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Anxious About Assimilation

Monday, October 7, 2013
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Dear Miriam,

What do you make of the Pew poll results out last week about changing Jewish identities in America? Should we be concerned? 

Signed, 
Anxious About Assimilation


Dear Anxious,

Just to bring everyone up to speed, a new survey of American Jews (the first such survey conducted in over a decade) finds that intermarriage is up and the number of Jews identifying with Judaism as a religion is down. Full disclosure: I haven't read the complete results, but I have been spending some time perusing the copious summaries, articles, commentaries and dire warnings that have emerged, and I'm thrilled to add my voice to the fray.

To bring us further on the same page, here are some of the stories I've been reading:
Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews (New York Times)
Pew Survey Examines Changing Jewish Identity (eJewishPhilanthropy)
American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated (Slate.com)
The Pew Poll and Our Passion for Renewal (eJewishPhilanthropy)
The Pew Data and Us (eJewishPhilanthropy)
Notes on the Pew Survey (Mah Rabu)

When someone in an interfaith relationship comes to me for advice (not an infrequent occurance), I always give the same basic spiel: If you were coming to me and asking whether I thought you should get in a serious relationship with a non-Jew, my answer would be no. But since you're coming to me already in the relationship, let's figure out how to make Jewishness part of your life in a meaningful way. I'd like to say essentially the same thing to everyone out there who's freaking out about the survey. Am I happy that intermarriage is rising? Not exactly. But I do think this finding provides the Jewish community with amazing opportunities to be welcoming and inclusive. Am I surprised that more intermarried Jews say that they're raising their kids with no religion? Not at all. But I hope that Jewish institutions will see that finding as the wake-up call they need to innovate, engage and change, both for their own survival as institutions and for the good of the Jewish people.

More Americans, and certainly more millenials, embrace diversity and individuality above and beyond the ways that older generations can even imagine. Millenials have moved away from models of belonging that require membership or affiliation or in-the-box identity markers. The survey found that two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, a statistic that should shock no one but rather should serve as a sign to synagogues that perhaps "membership" isn't the best indicator of success. Also, while I may be an outlier in all kinds of ways, I work in the Jewish community, I'm married to a Jewish partner and I'm raising Jewish kids — and yet I am not a member of a synagogue. I'm just saying, it's not all doom and gloom.

The study points to a decline in the percentage of American Jews who identify with Judaism as a religion, which is one of the points receiving so much attention. The irony that I keep coming back to is that the people interviewed all identify as Jews or they wouldn't have been included in the study! 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.

Be well,
Miriam

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