Do you know this classic Jewish telegram? “Start worrying! [Stop.] “Details to follow.”
About every ten years the American Jewish Community receives such a “telegram” in the form of a population study that delivers alarming statistics pointing to the demise of our community. Such surveys--Jewish populations studies--were released in 1990 and in 2000. Most recently, the Jewish world has been roiled by the appearance of the Pew Research Center’s study on American Jewish life. Not surprisingly, the reaction has been far from muted. Here’s a sampling of headlines from articles discussing the report:
• A Poll Causes Jews to Ask, What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?
• After Jewish American Survey, What We Do?
• The Judaism Shutdown (published during the U.S. government shutdown)
• 94% Proudly Jewish –So Why Dismiss Them?
• Can Liberal Judaism Survive?
• Pew Findings Reject Bleak Narrative of Jewish Decline
Everyone has weighed in.....demographers, rabbis, sociologists, heads of Jewish agencies, educators, bloggers. There have been interpretations and explanations galore and they will, I’m certain, continue for quite awhile.
For those of you who have missed the coverage, here are a few salient points revealed by the Pew study:
• There are slightly more Jews in the United States than we thought – 6.7 million of us.
• Increasing numbers of American Jews do not define themselves as “religious” Jews favoring, instead, self-definitions as socially or culturally-identified Jews.
• 94% of self-identifying Jews (religious or other) are proud of their identities.
• The rate of inter-marriage continues to rise.
• Of all Americans, Jews are the least religious, as defined by attendance at worship services.
• The Orthodox segment of the Jewish community is the fasted growing and the most successful in retaining adherents generationally.
There’s more--lots more--and not much of it is surprising to anyone who is connected to American Jewish life. As one commentator put it, “the secret of Jewish survival may be the propensity to panic about our fate.” [Theodore Sasson, writing on Tabletmag.com]
I have read many of these commentaries with a large grain of [kosher] salt. This is because long ago I found myself relating to this story:
A young rabbi started his career believing he could change the world. When he learned that this wasn’t possible, he resolved to change his community. When this, too, proved impossible, he resolved to change his family. Failing there, as well, he concluded that the only person he could change was himself. And that became his lifelong work.
I had no illusions, when I was ordained, that I could change the world or, for that matter, the fate of Judaism. What I could do was endeavor to find meaning for myself in the pursuit of a Jewish life and, in so doing, inspire others who came within my orbit of influence. It seemed a modest enough goal but it has been a career-long challenge. And the entropic forces pulling at Jewish life in America are formidable. The Pew Research Center report is the latest snapshot of where our community stands in relationship to those forces.
Surely it will give rise to hand-wringing, shrei-ing “Gevalt!” and the articulation of strategies and efforts to reverse worrisome trends or to re-energize those Jews who no longer find connections to Jewish religious practice. I will pay attention to such responses as I certainly have much to learn about how to more effectively do my work as a rabbi.
But the most thought-provoking response to the Pew study that I read was a brief essay by Jay Michaelson, on Forward.com, that raises the most significant question of all: “Why be Jewish?” Unless and until every Jew among us is able to articulate why Judaism should exist, why the world needs Judaism and will continue to do so long into the future, we will be hard-pressed to make any changes that will alter the next population study that will emerge ten more years down the road.