JCC Readies for Columbus Jewish Bookfair

JCC Readies for Columbus Jewish Bookfair with September 21 Author Visit

The JCC’s Columbus Jewish Bookfair will kick off in a little over a month, on October 19, 2014. But before the 10-day Bookfair begins on October 19, the JCC will partner with the Melton Center for Jewish Studies to bring Dr. Carmel Chiswick to Columbus to discuss her work, Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices shape Religious Tradition. The co-sponsored September 21 visit begins at 7 pm and will conclude with an author Q&A session.

Chiswick’s topical look at the way American Jews make efficient use of Judaism as an “economic good” is a thought-provoking new approach to the question of how Judaism can adapt and embrace change in the 21st century. “Today’s Jews have to fit their secular life to their Jewish values, all while trying to fit Jewish activities into their secular world. It’s not that Americans aren’t religious, it’s that we’re ‘differently’ religious,” Chiswick explained how her book first took shape.

Her work is an optimistic portrait of American Jewish culture. Chiswick does not necessarily view intermarriage or secularism as inhibiting Judaism’s growth but as ways that Judaism has adapted itself to fit into a more inclusive, assimilated society. As Judaism in Transition outlines how economic decisions affect religion, Chiswick explores how changes in our economic environment will affect the Jewish community for decades to come.

“American Jews are adapting and inventing. The community is split between two extremes.” She spoke of the positives of these economic changes, such as the Jewish Renewal movement. “What we will see in the future of Judaism, and we’re already seeing it, is this tremendous increase in the variety of ways that people ‘do Jewish,’” Chiswick continued.

As an example of this increased interest in Judaism in the 21st century, she noted how Jewish bookstores are brimming with multiple titles on the same subject, offering as many as 20 different haggadot during Passover. Or, she pointed out, synagogues offer multiple services for families who want variety in their approach to spirituality. “Yes, the Jewish population is shrinking. But those Jews who remain Jewish are experiencing an intensity that we didn’t see 50 years ago. Jewish renewal is very vibrant,” she added.

Chiswick is currently Research Professor of Economics at George Washington University and a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany. Her work is essentially a case study in the economics of religion, but Chiswick, who grew up in the Conservative movement of the 1950s, uses the subject of her own experience to bring fresh insight to the topic. “We Americans have invented time-saving ways of being Jewish. Any time a religious activity involves your family—like the Passover Seder—that’s family time, but it’s also Jewish time,” she said.

For Jewish leadership looking to find ways to engage their community more, Chiswick offered this advice: “If you can combine Judaism with other time-intensive things so that you save people’s time, then you’ll get a better turnout. My favorite example is supper. If you have a Jewish event in the evening, you want it to involve the family and you want it to involve supper. You’re more likely to get a higher turnout, not because people love the food, but because then they don’t have to cook supper,” she explained.

Chiswick began her work from the basic premise that, for American Jews, time is more difficult to budget than money. Therefore, religious practice becomes less of a priority as time becomes scarcer. But because of this struggle, American Jews have come up with a variety of creative ways to not only embrace Judaism, but to modify it in meaningful ways to fit into modern life. This topic is of special importance for the Columbus Jewish community as it looks to find ways to broaden and grow the Jewish community and to understand the challenges facing the community today and in the future.

During her discussion on September 21, Chiswick will introduce some basic statistics on American Jews, then, like in her book, focus on resource constraints, family life, and immigrant life. “I’m interested in how these new developments in the economics of the family and the economics of immigration give us insight into how Americans have changed the way they ‘do Jewish,’” Chiswick said.

Israel also looms large for Chiswick, as an agent of change for American Judaism. Included in the book on how economics are changing and changed by American Judaism is an entire chapter on how Israel has also influenced Judaism in America. Because, concluded Chiswick, “Israel has just transformed the way we ‘do Jewish’ in America. When I was a little girl in the Fifties, you did not speak Hebrew conversationally. And you never went to Israel; Israel was just that land across the sea. Just the fact that Israel exists as a Jewish state has changed the way we think of ourselves as American Jews.”

To RSVP for this fascinating discussion looking at how American Judaism has changed and shaped Jewish identity in the 21st century from an economics perspective, contact Cheryl Dritz at cdritz@columbusjcc.org or call (614) 559-6238. The special September program taking place in conjunction with The Ohio State University’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies will begin at 7 pm on September 21 at the JCC at 1125 College Avenue, Columbus, OH 43209.