The Pew Survey: What Questions Should We Be Asking Ourselves?

11 October 2013  
7 Cheshvan 5774 
 

Shalom Chaverim,  

While the government shutdown has dominated the news media for the past two weeks, American Jews are in hysteria over the Pew Research Center’s survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” I won’t site statistics here but suffice to say the survey highlights trends in American Jewish life such as high intermarriage rates, especially among the non-Orthodox, low synagogue attendance, and the struggles of the Conservative movement. One of the statistics that seems to be alarming people most is the high number of people who proudly identify as Jewish but who identify as having “no religion.”  

Many bloggers, journalists, and pundits are writing with new urgency and some despair about the demise of American Judaism. The New York Times article that brought the survey to light for many of us certainly illustrates this pessimistic alarmism (“rapid assimilation is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox”). At the same time, others cite encouraging statistics, such as the extraordinarily high numbers of people who say they are “proud to be Jewish” and the numbers of younger people who feel positively toward Israel (no doubt connected to the Birthright Israel phenomenon). One article is even entitled, “Pew Study Finds a Vibrant Jewish Community.”  

I am not a pundit or a sociologist and certainly not a prophet.  I live and work with Jews across the spectrum of Jewish observance and identification, so, to be honest, very little in the survey surprised me. I do think, however, that reports like these and the flurry of responses can be valuable starting points for all of us to reflect on and talk about Judaism, the Jewish People, our communities, our families, and our personal Jewish identities. What do these numbers mean to us? Which commentaries resonate with us and why? I think Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, would ask us: Do we look at surveys like this, as well as at the Jewish present and the Jewish future, with doom and gloom, or do we see them through a lens of hope, optimism, and possibility? (By the way, he chooses the latter, which, I believe, is one of the reasons why the Boston Jewish community is thriving in so many ways.)  

 Just to keep the data-wonks among us humble, Gann Academy teacher Rabbi David Starr wrote in his blog, “’Thou Shalt Not Commit Sociology’ one of my profs in grad school half-jokingly commanded us.” Similarly, my friend Rabbi Jan Katzew  reminded me that, at a meeting of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary: surveys and survival. Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams.”  

I am confident that Heschel cared deeply about the survival of the Jewish people. His disdain for the word and for our obsession with surveys and statistics was that we, as a people, can focus too much on our body and not enough on our soul. This raises other questions for us to consider: survival and continuity, yes, but for what purpose? In what ways will we and our children find meaning, relevance, and inspiration in Jewish learning and Jewish life? How can we ensure that intellectually sophisticated, ethically grounded, spiritually nourishing, and socially enriching Jewish experiences add value to our lives as Americans and human beings, and, through us, add value to the world?  We can ask what these statistics mean for us, but, more importantly, we should be asking what impact will we and our children make on the future of these statistics.    

These questions are at the very core of Gann Academy’s commitment to the next generation and to the Jewish future. I admit that my perspective is shaped more by walking the halls of our school than by surveys and punditry. Seeing our students from across the Jewish spectrum grapple with  questions like these in different ways, taking responsibility for and finding meaning in their Judaism during these most formative adolescent years, certainly fills me with a sense of optimism and hope.  Our answers to these questions and our commitment to keep asking them should animate our responses to this survey, our vision of Jewish education, and our efforts to build a vibrant Jewish community. 

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  

 

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