No one who’s been paying attention to the state of American Jewry over the past two decades should be surprised by the sobering findings of the Pew Research Center study on U.S. Jews.
The findings only confirm the statistics on the high rate of
assimilation and disaffiliation that has been chipping away at our community for some time.
But the fact that the statistics shouldn’t surprise anyone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention. There are a wealth of findings that, beyond the numbers, shed light on what being Jewish means — and doesn’t mean — for today’s Jews.
The Pew study is already generating endless debate and questions: Have the millions of dollars spent in the past 20 years to help build Jewish identity been a waste of money? Has too much effort been expended on reaching out to the intermarried (who are unlikely to raise their children as Jews anyway) and the unaffiliated, rather than on those who already have one foot in the Jewish door? Is being a cultural Jew who likes Jewish humor enough?
The good news is that these questions have already been roiling forward-thinking institutions at home and across the country for several years. They are what inspired the creation of Birthright Israel, a renewed commitment to Jewish camping and the establishment of mega-foundations that have invested heavily in Jewish education. Many area synagogues are working tirelessly to find new models to inspire more Jews in the pews.
But clearly what’s been happening is not enough. Hopefully, this study will inject a new sense of urgency into the community. A key question is this: How can our Jewish institutions and communal leaders, nationally and locally, use the research to refine and rethink programs, priorities and the allocation of funds? How can we inspire thinkers, innovators and philanthropists to work collaboratively to develop new paradigms for Jewish engagement?
While we can marvel at the 94 percent of Jews in the Pew study who say they are proud to be Jewish, we must recognize that pride alone will not sustain and nurture a strong Jewish future. We need to continue to invest in formal and informal Jewish education, camping and Israel programs. At the same time, we need to create cultural and social action programming that will inspire stonger Jewish connections.
In fact, we need to re-envision everything we are doing. These are conversations that need to be happening at every level — in synagogues and organizations, around Shabbat dinner tables and in federation board rooms.
This is not a time for a one-size-fits-all Judaism. We are at a crossroads. Let the conversation continue.