Q: This month, I have decided to explore my own question: In light of the recent allegations of Stephen Cohen’s sexual misconduct, how do we, as a Jewish community, interpret his research? Cohen is the researcher who called our attention to the increasing number of intermarried couples and shaped a view of intermarriage as a cataclysmic, negative event in the Jewish community. Does his behavior have any bearing on his interpretation? Should his findings guide future studies?
A: A quick Google search reveals multiple articles by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, many op-eds in the Forward, and an astounding number of internet arguments over what this will mean for the field of Jewish sociology. This online conversation about Steven Cohen centers primarily on his misogynistic behaviors: grabbing women’s breasts, forcibly kissing his colleagues, advancing women’s careers — or not — based on their sexual availability. Some Jewish sociologists think his attitudes toward women tainted his research; one of his solutions was that Jewish women should reproduce in order to ensure Jewish continuity in the face of the “intermarriage crisis.” Rokhl Kaffrisen noted in the Forward that his seeing women as objects must have influenced his conclusion that women’s bodies are owned by the past, present, and future Jewish community. Ed Case, on the other hand, believes Cohen’s research should be challenged on its own merits, rather than because of Cohen’s attitudes toward women.
Cohen's behavior was disgraceful. However, like Case, I am willing to grant Cohen his due as someone who did well with the numbers. He painted a good demographic picture of intermarriage in American. When we hire a demographer we expect them to give us numbers, but no study can tell us everything. Cohen’s negative attitude toward women limited his interpretation of those numbers. Cohen is not wrong for investigating statistics, but he should be held accountable for his interpretation and his misogynistic behaviors.
Cohen may have discouraged female sociologists from pursuing their careers. They avoided him due to his creepy behavior, and any mentoring came with a price. We need social science researchers from multiple perspectives and backgrounds in order to understand the full breadth of our community. For example, one of his accusers, Karen McGinity, writes about the differences between the female-headed intermarried households and the male intermarried households. Her work offers us a new and unique perspective on demographic issues in Judaism. Had Cohen not been the most prominent Jewish demographer, would her work have been promoted? We should not silence the voices of half of our people, but Cohen discouraged women’s success.
Similarly misogynistically, Cohen did not seem to take women’s lived experience into account in his research. Traditionally in Judaism, women have been responsible for the emotional and social needs of families — this is often still the case. Caring for a family is demanding work, but Cohen’s research ignored the work of family-building after birth; keeping families together is a lifelong task. Was Cohen’s choice not to explore this influenced by his lack of respect for women? He who asks the questions wins the debate. We can and should ask if Cohen’s statistical analysis took into account the whole picture. He may have researched his questions well, but were they the questions that needed to be asked?
Cohen told us a lot about the number of intermarriages and their religious practices. However, for most families in America, the most important questions when a child intermarries is “How do I keep my family together?”
The questions I would ask are as follows: How are the 71 percent of intermarried Jewish families keeping their families close to Judaism? What specific behaviors work for them? What community policies facilitate engagement?
Had he respected women’s family-building efforts, Cohen might have interpreted his data as a sign that the Jewish community is losing intermarried families — and need to change to keep them close. He might have asked if the community was forcing families to choose between their Judaism and their children – “How do families feel about ostracizing their children?” Isn’t it time to ask how mothers are walking the fine line between being members of their community and keeping their families together, even if that means being open to new traditions? How are they including non-Jewish in-laws that their children will need as life’s adversities inevitably come?
Remember “Fiddler on the Roof?” Chava wanted to marry a non Jewish man, her father refused to accept her. Of course, the mother got no say! We don’t hear about the mother’s broken heart, her life’s work thrown away. Isn’t it time to ask ourselves, “What is the lived experience of a faithful Jew whose child intermarries?” She may be very happy that her child has found a fine human to share her life. She may see this as an opportunity to teach Judaism to a greater audience. What is the experience of an involved Jew with a non-Jewish spouse? What is the experience of the adult children? Chava didn’t want to leave her community and family; they kicked her out.
Proponents of Cohen’s data want us to shun all intermarried families. In the shtetl, shunning may have worked to keep the community intact: Refusing to conform meant being cut off from ritual and social services. In the United States, while the community may help in times of crisis, families have replaced communities as the nexus of support; family members provide each other a social safety net. Moreover, Jews are lucky enough to be welcomed in multiple communities. We do not have to rely on each other as strongly; there are other venues for financial and social support. This means that Jewish communities are opt-in, not opt-out; should they fail to meet congregants’ needs, constituents will leave. So why are Jews opting out? Why are so many children of Jewish-Jewish parents still unaffiliated? Why do 32 percent of Jewish millennials identify as being “of no religion?”
Cohen’s research does not examine the difficult choices contemporary families are actually making. He did not ask why Jews are leaving Judaism, or how Judaism can help them stay. The blame does not just lie on Cohen; communities chose to interpret his statistics as a “crisis,” as opposed to an opportunity to enlarge our community.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org