Obituary: Demographer Egon Mayer, 59, Advocate of Outreach, is Dead
Edmund Case was leaving a career in corporate law for Jewish social work, anxious to tackle intermarriage issues. Case, at the time a graduate student at Brandeis University, called Egon Mayer, chairman of Brooklyn College’s sociology department. Mayer visited with Case for two hours and promised to help him. Case eventually launched an Internet publication promoting Jewish choices for interfaith families. Because of Mayer’s encouragement, Case said, “I ended up devoting my life to the cause of outreach and the intermarried.” On Saturday, Mayer, one of the most prominent — and, in some quarters, controversial– chroniclers of American Jewry, died at his Laurel Hollow, N.Y., home after battling gall bladder cancer. He was 59.
While many of Mayer’s closest friends knew he had been ill, his death came as a deep blow to the wider American Jewish community, where he was considered a pioneer in advocating outreach to interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews in response to rising intermarriage rates and declining communal ties. “His was an important voice in the Jewish community,” said Gary Tobin, a demographer and president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. “He established what over time is going to be an important institutional presence in Jewish life, which is outreach.” Mayer’s scholarly work initially focused on the fervently Orthodox in America. In 1979 he wrote “From Suburb to Shtetl,” which examined the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park and how Chassidic sects confront modern culture. In 1985 he wrote “Love and Tradition: Marriage Between Jews and Christians,” which examined intermarriage and amplified those voices who said it would benefit the Jewish community to welcome non-Jewish spouses and their children rather than shun them.
Mayer later delved deeper into interfaith families, publishing such works as “Conversion Among the Intermarried: Choosing to Become Jewish.” In 1990 he was among the authors of the National Jewish Population Survey, a landmark study funded by the national Jewish federation system. That study became infamous for its finding that — while the overall intermarriage rate was 28 percent — about half of those Jews who had wed in the past five years had married non-Jews. The community split into those urging greater efforts to boost Jewish identity to prevent intermarriage and others who said outreach to more marginal Jews — and to intermarried families — would draw them closer to the tradition.
Amid that debate, Mayer in 1998 became founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, the first communal effort devoted to outreach. “He was one of the few people able to challenge the Jewish establishment to be more inclusive and open-minded,” said Myrna Baron, executive director of the Center for Cultural Judaism in New York. The center, a headquarters for the Secular Humanistic Judaism movement, last year reissued the landmark 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey. Mayer worked on the study with Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar at the graduate center of the City University of New York. The survey replicated the methodology of the 1990 NJPS and found that intermarriage had risen to 33 percent, while 49 percent of American Jews considered themselves secular to some degree. The survey sparked more dissent and even criticism, including from others in the world of Jewish demography and sociology. “We had to absorb all these knocks,” Keysar recalled. But Keysar and others said Mayer was committed to finding facts, regardless of controversy.
As some 300 people crammed into the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome, N.Y., on Sunday for Mayer’s funeral, a story circulated about a friend who was supposed to supervise Mayer on one of his projects. The friend asked Mayer if he would mind. “He said, II have only one boss, which is the truth,’ ” Baron said. Many also spoke of a man who valued conversation more than competition. “He was a true colleague in the sense of sharing and listening to other people,” Keysar said. He wasn’t interested “in giving the last word.” The home page of Mayer’s personal Web site shows an open door to his office, inviting the user to enter. It was in late August that Mayer’s friends and colleagues received a shocking email. Mayer said he had been diagnosed with cancer that had spread throughout his body, and that the prognosis was grim. Assuring people he would continue to work, he went on to write that he remained a “picture of good health.” “Biking and kayaking are still in. Alligator wrestling is still out,” Mayer wrote.
It was a typically light touch by Mayer, a gentle figure who after years in the United States still retained the charm of a slight Central European accent. Mayer was born in Switzerland and raised in Hungary. His family immigrated to the United States during the 1956 Hungarian revolution. He received a B.A. from Brooklyn College, an M.A. from the New School for Social Research and a doctorate from Rutgers University. Other projects included an investigation of Rudolf Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who negotiated an infamous deal with Adolf Eichmann to secret a select group of Hungarian Jews — among them Mayer’s parents — to Switzerland during the Nazi era. Kasztner’s efforts sparked intense debate about whether Jews should deal with the Nazis. After moving to Israel, he was assassinated in 1957.
Mayer considered Kasztner a hero — just as many regarded Mayer. Roberta Satow, a longtime Brooklyn College colleague and his interim successor as chairwoman of the sociology department, told mourners that she kept a photo of Mayer on her desk to remind her not to speak badly to others. Case, too, said he “was thinking of putting a picture of him on my desk.” Mayer is survived by his wife, Marcia Kramer Mayer; a daughter, Daphne; two stepdaughters, Rena Fox and Danielle Kramer; his mother, Hedy Mayer, and his brother, George.