It’s Wednesday: October 23, 2013

More on the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, released three weeks ago. Last week we looked at some of the chilling data about us: a general decline in belief and affiliation, a dramatic growth in our secular ranks where kids are rarely raised Jewish, and identification with the Conservative movement declining. Hopeful signs exist but seem mostly on the surface. People in my line of work still are talking about little else since, including a session sponsored by our Jewish Federation on Monday that drew over a hundred lay and professional leaders.

There is enough in this survey to occupy us for months, but as promised I want to comment on the one chart of all the charts that jumped out at me, the findings regarding Jewish identity. What does being Jewish mean in America today? Respondents were asked to choose from among 9 choices on what is essential to their sense of Jewishness. Here is the percentage of “Jews by religion” (the 78% of the sample) that indicated that a particular choice was essential. Secular Jews (the 22% who say they have no religion) had lower percentages on each of the choices, but the rank order was exactly the same, so there is something here. The 9 choices and the % that said each was an essential part of what being Jewish means to them are (formatting was good but will be lost):

Remembering the Holocaust 76%
Leading an ethical and moral life 73%
Working for justice/ equality 60%
Being intellectually curious 51%
Caring about Israel 49%
Having a good sense of humor 43%
Being part of a Jewish community 33%
Observing Jewish law 23%
Eating traditional Jewish foods 16%

Before my brilliant analysis, please stop and take a pencil and list which you consider essential. I would love to know how your list compares. Anyway, is this not fascinating? For me, it is emblematic of where we are as Jews in America and I can’t say that I like where we are. God Torah Israel – they used to be our mantra and they scarcely show up as choices. What does it mean that remembering the Holocaust is the most essential part? I certainly don’t want to offend survivors or Museum supporters, but I think they also would not want this to be the first choice. What is the takeaway from remembering the Holocaust that has any chance of building Jews who love being Jewish and want to make sure that their descendants do too? Leading a moral life and working for justice/equality are nice, but Gentiles do that too, and often better nowadays. Intellectual curiosity? More Nobel prizes, but what about Torah curiosity and the mitzvot that follow? In fifth place, finally, we get to something that I would call core and “sustainable” and uniquely Jewish– caring about Israel. But it is only slightly more essential than having a good sense of humor! Community and leading a Jewish way of life? Very important I would have thought and on the top of my list, second and third from last. I see little here that points to a better future than Pew found in our present, and I see a lot that explains why our Jewish story is not very compelling to more and more of our people.

As the community and your leadership absorb these survey findings, there will be more to say. In the meantime, we can blame ourselves for not being more effective teachers and cheerleaders and role models for what is great (and essential) about being Jewish, or we can blame America and western culture for the erosion of faith that we are seeing all around us, or we can blame both and that would be blame well placed.

The next two Wednesdays I hope to be on travel and writing from a remote location. The timing is such that the columns may not appear at their usual time. Don’t panic. Best regards and have a good day. Bill Rudolph

P.S. RSVP deadline for our annual Gala is Friday. The Gala is November 9th. It features “Forbidden Broadway,” which does to the world of theatre what Capital Steps does to politics, and it features hundreds of your Beth El friends joining together to enjoy the entertainment and support the cause. I hope to see you there.