What Our Portrait Says About Being Jewish Today


    Rather than lament the findings of a new national population survey, Rabbi Jeremy Gerber says we should use them as a tool to help us reconsider how we approach affiliated and unaffiliated alike.

    By: Rabbi Jeremy Gerber
    A lot of people have been weighing in on the Pew Research Center's newest survey, "A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” and many are pretty unhappy with the findings. 
    Some interesting and provocative facts from the study: 
    • It was conducted across the country from February 20-June 13, 2013, and based on interviews of 3,475 Jews.
    • Roughly one in five Jews (22 percent) now describe themselves as having no religion.
    • Sixty two percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it is mainly a matter of religion.
    • Among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six in 10 have a non-Jewish spouse.
    • About a third (35 percent) of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, while 18 percent identify with Conservative Judaism, 10 percent with Orthodox Judaism and 6 percent with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.
    • About three in ten American Jews say they do not identify with any particular denomination.
    • Ninety four percent of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish.
    • A puzzling statistic: 34 percent of respondents said you could believe Jesus was the Messiah and still be Jewish.
    • My favorite statistic: 42 percent said that having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity!
    Of course, these are only some of the conclusions from the study, you can find the whole thing online.
    Though I understand why many people are dismayed by these findings – a professor of mine from the Jewish Theological Seminary even called them "grim" – I think we need to put them in perspective. Obviously, a major statistic is that 94 percent are proud to be Jewish! More than anything else, this study shows us that the face of American Judaism is certainly shifting and changing. It’s important to just acknowledge that, regardless of whether we think it’s good or bad. 
    I’m honestly not sure it’s a good use of our time to place value judgments on whether we like what we’re reading or not. The Pew Research Center’s findings are a tool to help us move forward, to consider (and reconsider) how we approach members of the Jewish community today, affiliated and unaffiliated. 
    Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism said in response to the study: “As we settle into the 21st Century, we must learn what to take with us and what to leave behind as the realities of a new era dawn on us. This moment is key; it is our great, transformative 'reset' button.”
    I absolutely agree. The world is changing at an unimaginably rapid pace, and we have no choice but to keep up. And why shouldn’t this be true of the Jewish population as well? It can be tempting to wring our hands and lament one fact or another from this study. But what would be the point? Instead, let us focus on the opportunity that it presents — an opportunity to get to know ourselves, and each other, a little bit better. 
    Incorporating some important realizations from these findings will only make us stronger and wiser, and allow us to continue to improve as a community and as individuals. I think 100 percent of us can agree with that. 
    Rabbi Jeremy Gerber presides over Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Wallingford.