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 Nextbook.org (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.