A Few More Thoughts About the Pew Study

It seems like everyone is talking about the results of the Pew Research study released last week that painted a relatively grim statistical picture of the liberal Jewish community in America, with high intermarriage numbers, low rates of synagogue affiliation, diminished connection to Israel, etc, etc.  The truth is there was not a positive number to be found in any of the statistics that the study reported.

That being said, I came across an interesting take on the results written by a younger member of the community (under the age of 35) named Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, who works in the Hillel world.  She points out that people are panicking about the future of the Jewish community because they are evaluating the study’s results based on the traditional criteria the community has used for the last 50 plus years – are people practicing Jewish rituals?  are they affiliating with synagogues?  are they intermarrying?  If you look at these questions, the study’s results look pretty disastrous.

But, she points out, given the fact that the ‘millenials’ have moved away from traditional models of belonging (like being a ‘member’ of a shul or JCC), that they report they are proud of their Jewish heritage, that they may not be ‘religiously’ Jewish, but their ethnic Jewish identities seem to be strong, and that after all, to be even included in the study, the respondents had to self-identify as Jews, the news may not be all that bad after all.

So the good news seems to be that there are still Jews out there, even younger Jews, and they are proud of their identity and very well may be looking for ways to express that identity.  The bad news is that those ways might not exist in all of the classic structures (synagogue, Federation, JCC) that the community has built up and invested in over the years.  Here is the text from the last paragraph of her comments:

“The report also points out the decreasing Jewish identities of the offspring of intermarried individuals. I don’t mean to make light of that real fissure in Jewish contintuity. However you look at it, though, even for the most traditionally observant Jews, Judaism is more than religion. I see absolutely no reason to be upset that some among us embrace the cultural experiences more than the halachik ones (halacha=Jewish legal code, essentially, all the rules).
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, a true champion of pluralism (and also my boss in my role as the director of the Jewish Graduate Student Network), likes to refer to outdated modes of talking about Jewish identity as being “so 20th century.” As I’ve read through the alarmist reports coming out about this study, that phrase has been turning over and over in my mind. Given what we have learned and will continue to learn about the changing nature of Jewish identity, let’s figure out how to adjust the Jewish landscape to accommodate these changes rather than dismissing people who have varied and nuanced notions of identity. Let’s make as many aspects of Jewish identity as appealing and as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. Nothing will be worse for Jewish continuity than saying, “Look at all these good-for-nothing, non-practicing Jews who are ruining it for the next generation.” Let’s support institutions and entrepreneurs and grass-roots organizers and big thinkers who are trying out new methods of making Judaism a meaningful identity.
It’s worth taking a look at the study results and making your own informed decision on how we, as a disparate, opinionated and changing people, can move forward together as Jews. It’s been a good long time since “being Jewish” meant the same thing to everyone. We’ll do best in the 21st century if we can find common ground and embrace the many different manifestations of Judaism that our 2.2 percent of the American population has to offer.”
JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen has also written a thoughtful response to the study that you can read on his blog at the following address:  http://blog.jtsa.edu/chancellor-eisen/2013/10/08/chancellor-eisen-in-haaretz-new-pew-report-reengaging-american-jews-before-they-drift-away/ – 
Arnie has some interesting comments about intermarriage and the result that showed that fewer Jews identify as Jewish religiously.  His ideas are interesting and plausible, but I don’t think they connect with Judaism as the Conservative Movement does it, at least as of right now.
That may be the great challenge that the study confronts us with.  If the institutions that have formed the bedrock of the Jewish community for close to 100 years no longer address the needs of young Jews, should they, or can they, change?  And if so, how much?  When is a shul no longer a shul?
As Tevya sings in the Fiddler on the Roof:  these are the questions that can cross a rabbi’s eyes. But one thing I can tell you – I don’t like being called ‘so 20th century!’  We need to begin to imagine what the 21st century Jewish community is going to look like (maybe make some educated guesses is better than ‘imagine.’)  Then we need to compare and contrast that image with the current communal structures.  That seems to me to be the place to start.  And the time to start?  Seems fairly obvious – now!


Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “A Few More Thoughts About the Pew Study

  1. Concerned Conservative Jew

    Good points..
    It is interesting how history goes in circles. The Reform Movement in the earlier 20th century tried to say that Judaism was “just a religion” like Catholicism, Protestantism etc rather than an ethnic group. It was how we were to melt into society and be “good Americans.” We chose Judaism as our religion like the Protestants chose their religion and it was a compartment of our lives. The Reform Movement and the Conservative Movement as well now clearly are about Jewish Peoplehood. Judaism certainly isn’t “just a religion” but who we are as people.. our ethnic identity. America as a whole has gone from melting pot to celebrating our distinct identities (at least in theory).

    Now the response to the Pew article is that you can be Jewish without the religion part. .. a purely secular but thoroughly Jewish identity. Maybe this is theoretically possible…. but after years of shedding rituals, now the Reform Movement is picking up rituals left and right. As the head of the Movement, Eric Yoffie, once said.. there is a need for Jewish ritual. Ritual is like a clothes hanger… without it, the clothes fall on the floor.

    I worry that the idea of a totally secular Jew will end up being a totally secular American without a Jewish identity…. or worse, an identity that tends toward the farcical caricature a la Jon Stewart. Lots of Jews who have no real intimacy with their Judaism love to trot out their “identity” but it is more of a stereotype based on popular culture than reality.

    Personally, I am not the most observant… I choose the rituals that are meaningful to me…. no high tref out, kosher in, synagogue semi often, day school for some of kids, not all…. involved in many Jewish organizations. I am living what I consider a reasonable mix of my religion and ethnicity. I worry about those that bend that to the extreme (way orthodox or way secular).

    I also worry about blowing off the statistics in the Pew study because we are saying there is a new reality where Jews are Jews based on being secular and not part of Jewish organizations. I can’t imagine that secular Jews without Jewish affiliations can maintain a feeling about being part of the Jewish People/tribe. Jewish culture is about community. If it isn’t synagogue, or federation, or JCC… then what is it. Yes, we might be part of the Park or Boy’s Latin (etc) Community and see other Jews there… but will we maintain identity? I doubt it. I think people who think that in the new world of nonaffiliation, one will maintain the identities one formed in community are fooling themselves. I wouldn’t take solace that the numbers just don’t reflect the new alternative but equally viable reality. I don’t think it is viable!


    • Rushing to get ready for Shabbat, but a couple of quick thoughts –
      Your concerns reflect mine %100. Will Jews who are just social action Jews, who never do anything religious, still be Jews? In Israel it is a different situation – there people are connected by their national/ethnic identity. Whether they are religiously Jewish or not, they are Israeli! But that won’t work in the States. It seems to me at the end of the day people are going to need to do some specifically Jewish things to be Jewish.
      Of course the big question is how do you get them to engage in those practices/rituals? That seems to me to be the million dollar question, and the study is telling us we need to begin working on an answer yesterday!
      thanks for your thoughtful comments –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s