June 24, 2024
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Pew Results Seen as a Wake-Up Call

Bergen County—Close to half of all married American Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Two-thirds do not belong to a synagogue. And a growing number – especially among those aged 30 or younger – identify culturally as Jewish but describe themselves as having no religion.

These are some of the findings of a new survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center as part of its Religion & Public Life Project. Since its release to the public, the survey has reignited the decades-long debate in the American Jewish community over assimilation, intermarriage and the difficulties of maintaining a Jewish identity in an open, pluralistic society such as the U.S.

The Pew survey, the most comprehensive opinion poll of American Jews since 2001, was conducted from February through June of this year. In order to obtain a representative sample of poll respondents, the survey covered geographical areas, such as the Northeast, in which 90% of the American Jewish population U.S. resides.

The survey paints what many Jewish leaders are calling a disturbing picture of a people increasingly cut off from their roots and traditions – and not just because of the findings on intermarriage and synagogue membership. Researchers also reported that one-fourth of respondents said they did not believe in God, one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year… and 34 percent said it was possible to be Jewish while believing that Jesus was the Messiah.

But one finding in particular has raised alarms: 22 percent of American Jews self-identified as having no religion – but among so-called millennials (those born after 1980), the number increased to 32 percent, suggesting a trend that if left unchecked could lead to further attrition in the American Jewish population.

For several of Bergen County’s leading rabbis, the survey has confirmed what they had observed, or suspected, for some time—and should be seen as a wake-up call to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Neil Winkler of Congregation Young Israel of Fort Lee said he was not surprised by the growing number of non-religious Jews.

“Since the collapse of the ghetto walls and the increased mingling of Jews with the ‘outside world,’ the secularization of the Jew has increased as well,” he observed. “For the survival of a people numbering less than .02 percent of world population, this is a major challenge.

“With less and less Jews observing, with more and more Jews intermarrying, it is no wonder that 32 percent of the millennials say they have no religion,” he added. “For most of them, there most probably was very little meaningful religious observance, education or conversation in their home.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck said the survey illustrated how many Jews had become “consumers” of a cultural experience rather than “joiners” of a religious community.

“When you’re a consumer, you don’t easily wear a label – and if you’re not a joiner, you are not a stakeholder,” he said. “And I think that’s how you get this statistic of people who don’t consider themselves to have any religion, or who belong to a synagogue for vestigial reasons or because of a ‘tribal’ connection rather than a religious connection.”

There were some brighter spots in the survey. Most of the respondents expressed pride at being Jewish and said they had a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” while 69 percent said they had an emotional attachment to Israel (though only 17 percent agreed that building settlements in the West Bank was helpful to Israel’s security).

And the findings were relatively positive for Orthodox Jews: The survey found that 98 percent of married Orthodox have a Jewish spouse – the overall number for American Jews is 56 percent – and that far fewer young Orthodox than in the past are either leaving for other branches of Judaism or abandoning the faith entirely.

But Rabbi Zierler considers this to be “a semi-consolation” at best, while Rabbi Winkler believes that no one in the Orthodox movement “should smile at any of the [survey] results.

“Losing any Jew is a tragedy, and with numbers indicating that we are disappearing, there is nothing to celebrate,” he said. “It is only natural that those with less intense emotional, educational and social connection to their heritage and their people would find it easier to leave the fold, so I would expect that fewer Orthodox Jews would be doing so.  But they are still leaving. And we, too, must wonder why – and what can we do to stem the tide.”

One way to do this, according to Rabbi Zierler, is for Jewish educators to place more emphasis on giving students “an affective experience” that can help them to forge a strong Jewish identity.

“What came out in the [Pew survey] is that there is a lot of teaching to the head, but not to the heart,” he said. “As a result, too many students can’t interpret or reflect upon what they’ve learned. And that doesn’t serve them well when they’re put into a new environment, such as college, where they are really tested and they have no fallback.

“We can’t talk enough to young people, or allow them to ask enough questions,” he added. “Too many teachers edit questions or say, ‘we’ll entertain that, but not now.’ Kids can smell a lie, they can see a fake—and they’ll carry that with them.”

Above all, Rabbi Zierler said, community leaders and educators need to reach out to young people, grooming them for potential leadership roles, at a much earlier age.

“The big mistake of the Jewish community is that we wait until they are settled down to try to turn them into leaders, through young leadership groups or whatever it might be,” he asserted. “We should start, in the upper classes of high school, to have them mentored by people who are good exemplars of community connectedness, before they leave the comfort of the community for the atomized experience of the college campus.

“Right now, no such serious mentoring takes place—and that has created a big disconnect between the generations of the Jewish community.”

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