Chicken Little, Pew and the Jewish future 1



Oh no! The sky is falling! The Jewish people are doomed!

No, wait, that’s just the sound that the latest American Jewish population survey makes when it slams into the Jewish communal world. I wrote this column in the week following the publication of “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewry. Then I sat on it. Since then there’s been time for a backlash and a counter-backlash. And that’s been in just one week.

If you belong to the 78 percent of the Jewish population that the Pew survey refers to as “Jews by religion” — that is, anyone who defines their Jewishness that way, and not as a function of culture or ancestry — you would have had to be living under a rock to have missed the results of the 213-page tome. There is a lot of Jewish communal upset that goes along with the reporting of any population survey, that more-or-less every 10 year event when we find out there are fewer of us, more who marry out, and worse, a growing number of Christmas trees in Jewish homes.

Jewish organizations are worried. What will become of our synagogues, schools, JCCs, charities if there are no people? As if all the Jewish people were a collective giving machine providing funds and a raison d’etre for “Jewish living,” instead of the reverse being true.

At this point, I just want us to give up whining about our disintegration and get on with just being. While the survey has some great data and probably needed to be done, the overview is hardly surprising. Jewish life has changed — a lot, and rapidly. Some of those changes are propelled by the Orthodox moving rightward and succumbing to narrower and narrower definitions of what is correct and what is Jewish.

Most of the change is propelled by fewer and fewer of us connecting to something, anything, Jewish at all.

What Pew found after screening 70,000 people in all 50 states to come up with a sample of 3,475 for deeper interviews, is that there are an estimated 5.3 million of us. While most of us are “Jewish by religion,” 22 percent are “Jews of no religion.” Our median age is 50, we are better educated and wealthier than the general population — 58 percent of us are college graduates, and 25 percent have incomes greater than $150,000, while only about 30 percent of the general population hold college degrees, and 8 percent report household income this high; 46 percent of us report that being Jewish is important to us and an astounding 94 percent say the are proud to be Jewish.

Pew breaks things down by denomination and unsurprisingly the Orthodox are more tightly connected to Jewish practice, institutions and Israel. Older Jews are also more connected to these things than younger ones. And the less Jewishly identified you are, the weaker those connections become. Two thirds of us say you can still be Jewish even if you don’t believe in God and I was astonished that 57 percent of Orthodox say that as well.

The things that we believe are essential components of being Jewish actually do not differ much between the Jews by religion and the Jews of no religion. Both rank as important in the same descending order: remembering the Holocaust; leading an ethical and moral life; work for justice/equality; being intellectually curious; caring about Israel and having a good sense of humor. We differ about the importance of belonging to a Jewish community, with 33 percent of Jewish by religion saying it’s important and only 10 percent of those without agreeing.

[I’ll throw in a judgment call here and say you Jews who define yourself by peoplehood: go be with your people! It’s important! You are missing out on connecting to a fine tradition. Our sense of being a people is one of the better things we have to offer.]

Unsurprisingly, Jews also differ about observing Jewish law, with 23 percent of Jews by religion saying it’s important, while only 7 percent of Jews of no religion rank it as such. But those figures are so low overall. You might be able to find an OU symbol on every other product in your supermarket today, but according to the respondents of the Pew survey, the dietary laws – or any other halachic concerns — that once set us apart for other people hardly matters.

On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to find that very few Jews — by religion or not — rank eating traditional Jewish foods as being an essential part of being Jewish. I think we can bid farewell to lox and bagels as a Jewish identity at this point, thank you.

When I look at the data, I see a mixed bag. I’m kind of curious when Pew reports that “eight in 10 Orthodox Jews say observing Jewish law is essential to what being Jewish means to them.” Where on earth did they find the two in 10 who said otherwise? I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that 62 percent of all Jews see being Jewish as a matter of culture and ancestry rather than religion. And I’m really intrigued what changed among the Orthodox after the 1970s that enables them today to retain 83 percent of their numbers, because the survey also reports that only 22 percent of Jews 65 and older raised Orthodox report being so today. In the 50-64 age bracket, just 41 percent are still Orthodox by religion.

