Is Peter Pan Jewish?

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Peter Pan is, of course, the boy who never grew up. He spends his time flying around having various adventures with persons good and bad. But is he Jewish? I wonder if Peter Pan is Jewish because his unwillingness to become an adult is paradigmatic of a serious problem facing the American Jewish community today – the unwillingness of many community leaders to exhibit adult behavior. So perhaps the real question is – are many of the contemporary leaders of the American Jewish community modern-day Peter Pans?

This problem has become very apparent in the response of communal leaders to several events, including published results from two demographic surveys. The first is the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000/1, (NJPS) designed to estimate the size of the Jewish population in the United States. That study, which was supposed to be released at the 2002 meeting of United Jewish Communities, was instead embargoed on the pretext that there were significant data problems (there was a problem but not one significant enough to justify the embargo) and was released months later and only after a second “analysis” was completed. The second is a study published in the 2003 American Jewish Yearbook by Professor Sergio Della Peragola of Hebrew University on demographic trends in Israel and Palestine.

What the two studies have in common is that results reported by the investigators in charge of the studies were not what the Jewish communal leadership wanted to hear. . In the case of NJPS, investigators found that trends showed fewer American Jews than expected and an intermarriage rate not to the liking of communal leadership. In Israel the study produced a demographic trend that would result in an Arab majority in the lands ruled by the Israeli government (within the Green Line and the administered territories, including territories controlled by the PA) in the near future. In both cases communal leaders managed to finally get what they wanted by having persons more sympathetic to their point of view produce new analyses that rejected the original findings.

Why was the need to conduct “new” analyses that happened to draw conclusions more to the liking of communal leadership necessarily Peter Panish? Perhaps the original studies were so flawed that new analyses were required to get a more accurate picture of the situation. After all, no study is without its problems and limitations. There are several reasons that this is not the case for the two studies being discussed. In the first place, while scientifically trained individuals with expertise in estimating population conducted the original studies, much of the criticism of these studies came from persons with no training or expertise in demography or sampling statistics. For example, the harshest critics of NJPS have been persons trained as sociologists, not as demographers, and there were no demographers on the team that develop an “alternative” set of figures to those proposed by the researchers who predicted an Arab majority in the region. Secondly, in both cases the investigators involved in the original research were more than open to discussions of the research and limitations in each study. They have also been open to questions about the survey methods and conclusions. For example, Professor Della Peragola , an internationally acclaimed demographer and a key figure in both studies, is publishing an article which not only acknowledges the limits on NJPS 2000/1, but also places it into the wider context of other surveys of American Jewry conducted since 1957. That wider context shows both the importance of NJPS 2000/1 and its limitations as compared to other attempts to estimate the American Jewish population.

So in both cases there could have been a public discussion of the findings as well as the limitations of each study without the public attacks on the persons responsible for the research. It is beyond the scope of this article to present the technical issues in both studies and the reasons that the “re-analyses” are little more than an attempt to discredit research whose conclusions were not appealing to certain communal leaders. The key point here is that the reactions to the studies on the part of some leaders of American Jewry were completely out of proportion to any problems in the research on either study. Further, as a matter of communal policy, some of the technical problems in these projects don’t really matter that much because the general trends described in the reports do not change even if there are adjustments to some of the figures. For example, there has been much said about the estimate regarding the percent of Jews who intermarry in both the 1990 and 2000/1 NJPS studies. While one can argue about the methodology, from a policy standpoint does it really matter if the intermarriage rate is in the high 40’s or low 50’s? The trend is very clear, no matter which figure is regarded as more accurate.

So why did United Jewish Communities (in the case of NJPS), The Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (in the case of the study of population in Israel and the territories) and other communal bodies which have participated in discrediting the original research (even when they paid for it, as in the case of UJC and NJPS) rather than asking questions and developing policies based on solid research?
Perhaps rather than acting as stewards of the community’s needs, and engaging in an educational process with those who give, it was simply easier to try not to upset certain individuals. We try not to frighten little children, or to present materials that we believe are beyond their comprehension.

We also try to tell children stories that have happy endings However, we know that today’s children will one day become adults and so we must prepare them for the fact that not all stories have happy endings. But if we are never going to grow up, and be children forever ala Peter Pan, what is the point of having to deal with unhappy endings and complex issues?

Why then does the leadership of the American Jewish community function in this manner? Is it simply a matter of being irresponsible, or is something more cynical – the desire of certain communal leaders to have the community follow certain ideological beliefs and using scientific and not so scientific research to back up those beliefs?

While it is probably true that in some cases there is an attempt to manipulate findings for certain purposes, whether it is to increase the amount of money raised or to support certain ideological positions in regard to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, there is something more fundamental at work. To understand that, we need to go back to the founder of the sociological study of American Jewry, and whose work we ignore at our own peril – Professor Marshall Sklare.

