The Center Is Not Holding

The Center Is Not Holding!

June 22, 2012


       This week’s Torah portion, Korach, from the Book of Numbers, chapter 16, begins with an archaic translation of the verb, “took.”  It reads, “Now Korach, son of Ishar son of Kohat son of Levi, betook himself…”  This is quite curious in that the new Jewish Publication Society translation strives to avoid a word that is not part of common usage.  When was the last time you heard someone say, “betook?”  This causes us to look more closely at the Hebrew text.

          The Hebrew words vayikach Korach would ordinarily be translated as “Korach took.”  Yet the verb “took” needs to have a subject, which is Korach, and a direct object which is lacking in this sentence.  There is not even a hint in this sentence that Korach took something.  So, following the translation suggested by Midrash Tanhuma and cited by Rashi, the JPS translation uses the word “betook,” causing the sentence to read, “Now Korach betook himself to rise up against Moses together with two hundred fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community.”  Korach rebelled against Moses and ultimately against God.  His biggest crime, one intimated by the translation betook is that Korach separated himself from the Jewish people.  He thought that he was outside of the community.  He betook himself and his followers from being part of the People of Israel and thus became a faction, catalysts for further factionalization.[1]

          I bring this up tonight because I will discuss the recently released New York Jewish Population Study and compare it to the Baltimore Jewish Population Study concluded last year.  There is so much to say that this will be a two part sermon.  I will speak about this tonight as well as next week.  We will see that there is an increasing factionalization within the Jewish community, so much so that we cannot be sure if there is any longer a center to the Jewish community.

          Both the New Yorkand Baltimore population studies were done by Jack Ukeles and Associates of New York.  As an aside, my son, Benjamin, was the project manager for both studies.  Let’s now turn to the figures.  In the 1981 New Yorkpopulation survey, 35% of New York area Jewish households identified as Conservative, followed by 29% Reform and 13% as Orthodox.  In the latest survey, 32% identified as Orthodox, 20% as Reform, and 19% as Conservative.  In thirty years, Orthodox identification has surged while Conservative and Reform identification has greatly declined.  The percentage of those identifying as “Just Jewish” rose from 19% in 1981 to 26% in 2012 continuing a trend of young people not wishing to be denominationally identified.  As one sociologist said about these results, “It seems that the middle has fallen out of our community while the wings are growing rapidly.”  Steven Cohen, a leading demographer and one of the authors of the study, points out “that the notion of a society with a strong center is passé and that over the last several decades, Americahas become increasingly diverse, fluid, and complex.  We are long past the 1950s America of Mom, Dad, the two kids, the suburbs and the dog in the backyard.  The new study offers a sharper picture of diversity with more Jews in both the highly engaged and highly unengaged sectors, reflective of an American society that is more diverse, more of a mosaic and with more complexity.”[2]

          The Jewish community reflects the growing polarization within theUnited States.  In recent decades there has been an increase in Evangelical Christians on the right and secular liberals on the left while there has been a decrease in religious moderates of all kinds.  There has been a huge increase in the number of right wing Orthodox and a concomitant decrease in the number of Reform and Conservative Jews.  Another surprising statistic in theNew Yorkstudy was the large number of Jewish poor.  20% of Jewish households are poor today compared to 15% in 2002.  Most of these Jews are elderly and right wing Orthodox Jews.  The bottom line inNew Yorkis that the community is growing and that Orthodox Jews make up over one-third of theNew YorkJewish community.

          How does this compare with Baltimore?  Our Jewish community has also grown- with a 16% increase in Jewish households since 1999 (42,500) and a 2% increase in Jewish persons (93,400) and an 8% increase in those living in Jewish households (108,000).  Northwest Baltimore, including Pikesville,Upper Park Heights, Owings Mills, and Mt.Washington is still home to two thirds of our Jewish community with large numbers of Jews living Downtown, in Roland Park, Guilford, Towson, and Timonium.  Our community is evenly distributed between the various age groups with concentrations of children in UpperParkHeights. One of the surprising statistics is that 87% of Orthodox respondents under age 35 are married while only 15% of all other Jewish respondents are married.  This later marriage age contributes to the much lower birthrate of non-Orthodox Jews and the much higher birthrate of Orthodox Jews.  As time goes on, these trends only appear to be increasing.  30% of Baltimore Jews said they were just managing to make ends meet and 3% said they are not able to make ends meet.  This means that 33% of Baltimore Jews are economically struggling.  This is compared to 21% three years ago.  12% of Baltimore Jews live below the Federal poverty level (compared to 20% of New York Jews).  A very interesting statistic is that our denominational affiliation mirrors that of New York Jewry.  23% ofBaltimore Jewish households consider themselves Reform, 26% Conservative, and 32% Orthodox.   In 1999, 52% of all Baltimore Jews belonged to a synagogue while today it is only 46%, meaning more than half of the Jewish community does not belong to a synagogue.  Over 90% of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jews are affiliated, meaning that the non-Jewish community is overwhelming unaffiliated.  Congregational membership is strongly related to income among non-Orthodox households.  Disturbingly, an increasingly minority of non-Orthodox Jews are not involved in Jewish life and 2/3rds of non-Orthodox newcomers to Baltimore do not feel connected to the community. 

          So what does this mean to us?  Obviously, there is a lot to discuss.  The implications for our future are staggering.  That is what I will talk about next week.  Stay tuned for more….

Shabbat shalom

[1] JTS Torah Commentary, June 23, 2012

[2] New York Jewish Week, June 15, page 7.

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