Red Flags for American Jews?

Robert Israel

When the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life issued its portentous findings about Jewish Americans in late 2013, alarmed reactions quickly followed.1 In a statement to The New York Times, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, summed up what many of his co-religionists felt. “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” he said.2

Consider one of the Pew survey’s major findings and you’ll understand why: One in five American Jews expressed a preference for choosing the social aspects of Jewish life over a devotion to Judaism’s religious tenets. According to the report, “The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.”

What’s particularly alarming about this statistic is that the gap between the secular and religious among American Jews is widening, despite efforts by the organized Jewish community to prevent it from doing so. All three major branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—invest heavily in Jewish identification programs with their undeclared motto: Once a Jew, always a Jew, from the cradle to the grave. While the three branches of Judaism may argue about approaches to this effort, they are unified around promoting adherence to the Jewish lifecycle continuum, inculcating Jews into embracing Jewish religious practices. By employing twenty-first-century technologies—email blasts, computerized telephone banks, and postings on social media—each branch of Judaism works feverishly to hold on to the faithful and to welcome back those who may have strayed. Yet these programs are not reaching their intended targets. Bluntly stated, in a pluralistic America, it is easy for many to live on the outskirts or to reject Judaism altogether. According to the Pew survey, many Jews are choosing to do just that.

“Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this,” the Pew report stated, adding: “62% [of the respondents] say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion [those respondents who identified their religion as Jewish, as opposed to those who identified as ‘Jews of no religion,’ also commonly called secular or cultural Jews], more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture . . . [while] two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.”

Andrés Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, said Jewish groups must either recast current Jewish continuity programs or face greater losses. In an op-ed about the Pew report published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), he wrote: “If we don’t want to lose 30 percent of our people, we need to work much harder at developing alternative avenues for Jewish engagement. We significantly underinvest in Jewish culture as a way to foster Jewish identity.”3

Spokoiny further argued that the Pew report “makes self-evident that one of the main tasks of Jewish leadership needs to be opening as many gateways as possible to Jewish life without being judgmental about which ones are more authentic. The more doors we open, the more people will come in.”

An example of opening doors can be seen in the founding, just over a decade ago, of Keshet (the Hebrew word for “rainbow”), an organization that advocates “for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews in Jewish life.”4 As same-sex marriage becomes law in an increasing number of U.S. states, Keshet will undoubtedly gain a wider following, having already spread from its headquarters in Boston to include chapters in Denver and San Francisco. Gay Jews are out of the closet, and organized Jewish communities—with the exception of the Orthodox community—are warming to them.

The Pew report’s main focus, however, was on heterosexual unions, specifically intermarried couples and their children, whether biological or adopted. This group is more likely to produce children and grandchildren that are not being raised as Jews, the Pew report stated, unfurling another red flag of warning for American Jews. If these warnings illustrate a drift of American Jews away from Judaism’s spiritual core, what does the future hold? What specific steps can be taken to better embrace those intermarried couples the Pew report identifies as holding one of the keys to perpetuating American Jewish life? “Our sacred responsibility is to find broad places within our synagogues for these non-Jews to feel welcome and nurtured,” Gerald Zelizer, a Conservative rabbi of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey, wrote in The Jewish Week. These specific “broad places,” according to Zelizer, include: “[Synagogue] membership, which should be defined by family units, and not individuals, so as to incorporate both partners to the marriage. . . . At a baby naming, as the Jewish partner recites the brachah [blessing] at the Torah, the non-Jew may hold the baby at the Torah as the child is named; at the bar/bat mitzvah of the child, the non-Jew can read psalms in English. . . . [At] Religious schools and youth groups: Children of patrilineal Jewish marriages, or unconverted adopted children, should be encouraged to enroll in our religious schools with the understanding that prior to bar/bat mitzvah they will be required to convert. . . . Burial: A non-Jew may be interred next to his/her Jewish partner in a plot demarcated with special shrubbery so as to, in effect, designate the plot as non-sectarian but adjoining.”5

By stressing acceptance of non-Jews as active participants in the Jewish lifecycle—from the cradle to the grave—Zelizer concluded: “We . . . must do all we can to welcome their blessing, and in return bless them.” Yet Zelizer’s point of view on these lifecycle issues, it should be noted, has yet to be embraced by a majority of Conservative Jewish leaders.

