I was warned a few weeks ago that the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews would be cause for depression, if not alarm. The warning reminded me of the old Jewish joke about the telegram sent by one Jew to another: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Now that the details of the study are in front of us, there is certainly cause for renewed concern about the Jewish future in this country. The Pew findings do not come as a surprise, but they certainly constitute an urgent wake-up call.
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The first step, of course, is to identify what is wrong, and to my mind it is not the growing percentage of Jews who identify themselves as having no religion (22 percent, similar to the figure for religious identification in the American population as a whole) or the smaller number of Jews who currently join a synagogue (under 40 percent) or even the significant spike in intermarriage. The problem is the rising number of Jews drifting away from any substantive Jewish attachment whatsoever and deciding not to raise their children as Jews. The question is whether this trend can be reversed and how.
There are several grounds for optimism. The great bulk of American Jews (94 percent) say they are proud to be Jewish. Seventy-five percent say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Seventy percent remain “strongly” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. What is more, if the negative trends on view in the study are proceeding more quickly and powerfully than we had expected, the reason is in part the vast changes taking place in every aspect of American life, and in part the Jewish community’s slowness in adapting to those changes.
The fact is that while some Jews are fleeing the community, others are joining it. Many synagogues are bursting with new members, especially young families. Some camps and schools are at full capacity, with waiting lists for admission. The past few decades have seen a spurt of innovative programs and initiatives. This gives promise that more such efforts and others as yet untried, reaching more Jews with passion and depth, have the potential to stem or reverse the present decline.
In several areas, our institutions have not yet absorbed lessons that have been staring us in the face for some time. I will address two of them: the declining interest in Judaism as religion, and the exploding numbers of intermarriages.
If Jews do not want to define themselves by religion, let’s meet them where they are and recognize that they are in good company. Mordecai Kaplan wisely insisted 80 years ago — as did every Zionist thinker I know of — that we stop thinking of Judaism exclusively as a religion, and instead conceive and live it as a civilization or culture.
The greatest religious thinkers of our day (Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Isaac Kook, for example) have likewise insisted that Judaism is meant to be lived in this world rather than apart from it. One does not serve God (or embrace Judaism) by withdrawing from the so-called “secular world.” Many American Jews have not gotten this message. They have never experienced high-level and exciting Jewish learning or reaped the tangible benefits of strong community or seen Jewish wisdom shaping social policy — all blessings that came my way via Conservative/Masorti Judaism. They think the point of Judaism is to be “more religious,” and have too often experienced religion as boring and removed from the life they lead. That language, and the focus on prayer, chases them away. We need more synagogues with vibrant prayer and a range of communal activities beyond prayer. And we need institutions that offer what Kaplan called “maximalist Judaism” in nonreligious forms.
We also need a new way of thinking about intermarriage. My concern on this subject is not so much that Jews marry non-Jews, but that so few young Jews are involved with Judaism and Jewish life enough to insist that the person with whom they share their lives share that commitment. I worry, too, that so few couples — whether inmarried or intermarried — want Jewish tradition and community for themselves and their children. The only means of persuasion is Jewish experience of meaning and joy, whether in camp or school, synagogue or JCC, Shabbat table or text study, in service to the neighborhood or in support of Israel.
We spend too much time counting Jews, I think (numbers have never saved us), and too little time (and money) making sure that high-quality Jewish experiences are widely available in forms attractive to millennials and baby boomers, singles and couples, Jews who want spirituality, and Jews engaged by pursuit of social justice. Let’s also not be embarrassed to direct major resources toward helping Jewish 20-somethings meet one another in contexts where they fall in love with being Jewish at the same time as they fall in love with one another.
My father often repeated the witticism, “They told me to cheer up because things could be worse. So I cheered up — and, sure enough, things got worse.” The Pew report is not occasion for cheer. But neither should it cause despair. Let it remind us, once again, that old strategies will not suffice in circumstances that are unprecedented. We need a degree of resourcefulness worthy of our tradition and our people. The next population study might well bear the mark of our success.
Arnold M. Eisen is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism worldwide.