Michelle Shain is an associate research scientist at CMJS/SSRI. She will be leaving CMJS next week to begin a new position at the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research.
How do you look back on your 10 years at CMJS? What do you feel you have gained from your time here?
My years at CMJS have been formative for me. I gained a tremendous amount of theoretical, methodological, and content expertise, in addition to practical research experience, which has left me prepared to take on my new role. Perhaps more importantly, I forged relationships with scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as with funders and practitioners within the Jewish community. Those relationships helped me learn how to communicate research findings in a way that is useful to a broad set of stakeholders. I hope to bring the academic rigor as well as the passion that permeate the CMJS culture with me to the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research.
Your research covered a wide range of topics, including Birthright, intermarriage, antisemitism on campus. Were there any unexpected findings?
The finding that surprised me the most was that going on a Birthright Israel trip has a positive, substantive impact on participants’ likelihoods of marrying a Jew later in life. That finding was first released in 2009 in the CMJS report Generation Birthright Israel and has been replicated since. I didn’t expect that a 10-day program would have an impact of that magnitude. I’m still trying to understand the mechanism behind it.
The finding that seems to surprise others the most is that the proportion of non-Jewish undergraduates who support the BDS movement is less than 10%, even at a school like the University of Michigan where the student government passed a BDS resolution. That finding was reported in the 2017 CMJS report The Limits of Hostility. I think the media’s reporting on this topic gives people a distorted picture of campus life.
Annette Koren recently retired from CMJS after 13 years. We asked her to share with us some of her thoughts on her career and the state of Israel studies.
Congratulations on your prolific career! Can you tell us a little about your background before you joined CMJS in 2004?
I attended graduate school at Indiana University where I earned a PhD in social and economic history. I taught at Fordham University before beginning a career in business. After a stint in market research and part-time teaching, I became the Research and Evaluation consultant for the Boston Bureau of Jewish Education where I got to know CMJS’ Dr. Amy Sales through our partnership evaluating the Sh’arim Family Educator Initiative.
You have spearheaded many of the projects related to Israel studies on college campuses. How do you think the study of Israel on campus has changed since you began looking at it?
It has expanded dramatically. The American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University are two examples. Beginning in 2005, AICE funded and provided professional development assistance to graduate students concentrating in Israel studies and also recruited and funded Israeli faculty to teach courses about Israel at universities in the United States. The Schusterman Center at Brandeis, founded in 2007, prepared graduate students in the field and created the Summer Institute for Israel Studies (SIIS). To date, SIIS has prepared 270 faculty members from a variety of colleges and universities to teach about Israel. These individuals, many who otherwise may never have taught a course about Israel, now teach such courses at colleges and universities across the United States and around the world.
AICE and SIIS, with their emphasis on academic scholarship, as opposed to advocacy, helped make it possible for professors to offer their students the opportunity to learn about Israel beyond ‘the conflict.’ Our directories of Israel studies document the dramatic increase in the range and sheer numbers of courses being offered. Continue reading →
Among the memorable characters created by Gilda Radner (z’l), one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, was an older woman, Emily Litella, who would mishear the news. After engaging in an angry diatribe in response to what she thought she heard, Emily would shyly follow up with an apologetic “never mind.” Radner’s sketches came to mind as I heard about the latest data on young adults’ attachment to Israel.
For a half dozen years, a rallying cry among leading pundits has been that American Jews are losing the commitment to Israel that characterized earlier generations. The “distancing hypothesis” was propelled into the consciousness of American Jews by pollster Frank Luntz and later by a number of social scientists. In what would become the dominant narrative of the last several years, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman argued in a 2007 report that a “mounting body of evidence has pointed to a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews, and the distancing seems to be most pronounced among younger Jews.”
The Jewish Community Study of New York, just published, describes fascinating developments in the largest center of Jewish life outside of Israel. There is much to digest and discuss. For the moment, though, I want to quickly address the small corner of the study that relates to a contentious issue among social scientists who study the Jews: trends in attachment to Israel.
The study’s authors, Steven Cohen, Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller, interpret the study’s findings to be consistent with Cohen’s broader claim that attachment to Israel is declining across the generations among non-Orthodox Jews, primarily due to intermarriage. A careful review of the evidence presented in the study report, however, suggests the possibility of an alternative interpretation. Continue reading →
Last year, along with several of my colleagues at the Center, we published a paper in the journal Contemporary Jewrythat reported, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that American Jews’ emotional attachment to Israel was not declining. Rather, according to the annual surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee since the mid-1980s, the level of attachment had held fairly steady—or slightly increased—over the past quarter century. As often occurs when conventional wisdom is upended, our paper elicited challenges from skeptical colleagues.
Our colleagues’ challenges were both methodological and conceptual. The AJC surveys included only respondents who said their religion is Jewish. What if we had examined surveys that included respondents who identify as Jewish but not by religion? Moreover, almost all contemporary surveys report that older Jews are more attached to Israel. If declining attachment across the generations doesn’t explain this finding, then what does? Continue reading →