A third red flag of warning the Pew report identified is a widening gap among Jews in their support for the State of Israel. The organized Jewish community, exemplified by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston, directs considerable financial resources in support of Israel. “In our mission to create strong connections with Israel, we’re educating others about the close economic, cultural and strategic ties we share; establishing aid and relief programs in struggling communities; responding to crises; and empowering people to advocate for Israel,” a CJP statement reads.6 Indeed, frequent “crisis” fundraising calls, administered by CJP and organizations of the same ilk, have long been part of their strategic mission. Other efforts include costly junkets for state and nationally elected politicians to travel, all expenses paid, to the Holy Land on “missions,” as well as educational outreach for young people under the Passport to Israel program.

But Pew’s findings reveal support for Israel may be waning in the generations to come. In the sixty-five and older age group, Pew reported that support remains constant: 53 percent of those respondents said caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish. But among Jews younger than thirty, only 32 percent said they felt this way. There was also a reported gap on the topic of Israel between those Jews who identify as being Jewish by religion and those who define their Jewish connection through culture or heritage. About half of religious Jews responded to the Pew survey by stating that caring about Israel is essential, while only 23 percent of nonreligious Jews agreed.

Beth S. Wenger, Professor of American Jewish History and history department chair at the University of Pennsylvania, said that this growing rift may be attributed, in part, to the debate raging in Israel today regarding its treatment of Palestinians.

“Between the entrenched opinions on the far-right and far-left, there is a discernible center [in the U.S.] that supports Israel and wants it to be secure, but is increasingly uncomfortable about a Jewish state that allows Palestinians to live without rights,” Wenger noted. “It is interesting that the Israeli elections did not result in the sharp right-wing shift that many had predicted, but revealed that Israelis are divided and that perhaps there is an emerging (if still only nascent) center.”7

The struggle among Palestinians to achieve full citizenship within Israel is a subject eschewed by the organized Jewish community. Maintaining an apolitical position of “Israel right or wrong” in the twenty-first century—especially among Jews who champion human rights in the Middle East—may prove to be unpopular among future supporters and contribute to further erosion of support.

Taken as a whole, the Pew study reveals a changing yet tenuous future for American Jews. Of course, it may be argued that Jewish life has endured for centuries in the face of these and other graver challenges. Jews will no doubt always be a strand woven into the multicultural fabric of life in the United States, even with diminished numbers. As Simon Schama, a history professor at Columbia University, points out in his recently published popular history book (and BBC/PBS television series) The Story of the Jews, this can be attributed to Jews’ being highly literate. “From the beginning of the culture’s own self-consciousness, to be Jewish was to be Bookish,” Schama writes.8 Indeed, when the enemies of the Jews burned the Torah, Schama notes, Jews had already memorized it.

Jews derive strength and wisdom from their “Bookish” origins. Yet the community cannot rest on its laurels. The Pew study is a clarion call for Jews to evolve, to broaden their time-honored traditions, and to become more inclusive. Spokoiny points out in his JTA piece: “As the Talmud says, the Torah is a heart with many rooms. In a context of extreme uncertainty, we can’t foresee which ones will be successful in offering a good avenue for engagement.” Spokoiny’s statement challenges organized Jewish groups to appropriate funds for programs they may have historically neglected.

The Pew Research Center’s findings are like blasts from the shofar—the ram’s horn that awakens Jews from their summer reveries and summons them to assemble in prayer and atonement during early autumn’s High Holy Days. The red flags of warning this report raises act as an admonishment of sorts to those firmly entrenched at the core to find new ways to invite Jews who live on the periphery to join them, if they expect American Jewish life to flourish.

Notes

  1. Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews (Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, October 2013), www.pewforum.org. The Pew Research Center is a Washington, DC–based “fact tank” that “seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.”
  2. Laurie Goodstein, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews,” The New York Times, October 1, 2013, A11.
  3. Andrés Spokoiny, “Pew Points the Way toward More Avenues to Jewish Life,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 8, 2013, www.jta.org.
  4. See www.keshetonline.org/about.
  5. Gerald L. Zelizer, “Making a Place for Non-Jews in Our Synagogues,” The Jewish Week, January 30, 2014, www.thejewishweek.com.
  6. Combined Jewish Philanthropies mission statement in support of Israel: www.cjp.org/our-work/israel-overseas.
  7. Telephone interview with Beth S. Wenger, October 2013.
  8. Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492 AD (Harper Collins, 2014), 41.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor whose most recent piece for the Bulletin was a profile on playwright/priest Bill Cain. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

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