Of Professor Sklare’s many critical insights into American Jewish life, perhaps the most important is that the key difference between European Judaism and American Judaism is that historically European Judaism was adult-centered while American Judaism is child-centered. In the United States religion is seen as playing a critical role in socializing the young. President Eisenhower is reported to have said that every American should be a member of a church and that he didn’t give a damn which church that was (this is of course at a time when mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Jewish houses of worship were assumed to be all the “churches” in the United States). His point was that religion was needed to socialize the young. Almost every astute observer of the United States, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Max Weber, has commented on the American assumption that religion and ethics are somehow intertwined. So training in religion is training in being an ethical person and a good American.

But as is well known most American Jews don’t get much of a Jewish education, and often that education ends at the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. That means that Jewish education ends just as the person is becoming old enough to understand and deal with the type of complex issues that face the adult world. So religion becomes and remains an activity of childhood, forever linked to feelings about parents and growing up.

One example will suffice. I once taught in the high school division of a local Reform synagogue’s supplementary school. When it came to Hanukah I taught the students that we are not sure why the holiday is eight days long – it could be a late Sukkot or because King Solomon completed an eight day dedication of the First Temple. On parents night one parent raised her hand, and when I called on her she spoke, in tears, complaining that she was taught about the miracle of the oil and she expected her children to be taught the same thing. I pointed out that this was a Reform congregation, that we don’t teach about miracles in the high school, and that we had to teach the children based on the best historical knowledge. I also pointed out that a coherent belief system that did accept certain miracles was available if they wanted – it was called Orthodox Judaism. Of course in that system there are other miraculous events, especially one at Sinai that are far more central to traditional Judaism than the oil of the menorahs on Hanukah. But that parent wanted Reform Judaism (so she could lead the lifestyle she wanted) with the beliefs of her childhood. I wasn’t asked back to teach the next year.

Another aspect of childhood is play. While persons of all ages like to have fun, play is something that is a key aspect of childhood, and a key aspect of play is pretending. Small children pretend to be doctors and cowboys and fire fighters, mimicking what they see in the adult world. But allowing anyone, whether or not they have training and experience in the field of population statistics, to function as an expert on these issues in setting communal policy is childish and irresponsible. Willingness to accept anyone as an “expert” and to allow persons trained in other social sciences, or with no relevant training at all, to function as experts on demography is like a child’s game where one can pretend to be whatever one wants.

American Jews often cannot release their childish views of Judaism and Jewish life because they have no base on which to develop an adult understanding of these issues and because questioning those childish beliefs is often, on an unconscious level, an assault on their childhood and childhood memories. The community does everything it can to preserve those beliefs – starting with the totally untenable assumption that somehow we can integrate ourselves culturally, socially, economically and politically into American society and still not have a significant rate of intermarriage. The promise we can have it all is certainly appealing no matter how unrealistic. Our views of Israel, even our assumptions about our ancestors are all part of this. How many people have actually read the Tevye stories on which Fiddler on the Roof is based? How many people know, or want to know, that the original stories contain the tales of two other sisters – one where things don’t end well, and one with a son-in-law totally ashamed of having a father-in-law like Tevye, not to mention that the story lines for of two of the three sisters described in the play have been altered to provide happy endings that don’t exist in the original text? Fiddler may only be a play, but its message is one that resonates with American Jewry. American Jews do not read the original stories because they have all they need on stage and on the silver screen.

In terms of Israel, it often plays the role of a magical wonderland for many American Jews, where the hopes of American Jewry are met and its anxieties relieved. The very notion of an Arab majority in the lands under Israeli control may be too difficult to contemplate.

But demographic data gets put to another use in political circles. Demography is treated as destiny. We can avoid making hard decisions because the numbers have already been decided for us. As one commentator in Ha’aretz has written, do we make decisions about the future of the territories only on numbers, or are there moral, ethical and political commitments that must be considered as part of the decision making process? But alas that also takes an adult commitment. Children are told to do as they are told when it comes to eating foods good for them or doing their homework. “Things are the way they are” is something else we say to children, not adults.

While sometimes looking at the leadership of the American Jewish community one might think that they don’t look Peter Panish, the refusal to deal with harsh realities, to delve into complex issues, and to take stands based on the responsibilities that come with being stewards of the community’s resources are not adult behaviors. But childishness is not simply a problem in the American Jewish community, it is a characteristic inherent in the current structure and culture of the community. To break free we must, as a community, grow up. That should begin in synagogues and other places Jews congregate with discussions of the issues facing the community on an adult level. American Jewry is now 350 years old. It is time for it to emerge from childhood and take on the responsibilities of a mature, adult, community. We can start by understanding the results from the NJPS 2000/1, and begin to plan accordingly.

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3 Responses to Is Peter Pan Jewish?

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