As a professor of Jewish Studies, how do you perceive your responsibility to the Jewish community?

Steven Cohen


On a personal level, the formulation of this question is troubling in that it conveys the notion that serving the Jewish People is construed as a byproduct of my service as a professor of Jewish Studies. In point of fact, the reverse is true. My decision to pursue an academic career as a sociologist of American Jewry—taken as an 18-year-old Columbia College junior—took shape as a direct consequence of my strongly held intention to serve the Jewish People. My entire career (except for a four-year interlude as an assistant professor when I wrote articles on ethnicity in pursuit of tenure) has been entirely devoted to exploring issues of policy relevance to Jewish communal life.

Thus, my research has been animated by, and enriched by, the most urgent questions being asked by Jewish communal leaders. These generally revolve around the central issue of the quality of Jewish life and how it can be improved. Accordingly, I've addressed my writings, directly or obliquely, to the most energetic areas of contemporary discourse in Jewish communal life. By way of illustration, I've sought to:

1. Demonstrate that which should be intuitively known (e.g., various forms of intensive Jewish education produce clear positive consequences).
2. Add nuance to our collective murky understanding of emerging trends (e.g., The Sovereign Jewish Self and The Jew Within).
3. Spark debate about vital issues (distancing of younger American Jews from Israel, largely due to intermarriage).
4. Develop innovative policy responses and rationales (e.g., on intermarriage, presenting myself as an "empirical hawk" and a "policy dove").
5. Advance thinking on practice and policy for leaders (as in Sacred Strategies for congregational leaders).
6. Promote particular ways of thinking about Jewish engagement (e.g., as a culture and nationality rather than a Western religious identity).

I see my "students" as located outside the classroom, with communal professionals, lay leaders, and philanthropists uppermost in my mind, along with colleagues and other social scientists. And, I've sought collaborative relationships, having co-authored works with at least sixty different colleagues over the years. In short, contributing to Jewish life is intrinsic to my academic mission.