I could write an It’s Wednesday every day this week and still not exhaust the important matters before us. That would include the rabbis who tortured husbands who wouldn’t give their wives a get, the death of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the energetic and refreshing Centennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism just now concluded, the continuing partial government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. But, promises are promises, so let me turn to the Pew study.
The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews was released two weeks ago. People in my line of work have talked about little else since. You can find it yourself at the Pew Forum website. The survey research was done with great care and expense, with advice from many famous Jewish demographers, so we have to take it seriously as chilling as it often is. A few highlights of the chill follow. The survey talks about a general decline in belief and affiliation among American Jews. We have talked about this decline in American society in general, but we Jews are few in number and we can’t just ignore the estimated 2.4 million people in America who are of “Jewish background,” meaning they are not Jewish anymore; there are only 5-6 million who do identify as Jewish. Among the latter, fully 22% (and 32% among Millennials) are “Jews of no religion” (also commonly called secular or cultural Jews) whereas in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey only 7% were that; two-thirds of Jews of no religion are not raising their children Jewish or even partially Jewish. After WWII [when there was a middle ground], Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination; now 35% of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18% with Conservative, 10% with Orthodox, and 30% are “just Jewish.” When you look at household composition, the average Orthodox household has 1.7 children compared with 0.3 children per household for Conservative Jews and 0.4 for Reform; that means we see aging populations outside the Orthodox world. Within all three denominations, there is switching but almost always in the direction of less-traditional Judaism: about 25% raised Orthodox are now Conservative or Reform, 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Very few move in the opposite direction. And so on.
Am I going to leave you with just this? Of course not. 94% of those interviewed are proud to be Jewish; even among the Jews of no religion the figure is 83%. Three quarters have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The 30% whose denomination is “just Jewish” are not excited about organized religion but are looking for community and we think just haven’t yet found their home in the Jewish community. Seven in ten of us feel either very attached or somewhat attached to Israel, same as in 2000. And, since all “politics” are local, I look at Beth El’s 1100 family units and the more than 800 kids we have in BEPS, the Religious School and the Jewish day schools and – not even counting toddlers – our children per household rate is at least 0.73.
Next time we will comment on the fascinating survey findings re: Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish? What is essential to our sense of Jewishness? In the meantime, don’t forget that Simon Rawidowicz wrote an essay decades ago called “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” We Jews are constantly afraid of our extinction, always it seems for good reason, yet here we still are.
Have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. The Israel Media Series starts its fourth year this Saturday evening, 7:30PM. We will screen the film ”The Other Son.” Beginning in November, we will show Season One of Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the Israeli TV drama series that was sold to 20th Century Fox Television and adapted into the acclaimed series “Homeland.” I am proud of the IMS. Come see why.