Jewish Community / Jews in America

“Cohen’s analysis focused simply on biological continuity and avoided the substantive questions inherent in any discussion of the how of the Jewish future”

Until he was brought down by revelations of decades of sexual harassment, sociologist Steven M. Cohen made a career linking intermarriage with a coming demographic doomsday for non-Orthodox Jews and propounding the danger both posed to “continuity.” According to Cohen, intermarried Jews were less likely to have children who identified as Jewish, and non-Orthodox Jews overall were not reproducing at above replacement rates. This spelled nothing less than the disappearance of non-Orthodox Jewry.

Making Jewish spaces more welcoming to the intermarried, Cohen argued, was ineffective at producing Jewishly identified children. Thus, in-marriage had to be encouraged as strongly as possible to avert demographic doom.

Jewish life comprises so many elements: linguistic, cultural, religious and more. Instead of taking the full expression of Jewish life into account, Cohen’s analysis focused simply on biological continuity and avoided the substantive questions inherent in any discussion of the how of the Jewish future.

This very narrow framing of biological continuity concerned itself with “encouraging” marriage and babies – and paid almost no attention to the structural and economic factors affecting the choices made by potential parents. The data and analysis behind the “continuity crisis” was often made possible by Steinhardt Foundation financing, creating a self-reinforcing thought system that reflected the concerns of the men driving it, not the people whose lives were under scrutiny.

Thus defined, the continuity challenge was taken up by an array of organizations and funders, most notably with the creation of Birthright Israel in 1999, co-founded by Steinhardt with an $8 million gift. The Birthright mission was to “ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel …”

That might have been what was written on promotional materials, but the unofficial mission of Birthright was clearly articulated by Steinhardt: To get young Jews next to each other and make Jewish babies.

Rokhl Kafrissen, “Allowing Michael Steinhardt’s bad behavior is not our biggest mistake. Obsessing over Jewish continuity and megadonors is.”, Jewish Telegraph Agency (3 April 2019) [https://www.jta.org/2019/04/03/opinion/allowing-michael-steinhardts-bad-behavior-is-not-our-biggest-mistake-obsessing-over-jewish-continuity-and-megadonors-is]