Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish

Arguing about winners or losers from the Pew study of U.S. Jews misses the point: We must all welcome more Jews who care about social justice into a life of Jewish commitment, and respect their critical stance regarding Israel.

Rick Jacobs
Rick Jacobs
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Rick Jacobs
Rick Jacobs

Last week, the Pew Center for Research released a new study of American Jews that is still reverberating throughout the Jewish world and beyond. But so much of the analysis has been locked into binary categories: Who won and who lost? Is the glass half full or half empty? Are Jews a religion or a culture? Are most Jewish Americans pro-Israel or critics of Israel? Thinking in polarities obscures the most important issues facing us.

That is clear in the conversation about the growing disparity between those who anchor their Judaism in religion and those whose anchor lies in culture. There seems to be a rush to “write off” what the Pew survey terms “Jews of no religion.” But before the organized Jewish community does just that, let’s dig a little deeper.

After the percentage that identifies as Reform Jews, the next number of respondents — 30 percent — claim “none of the above” as their religious identification. These ”Nones” consider themselves Jewish, without embracing any of the traditional denominational labels. Rather, they are searching for their own portal into Jewish identity, which may or may not include religious practice. We know that young Jews, especially, are searching for new and creative ways to feel connected. Jews who don’t feel bound by the commands of Orthodox Judaism must embrace their Jewish religion and identity as a choice, not as a given. Reaching out to the ”Nones” is challenging, complicated and will require significant resources. But we cannot afford not to do so.

These “Nones” are part of a growing trend in American life, in which people identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) and one that reaches across religions. Almost 20% of people under 40 now describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, up from 10% in 1998. Without a doubt, there are plenty of Jewish “Nones” who would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Last October, Pew released a study called “Nones on the Rise," which explored the nuances in describing the inner lives of “Nones.” That study revealed that many “Nones” believe in God, seek spirituality and even pray regularly, but do not relate to the world of organized religion.

Seventy percent of “Nones” in the earlier survey said that religious institutions are too focused on money and power, and too mixed up in politics. The prominent social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have called this intersection of politics and religion the “God gap.” Until the 1970s, progressive Democrats filled church pews while conservative Republicans, for the most part, did not. But after 1980, both progressives and secular conservatives became increasingly rare in church pews. Although Putnam and Campbell followed the trend only in Christianity, it likely has a Jewish equivalent. For a growing circle of Americans, claiming to be “religious” too often implies a link to conservative social policies that they may not share.

Too many Jewish leaders are concluding that an alarming slice of young Jews don't know and don't care about being Jewish; but it's not that simple. Some don't care much at all, but others do care, even deeply, about their Jewish identity and spirituality. What they have in common is this: They have not found — we have not shown them — compelling, vital Jewish institutions that are relevant to their lives.

Young people, especially, are hungry for meaning and purpose, and for the nourishment the Jewish tradition can offer them. They just are not finding it in conventional institutional structures.

Where can they find it? One example: When the Pew study asked respondents what it means to be Jewish, 56% answered that their Jewish identity is entwined with their work for social justice. For millennia, Judaism has commanded that we become God's partners in shaping a better and more just world. As God commands in Leviticus: "You shall be holy, for the Eternal your God is holy." And how does God tell us can we strive to be like God? How can we manifest that holiness? God's answer speaks as directly to us as it did to the Children of Israel in the wilderness: By feeding the hungry, removing stumbling blocks before the blind, speaking out against injustice, and paying the laborer a fair and timely wage. We best emulate God when we create courts and marketplaces that are fair, just and honest.

Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self, introducing us to a world of meaning and purpose. Tikkun olam is the gateway for most young Jews to live a life of Jewish commitment. Rather than judging tikkun olam as an inadequate path to deeper, lifelong Jewish commitments, we must engage young Jews where they are — all the while strengthening the Jewish underpinning of their idealism. We must employ that gateway to bring them back to Jewish communal life and to Jewish ritual and study.

Another portion of the study that deserves more intense discussion is the section regarding attitudes on Israel.

The Pew study should put to rest the suggestion that Jews today feel increasingly distant from Israel. About seven-in-10 Jews surveyed say they feel either “very attached” (30%) or “somewhat attached” (39%) to Israel. Over 40% of those surveyed have visited Israel, a significant number. There’s no doubt that programs such as Birthright have made a tremendous difference in engaging American Jews with Israel.

But the one-dimensional definitions of “pro-Israel” should also be put to rest. American Jews, just like many Israelis, have a complicated relationship with Israel. For the majority, a peace process that results in a Palestinian state next to a secure Israel is of preeminent concern. Just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security, while 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests. And only 38% believe the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians.

Indeed, “pro-Israel” includes those who are “very attached” and “somewhat attached” to Israel, even when they disagree about specific government policies. Rather than “write off” those who criticize Israeli policies — from peace to pluralism — as outside the pro-Israel camp, we would be wise to count them well within in our ranks.

As we continue to debate the best communal responses to the Pew study, I believe we must not give up on those Jewish Americans who do not fit into the organized Jewish world’s neat binary categories: affiliated/unaffiliated, religious/cultural, committed/uncommitted, lovers of Israel/critics of Israel. The truth is more complex and the Jewish future will be brighter when we learn to broaden and deepen the Jewish tent.

Rabbi Jacobs is president of the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest movement of organized Jewry in North America and affiliated with the Israel Religious Action Center and the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism.

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