Steven Cohen Responds to "The Ascent of Jewish Individualism"

Steven Cohen has responded to my post on his/Wertheimer’s article in Commentary. After reading his remarks and revisiting the article, I can only say that I must learn to read more slowly. Thanks, Steven, for kindly and patiently showing me what a putz I can be.


Dear Dan,
You say … “it does little to examine the reasons why Jews are defecting towards individual expressions of Judaism and receding from communal participation and identification with their fellow Jews …”
And then you focus the readers’ attention on what are the particularly odious and repulsive aspects of organized Jewry.
In contrast, we offered lots of reasons for the decline of peoplehood, most of them (no surprise), sociologically rooted, and few of them blaming anybody in particular. In no special order:

  1. American society’s support for innovation and diversity (a good thing, I think, in its own right, but a challenge to peoplehood nonetheless).
  2. The focus on the pursuit of individual meaning in religious life and Judaism (same comment).
  3. The ascendance of sample-and-assemble identities (same comment).
  4. Greater fluidity of identities and the decline of institutional and partisan loyalties of all sorts (actually, this trend I’m not so happy about).
  5. Decline in Israel’s ability to inspire (also not such a good thing).
  6. Distance from American Jews’ pre-American ethnic origins (inevitable).
  7. Declining inter-personal connections among Jews as spouses, friends, neighbors, and co-workers (possibly the biggest factor and not at all a good thing).

Hence, I disagree with your contention that we offered no reasons, and I also disagree with the implication you advanced that peoplehood is decline because Federations, Hadassah, and B’nai B’rith are less interesting to the younger generation. Institutions have grown out of favor before to young Jews, and they created new ones (such as Federations, Hadassah and B’nai B’rith). That’s not happening as much these days, although they are changing form — Jewschool is a great example.
Last, in your postings, you say that we middle-aged system-defenders (I reject that, by the way — although I am middle-aged) are blaming young people for these trends. Nothing in my work or my perspective supports that implication. My work (with the collaboration of Ari Kelman, most prominently) has been trying to call attention to the shifting patterns of culture, community and identity among young people to teach and alert the older generation of policy makers and bring about appropriate adjustment and responses (such as by supporting endeavors like Jewschool).
So that’s where we disagree.
Steven M. Cohen

One thought on “Steven Cohen Responds to "The Ascent of Jewish Individualism"

  1. What I find weak about the C and W article [and what I’d love to hear Steve ract to] is found in this throwaway statistic: “The total size of allocations to Israel dropped on an inflation-adjusted basis of almost two-thirds.” That’s because in the period they write about, Jewish federations made a very conscious effort to change the domestic-global split to keep more of the money at home for domestic giving– schools, identity-building programs, family services, the local needy — local agency stuff. But C and W have decided, arbitrarily and even mischievously IMHO, to dismiss this kind of giving as individualistic, as opposed to Israel-giving, which they define as an expression of “peoplehood.” So in their discussion of of UJC’s stated priorities, they regard money raised for the care of the Jewish poor, elderly Jews in the FSU, and Jews in need of scholarships for schools and “special programs” as “thousands of otherwise disparate but needy individuals in the here and now.” Why is giving money to the JAFI bureaucracy to assist them in assisting a Jew in need in Hadera considered “peoplehood”, but doing the same thing for the Jew who lives down the block “symptomatic of a decline of morale, of national self-respect”?
    I also think they are romanticizing a very distinct, and perhaps sui generis, moment in Jewish history — actually, American Jewish history — when that “we are one” stuff could be said with a straight face. The history of Jewish philanthropy before the Holocaust was a lot of individual kehillot taking care of their OWN poor, hungry, indigent, raising money for a local scholar or two to attend yeshiva, and perhaps giving a few kopeks to the guy coming thru to collect money for Eretz Yisrael. Before the rise of federated giving, did Jews really think of themselves as “a single collective whose religious civilization must be nurtured,whose cultual institutions merit constant support”? Befoe Herzl got the Zionists together in Basel, did they act upon it?
    Posted by: andy
    Comment by ASC — June 9, 2006 @ 2:40 pm

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