There has already been much written, in these blogs and in many other places, about the recent Pew Research study on Jewish Americans. I don’t want to rehash what I imagine many of you have already heard about the study, but rather share with you one story, one snapshot, that I think encapsulates the complexity behind the numbers.
Just after the study was released, I got a call from a woman I had never met before. She was not a member of my synagogue, or of any synagogue in my community. In fact, she wasn’t even Jewish. But the Jewish fate of her family was on her mind.
She explained to me that she is a practicing Christian, but she recently married a Jewish man. She had no interest in converting (which I had originally assumed was the purpose of the call), and it didn’t matter to her husband whether she converted or not. The reason for her call was her concern for her husband’s first grandchild. This was a second marriage for both of them, and her husband had four children from his first marriage to a Jewish woman. She explained to me that, though the family identified as Jews and felt proud to be Jewish, they never joined a synagogue or participated in the Jewish community in any way. Now the man’s oldest daughter was married (also to a non-Jew) and just had her first child. And she, the practicing Christian stepmother, was the only one in the family concerned about this child growing up with a Jewish connection.
Her concern stemmed from her own faith, which had always played a significant role in her life. She simply believed that everyone needs to have some connection to God and tradition, to something bigger than themselves. And, she said, since her husband’s family was Jewish, they should get that connection from Judaism. But she was the only one who seemed to feel this way.
I asked some questions: Does your husband feel the same way? Have you spoken to your daughter-in-law and her husband about this? Where do they live?
It turns out that her Jewish husband felt some remorse about not connecting his family to a Jewish community when the kids were growing up, but it never was much of a priority for them. Now he felt like it was a lost cause, but it didn’t bother him nearly as much as it bothered her. Since she didn’t have much buy-in from her husband, she hadn’t said anything to the children about it yet.
I offered to meet with the young family, but it turns out that they live in a small community a few hours away, which does not have many Jewish options readily available. We spoke a while more, and I encouraged her to speak again with her husband, and to see if he was willing to sit down with his daughter and son-in-law to express their feelings about their grandchild having a Jewish upbringing.
After I hung up the phone, I felt a mix of sadness and insight. This family was a living example of the assimilation that the numbers of the Pew Research study describe. These were part of the 22 percent of Jews with “no religion,” but also, I would assume from my conversation, part of the 94 percent of Jews who feel pride in being Jewish. Yet despite this feeling of pride, they were unwilling, unable, or uninterested in finding a connection - any connection - to a Jewish community. Everyone, that is, except for the non-Jewish member of the family, who called the rabbi for advice.
My bubbie’s response to this story would have been oylem goylem – the world has gone mad. Maybe so, but it is the world in which we live. And the fact is that families like this one probably cannot be saved.
We can and should continue creating open and welcoming communities that are true to our Jewish traditions, and where all Jews feel comfortable. We can and should reach beyond the walls of our institutions to connect with those who are unaffiliated, and who need a little push to get engaged. But the fact is that no one, not even Chabad, can locate and inspire every Jew to be connected. Some responsibility has to fall on individual Jews as well, to take control of their destiny as a member of the Jewish people, and to seek out ways to find Jewish connection, meaning and purpose for themselves and their families.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.