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Analysis, Cooperation Needed to Address Pew Study

Wednesday, October 9, 2013
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By: Rabbi George Stern

In the late 1960s/early 1970s, both the Reform and Conservative movements conducted major studies of their present condition and future prospects. Many of the findings were “challenging,” and one of the movements essentially ignored them. Based on the recently published Pew study on the national Jewish landscape, one might wonder if willful denial was the best response.

Denying the validity of the Pew study – as several institutional leaders have already been tempted to do – is probably unwise. The statistics may well be open to varying interpretations, but it would be advisable to conduct substantial analyses to determine if the trends demonstrated can or should be reversed, and, if so, how.

Some "leaders" have already questioned whether the study’s sample was appropriate. Too many respondents, they claimed, were “Jewishly uneducated.” Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and others suggested that Jews who question certain Israeli policies simply don’t understand Israel. Is it not possible that they understand Israel all too well? And if we do have a lot of “uneducated” Jews, are we really ready to write them off? Who elected these American Jewish “leaders” anyway? If “amcha” (the folk) in fact ignores them, how can we rely upon them to know what’s best for American Jews?

Conservative Rabbi Brad Artson suggested that his movement’s shrinking might be a good thing, leaving it with more committed and serious members who recognize that only a demanding religion is attractive. Yet the drop in the number of Jews engaged in Jewish ritual is hardly a good argument for demanding more. Knee-jerk and dismissive reactions are unlikely to be helpful in setting a path towards regeneration, if that’s what Jewish leaders want.

The study affirmed Jews’ continuing belief that Israel and the Holocaust are important to Jewish identity. I suspect there might be generational differences there that I have not yet seen documented. In any case, as I said more than 35 years ago in a sermon, we cannot depend on past or distant forces – I cited anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Israel – to undergird positive Jewish identity. Only positive factors – which non-Orthodox Jews in the study identified as progressive politics and social justice – can make a strong identity. Ritual can serve to reinforce values, if it’s carried out with intention and creativity.

It seems to me that the progressive Jewish synagogue movements have the best chance of reversing the trends outlined in the Pew study, assuming they tackle the issues raised with care. Many of our “secular” Jewish organizations either focus on one issue or support political positions that, according to the study, increasingly speak mainly to the ultra-Orthodox. It would be hard for them to become “big tents.” Federations struggle to respond to the desire of younger donors to have more control over where their money goes; there is a return to the pre-“Allied Jewish Appeal” days.

On the other hand, synagogues, backed (one would hope) by their movements, can welcome the growing diversity of Jews, as some of the most vibrant and creative have already done. A well-known rabbi recently told his colleagues that the problem with synagogues is that “religion gets in the way.” Too often, in everything from liturgy to education, synagogues act as if it’s “my way or the highway.” 

Leaders of the major Jewish religious movements might consider joining together to find out with more precision what works and does not work for individual Jews, both active and inactive, and what formal and informal experiments have borne fruit. Since the study shows that retention of active members is not at all assured, it would be unwise to concentrate solely on them. Many who are committed today, and certainly their offspring, may be uncommitted in the future. We probably have much to learn from those with tenuous connections already.

In his response to the study, historian Jonathan Sarna suggested that bad news can often be the impetus for positive change. Let’s hope that can be so.

Rabbi George Stern is the president of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) and a former congregational rabbi. For nine years he led the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement in Northwest Philadelphia. He and his wife are members of both a Conservative and a Reform synagogue in Philadelphia.

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