Don’t ignore Steven Cohen’s research

Don’t ignore Steven Cohen’s research

Rabbi Avis Miller
Rabbi Avis Miller

As former chair of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) of the Conservative Movement’s committee on Keruv/Giyyur (outreach/conversion) from 1992-1995 and 2004-2006, I have over decades served on panels and committees with sociologist Steven Cohen. Though I fortunately never personally experienced his negative interactions with women that have recently come to light, I condemn them in no uncertain terms.

But I suggest that we ignore his research at our own peril. His studies, along with others by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Jack Wertheimer, accord with what many of us have been witnessing in our congregations and communities: shrinking and aging Jewish populations, and growing rates of intermarriage and assimilation.

We can all cite what mathematicians would call anecdata: personal stories of intermarried families (particularly but not exclusively those in which the mother is Jewish) leading full Jewish lives, raising children who are seriously committed Jews, who even become our rabbinical colleagues. We need to continue to reach out and draw potential Jewish families like these into our hearts and homes. But at the same time as we welcome individuals and families, we should not conflate anecdata and statistics, personal warmth, and institutional policy.

Some research by outreach organizations has found that reaching out significantly affects the percentage of families who purport to be “raising Jewish children.” But a closer analysis may reveal that the study has not specified what is meant by “raising Jewish children,” which may mean no more than having a Pesach seder and lighting Chanukah candles, criteria met even by some non-Jews we know.

Ascribing venal motives to Cohen’s research is especially misguided and short-sighted. At a time when assimilated Jews are increasingly directing their considerable inherited wealth toward secular cultural and educational institutions, if the results of his studies have sounded the continuity alarm and prompted support for day schools, camps, and outreach programs like Birthright, then committed Jews should welcome those much-needed contributions. The sad joke in the modern Orthodox community: What is the most effective form of birth control? Day school tuition.

Finally, I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned that Cohen authored (with Judith Schor) the 2004 study sponsored by the RA, entitled “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained Since 1985.” The survey attempted to reach out to all 156 women RA members in the U.S., and compare their responses with male rabbis ordained at the same time. The response rate was 75 percent. The survey documents the striking disparity in career trajectory and compensation for male and female rabbis.

The results of the study conclude: “Their (women rabbis’) under-participation (in leadership of congregations and communities) deprives the Jewish community of full access to the best possible spiritual and educational leadership available. The under-representation of women in certain sectors of Conservative rabbinic leadership, coupled with their under-compensation, is not only a matter of equity and fairness. It is also a matter of securing the best possible leadership for American Jews.”

If someone you distrust, even despise, cries fire, when you smell smoke, it behooves you to get out.

Rabbi Avis Miller is rabbi emerita at Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, D.C., and High Holiday rabbi at 6th & I Historic Synagogue’s Main Sanctuary in Washington, D.C.

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