Suburbia: Battleground for Jewish Continuity

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June 1, 2007
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Alan Silverstein

I am profoundly honored to respond to the conversation between Steven M. Cohen and Herb Gans. Gans’ assessment of the emerging suburbs of generations past offers a context to assess the suburban future of Jewish communal life. Below I share eight observations.

1. In 2007, suburbia is no longer the exception, the timid flight from urban areas of first and second settlement. Suburbia has emerged as the American Jewish norm for all but certain sectors of the Orthodox community.

2. Diversity exists within the suburban experience. Suburbs, such as Elkins Park (the suburban Philadelphia I knew in my childhood years) or Livingston (the Essex county suburbs of my rabbinical career), offer heavily clustered Jewish populations reminiscent of Jewish urban enclaves in generations past. More common, however, are suburbs in which Jews live as moderate-sized or small minorities.

3. Jewish/non-Jewish suburban friendship patterns in public and private schools, in civic life, and at work have reduced Jewish/Jewish social networking. Adults socializing with peers of diverse backgrounds set into motion a similar, if not larger, pattern among their offspring.

4. As a counter factor, suburban Jewry’s communal life no longer clusters around Jewish defense organizations. Rather, it primarily revolves around the quest for social networks forged within synagogues, federations, JCCs, and Jewish day schools.

5. Today, American suburban Jewry lives with a large and growing intermarried subset. As documented by Steven M. Cohen, this change accounts for much of the decline of the ethnic/peoplehood/Israel/Holocaust orientation and consensus.

6. Fifty years ago, Orthodox Judaism was rare in the suburban frontier. Today, both Modern/Centrist Orthodox as well as Chabad synagogues and yeshivot dot the landscape. They draw some of the population who might

otherwise affiliate with Conservative congregations. They also bring greater availability of kosher foods, Judaica stores, and intense Jewish learning experiences.

7. The suburban Jewish community is no longer dominated by nuclear Jewish families focusing institutional attention exclusively upon their children. Today an array of household types abound: never married, divorced, widowed, single and/or single-parent adults, second or third marriages, couples without children, empty nesters, senior citizens, gay or lesbian households, intermarrieds, and so forth.

8. As the huge baby-boomer generation sends its offspring into adulthood, and contemplates retirement, Jewish communal life faces a range of new challenges for life-long Jewish engagement. A Judaism focused on children will no longer suffice.

The future of most of non-Orthodox American Jews will be determined by the degree to which suburban living remains compatible with sustaining Jewish identity. Herb Gans identified the onset of that process, a half century ago. In 2007, Jewish communal life must continue to seed and reseed the infrastructure that has emerged as the lifeline of the world’s preeminent Diaspora community.

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Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J. He is a Past President both of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the World Council of Conservative Synagogues.

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