized Jewish community.

The unveiling of the National Jewish Population Survey in 1990 marked the formal beginning of the “continuity” debate. It is best remembered for its distressing results documenting an intermarriage rate of more than 50 percent. While that number was much disputed and often misunderstood (the figure represented only those marrying at the time, rather than all marriages involving living Jews), it scared the organized Jewish world to death because it raised the possibility that within a generation or two, not enough Jews who cared about Jewish life would be around to pay the salaries of the professionals.

That led to more spending on things that would — it was hoped — increase the chances that young Jews would choose to create Jewish families, rather than merely assimilate into the welcoming embrace of an American society that no longer discriminated against them the way it had in the past. That also meant more resources devoted to Jewish education, summer camps, and trips to Israel, all of which were proven indicators of a chance for inculcating more interest in Jewish life on the part of those involved.

The debate continued after the equally controversial 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. But by the time the Pew Research Institute put out its definitive study in 2013, it was clear the tide had turned in terms of the discussion about demography. By that time, promotion of endogamy — Jews marrying Jews, which was already controversial in the 1990s — had become anathema to the organized Jewish community. While Jewish federations were still interested in promoting all the education, camps, and trips to Israel — the Birthright Israel program being one of the few unalloyed successes in modern Jewish life in terms of its impact on young Jews — they were equally committed to doing nothing that would in any way bruise the feelings of those who had intermarried or those who no longer looked to traditional communal institutions for leadership or inspiration.

Indeed, given data that showed 77 percent of non-Orthodox Jews were choosing non-Jewish spouses, it was hard to blame them for shying away from the sort of advocacy now considered non-inclusive, if not an outright form of “racism,” by liberal Jews.

Pew told us that the percentage of those who identified as Jewish who attached importance to Jewish identity or who defined it in terms of religion or Zionism — as opposed to food or comedy, or other cultural influences — was declining precipitately. The San Francisco study shows the same trends, only taken to a greater extreme, with 26 percent saying that being Jewish was “very important,” and 21 percent asserting that Israel was “very important” to them.

It’s true that not all the news from these surveys is bad.

Pew taught us that more than 90 percent of identified Jews were proud of being Jewish — something that was not the case in previous generations that were far more religious and affiliated. The shame induced by open antisemitism has disappeared in the atmosphere of acceptance that prevails in contemporary America. If Jews are intermarrying at record rates, it’s because non-Jews want to marry them, rather than shun them as they once did. It’s also true that many intermarried families embraced Judaism at surprisingly high rates, even if the same trend ensured that large numbers were disappearing from Jewish communal ranks.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the dire predictions about the demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry weren’t true. The scare statistics of 1990 became the reality of 2013 and now 2018. If these trends continue, it won’t result in the disappearance of non-Orthodox Jewry, but we already see that the population decline means fewer synagogues, less philanthropic giving, and a consequent impact on an already shaky Jewish infrastructure. It is also having an impact on support for Israel, though many observers mistake unease with the Netanyahu government with the decline in American Jewish identification with the Jewish state.

Scholars like Steven M. Cohen, who worked on the new survey and many of those that came before it, continue to maintain that policies promoting Jewish marriage and affiliation can help lessen the impact of assimilation. But unless others start listening to more people like him — and change our funding priorities, as well as our reluctance to advocate for Jewish families and peoplehood — there’s little question that San Francisco, with its low rates of affiliation, observance, and caring about Israel, and its high rate of diversity, shows us where the rest of American Jewry is heading.

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