Of married Jews, 56 percent have a Jewish spouse. That’s a bit better than half; even among “Jews by religion”, there’s a high rate of intermarriage, with 36 percent having a non-Jewish spouse.

The Pew study was the first Jewish population survey done since 2001. That one came under intense fire and a lot of scrutiny over methodology. The Jewish communal world, which had funded it, threw up its collective hands and said, “Never again!” Pew rose to the challenge at the behest of Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward. I’m not sure if we should thank them or not.

Is collecting this data necessary? Does it make those of us connected to the Jewish establishment better able to find those who are not,  articulate what’s great about belonging and then lead them to the trough to drink? Not really. It does, however, seem to fuel an entire industry of synagogue reinventionists, who offer helpful hints on how to remake, rebuild, revitalize and renew. We need to be friendlier, more welcoming, more outgoing, better at outreach, more adept at inreach, do calisthenics, offer yoga. Sometimes I think we forget that synagogue has something to do with prayer, a fairly introspective activity, one with value that is difficult to articulate in our attention deficient times.

If it were up to me, I’d do a follow up survey. When I see that 94 percent of Jews are proud to be so, I want to ask my own questions, the kind you can’t really bubble in an answer with a number two pencil, or answer simply on the telephone.

So if it were to give the “Marla Cohen Survey of the American Jewish Future,” I would ask the following:

•If you’re proud of being Jewish, do you want your children to be proud of it, too?

•If so, how do you go about engendering that pride? What do you do from day to day that signifies Judaism is important to you, however you define that?

•How is your home Jewish? If I walked into it, would I see any differences between yours and your non-Jewish neighbor’s house? Would there be a mezuzah on the door? Shabbat candlesticks? Jewish books? Jewish art? Would I hear Jewish music?

•How do you articulate Jewish values to your children and instill in them Jewish values? Is this worth doing?

•Did you hate Hebrew school growing up? How did it impact your view of being Jewish?

•If you hated Hebrew school, why are you sending your children to one? What about it still figures as important? What would you rather do with your children’s time? What would make you consider Jewish day school? Jewish camp?

•What would make you want to be more Jewish? What does that question even mean to you? Is Judaism something that can be measured as “more” or “less”?

•What do you like most about being Jewish? Least?

•Do you want your children to be Jewish? Lead Jewish lives? What does that mean to you? And how do you go about ensuring that it happens?

Judaism, like most things, is not static. It is buffeted by social change and forces beyond its borders. It bends and sways and ultimately, changes. The survey suggests there has been, ever since we landed on these shores, a trickle out, as Jews grapple with what makes them uniquely a people and how to become part of the greater American enterprise.

Having the numbers the Pew gave us is useful. What we do with them will likely chart the organized Jewish community’s focus for the next decade, be it pushing day school or overnight camps, bolstering synagogue life, pursuing outreach or shoring up the institutions we have.

Keep in mind something I realized as I read through the Pew results. I would not have answered the survey’s questions the same way in my 20s as I would have in my 30s. And I would answer again differently in my 30s than I would today. My relationship with my religion, with Israel, with other Jewish people has changed based on where I am in life. The impact of marrying, having children, educating them, who I have met  and with whom I socialize, even what jobs I have held, has all had an impact on who I am as a Jew today. I’m sure those things have influenced what kind of Jew you are, too.

How you look to the future, and what sort of Judaism you envision for your children and their children, though, that’s the real question. What kind of answers you want to see on the next Jewish study, they’re up to you.

Ready? Get out your number two pencils. Begin writing the future.


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One thought on “Chicken Little, Pew and the Jewish future

  • lavgreen25B

    I fully agree with you vis a vis the survey. Every 10 years it’s the same thing; more handwringing and where did we go wrong, what will become of us. Sounds like right after the Enlightenment when Jews were leaving the ghettos in droves and eating tref for the first time (so they said). Jews are always seeking something other than what they have, making us not really different from others. I don’t know how I would have answered 20 y ago but now I find pleasure in Talmud study and I’m happy with that.