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Typical American Jews Speak About Israel

Why did NYT reporter schlep to Michigan?

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The New York Times today did what it does every month or two and published an article about Jews that is all but guaranteed to shoot to the top of its Most Emailed list (if it hasn’t already). This one is about a familiar topic: The disconnect between American Jews and Jewish-American institutional leaders on the subject of Israel. The leaders have vociferously criticized the Obama administration for its harsh treatment of Israel in the past couple months; but many American Jews find themselves agreeing with the criticisms and aligning with upstart J Street, prominently featured in the article. While Obama’s approval rating has probably plummeted among the leaders, it has been basically constant among all American Jews. The article reports:

A newly outspoken wing of Israel supporters has begun to challenge the old-school reflexive support of the country’s policies, suggesting that one does not have to be slavish to Israeli policies to love Israel.

The article concerns all American Jews, but it is datelined “FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich.” In other words, the Times’s religion correspondent traveled to this Detroit suburb for the piece. He gathered a focus group consisting of non-participating members of Birmingham Temple, a secular humanistic synagogue there, in order to ask them about Israel and get a response from “the demographic middle.” I was curious why the author went here, and not somewhere else. Are Farmington Hills and Birmingham Temple representative of American Jews generally? Unrepresentative? Turns out, probably a bit of both.

I called Rachel Sugar, a former editorial assistant at (Tablet Magazine’s precursor). She grew up near Farmington Hills; her bat mitzvah was held at Birmingham Temple (though it was not performed by that synagogue). In many ways, she said, the area is a typical heavily Jewish suburb of a major American city: A Shaker Heights, or a Newton, or a Bethesda (represent!). There is an interesting demographic quirk, though: Farmington Hills has a large minority of Arabic residents, particularly Iraqi Christians (who more famously congregate in nearby Dearborn). “We get groceries at the Iraqi Christian supermarket down the street,” Sugar told me. So that could provide Jewish residents with an especially interesting perspective.

Then there’s Birmingham Temple. The article describes it as “secular humanistic,” without elaborating on what that means. It also doesn’t note that this isn’t any old secular humanistic shul, but rather is the original secular humanistic synagogue, started in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. (He died three years ago in a car crash with his life-partner. Yup, a gay rabbi!) Humanistic Judaism celebrates certain Jewish holidays, but it bills itself as a “nontheistic alternative to Jewish life,” which instead of belief in God subscribes to a “human-based philosophy.”

The author of the article says he selected several inactive members of Birmingham Temple for a sort of focus group because they “roughly matched the profile of about 60 percent of American Jews, according to various studies: They do not belong to a synagogue and do not attend services or belong to Jewish organizations, yet they consider themselves Jewish.” I confess I didn’t know about Secular Humanistic Judaism until reporting this post (and, by the way, please be kind in the comments), but I have to say, without judgment, that just as wealthy, politically conservative institutional leaders are probably not typical American Jews, my guess is that adherents of this branch of the religion—particularly ones who don’t even affilate with the synagogue—are not necessarily speaking for the “demographic middle” either. But maybe this conservative Jew who lives in New York City is blinkered?

Anyway, I do have a final hunch as to why Farmington Hills was chosen. It is in Oakland County, which, as political junkies know, has replaced neighboring Macomb County as what pollsters consider to be the average American county, demographically speaking. Something tells me that not too many institutional American Jewish leaders hail from there, and it is hard to deny that has become a problem.

On Israel, Jews and Leaders Often Disagree [NYT]

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max says:

What’s so mysterious? Journalism doesn’t even pretend to be impartial anymore. He chose this community because he knew that he’d get the answer that he was looking for. If he had the opposite thesis he would have chosen an orthodox congregation in New York to confirm his thesis.

Former Farmington Hills Resident says:

The Iraqi Christians who live in Farmington Hills are largely members of an ethnic group known as Chaldean that do not consider themselves to be ‘Arabic’ anymore than the Iraqi Jews considered themselves to be ‘Arabic.’ Their native language is a descendant of Aramaic and they have exactly zero interest in anything related to Israeli issues.

Al says:

First, this was a good article because it focused on a NY Times piece that can potentially influence many people. That said, there are a couple of points that this current suburban Detroit Jew would like to make regarding Mr. Tracy’s information:

“Farmington Hills has a large minority of Arabic residents, particularly Iraqi Christians (who more famously congregate in nearby Dearborn).”

These Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans. The Chaldean community has been in the Detroit area for about 80 years. The Arab community in Dearborn is primarily Muslim of Lebanese and Palestinian as well as Iraqi descent. The Chaldeans were persecuted in Iraq by the Muslim majority because of their Christian beliefs.

“Something tells me that not too many institutional American Jewish leaders hail from there (Oakland County), and it is hard to deny that has become a problem.”

The Jewish community in the Detroit area has seen it population hemorrhage from 95,000 in 1990 to around 70,000 today. The average age of Jews in the Detroit area has risen as most young people leave because they can’t find work. The fact that Oakland County has become the newest representative of the “average American county” can hardly be seen as being synonymous with even roughly portraying “the profile of 60% of American Jews” – assuming that concept even exists.

DG says:

I noticed the strange group they polled. It really stood out.

Ok he knew what they would say, they are involved with a small fringe group of Judaism that really isn’t that influential. The author had not even heard of it.
Agree that the Times knew what they would say.

Orchard Lake Road represent says:

Metro-Detroit is a major population center of American Jewry and has been for 100 years. The Detroit Jewish population is centered in a cluster of suburbs, much like in every other major American city, one of which is Farmington Hills, Michigan. So yes, Farmington Hills is perfectly representative of American Jews in general, Birmingham Temple aside. By the way buying groceries from Chaldeans in Michigan is not very different from buying any other goods or services from Arabs/Asians/miscellaneous ethnic group in any other locale, say, NYC. Yup, I really get a good perspective on things by having my extra keys made by a foreign looking guy at the hardware store. I think you think you’re criticizing the Times for focusing on a non-representative sample of Jews, but you’re the one who apparently has never heard of humanistic Judaism, and sounds surprised to learn that Jews live in fly-over country too.

oh and by the way?

“Something tells me that not too many institutional American Jewish leaders hail from there”

“Rabbi Daniel Nevins is the Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary…

Rabbi Nevins began his work at JTS in July 2007, after serving for thirteen years as rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan.”

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Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specially the last part I care for such info much. I was seeking this certain info for a long time. I will keep the attention of your blog. Thank you and have a great day.


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Typical American Jews Speak About Israel

Why did NYT reporter schlep to Michigan?

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