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Local rabbis talk about the Pew survey

 
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Last week, the Pew Research Center published the results of an extensive survey of American Jews. While most local rabbis expressed some concern about the survey’s findings, they also said they were not surprised by the results, and see it as an opportunity to address the changing needs of the Jewish community.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some responses.

Rabbi Shalom Baum, religious leader of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck and first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said he was pleased that such a study was done, “as it is important for the Jewish community to deal with both tangible findings and perceptions. While I found a certain level of satisfaction with what seems to be the growing size and commitment of the Orthodox community, I was not surprised that, like all denominations, we face significant levels of attrition.”

Baum noted that while the projections are more optimistic for the younger Orthodox generation, the Orthodox community “needs to analyze how we could be even more attractive and relevant to our community — and to the broader Jewish community — without compromising our fidelity to halacha and mesora” — to Jewish law and tradition. “We need to make sure that our Orthodox youth and the general Jewish community see us as an ethical and just religious enterprise with love for all Jews and as protectors of the vulnerable, including agunot” — women whose husbands will not give them divorces — “and victims of abuse.”

This, he said, “will likely attract more unaffiliated Jews to our community and to the richness and sustainability of our lifestyle, even in the face of modernity.”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander of Ridgewood, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted that the Pew study “was a very different survey than the National Jewish Population Study. They asked very different kinds of questions.”

He said the new study “raised questions in the public domain that we may not have wrestled with.” For example, previous studies did not ask whether one was a “Jew by religion.”

“That’s fascinating,” he said, adding that answers showed strong generational differences. The “positive piece of the study was the finding that Jewish identity in each younger cohort is strong, but defined differently than parents or grandparents may have defined it.”

Freelander said he is troubled by the study’s findings showing a decline in synagogue affiliation. While more than 2 million American Jews identify as Reform, less than 1 million adults actually are affiliated with congregations.

“That’s a frustration,” he said. “Identity remains strong, but organizational affiliation continues to weaken.”

He said he was not surprised by findings showing significant differences between belief and practice.

“Judaism encourages doubts and questions,” he said. “Jews on all parts of the spectrum may question the reality of God. Part of what we’re learning is the dichotomy between ‘Jew by religion/belief’ and ‘Jew by affiliation/identity.’ They’re very different from one another. New definitions are emerging. Almost 20 percent of people under 40 now describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, up from 10 percent in 1998.”

Freelander said that while the intermarriage rates cited in the study “are far higher than anyone talked about publicly,” this does not necessarily lead to a net loss for the community. “It depends on how successful communities are in aggressively welcoming them, and how open families are in asserting their Jewish identity,” he said.

He also said the study’s policy implications are significant.

“We need to continue rethinking how we connect with our members so they don’t see synagogue membership as simply fee for service,” he said. “Can synagogue affiliation become a lifelong Jewish endeavor, or will it be fleeting?” He pointed out that the same question can be asked about federation involvement and community fundraising.

“It forces us to rethink our strategies in terms of individual synagogues and the community in general,” Freelander said. “If six out of 10 don’t affiliate with any Jewish organization, we can’t continue to serve them only through organizations.”

He suggested that the situation is “a reflection of America in 2013. If we look at other religious groups three generations away from [being] immigrants, I’d be surprised if there was a major difference. It’s an American phenomenon.”

The survey’s findings do not signal the failure of any particular Jewish institution, he said. However, “if an organization fails to change and adapt to the new reality, that will be a failure.”

Freelander said the Reform movement is optimistic because of the high level of movement identification revealed in the study.

“It’s allowing us to become a much broader tent than we may have initially been,” he said. With more than one-third of respondents identifying as Reform, “it’s a huge obligation.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah and immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, both Orthodox institutions, said that while he has yet to fully assimilate the findings of the study, “it is clear that we are in trouble.” Still, he said, the results were not unexpected.

“I’m not terribly surprised, unfortunately,” Goldin said. “It bears out what I’ve been seeing or supposing.”

Goldin said that anyone who reads the survey, with its findings on attrition and assimilation, has to be concerned about the survival of the Jewish community in America. Nevertheless, “The real question for me is, what can we do to counteract the attrition that is taking place within our ranks?”

The rabbi said that some of the study findings that did surprise him “can also be explained by linguistics and how people respond to questions.” For example, when you ask someone whether one can be Jewish and not believe in God, “the answer is dependent on how you phrase the question. Those kinds of statistics are soft,” he said, pointing out that while he personally believes philosophically and religiously that Judaism requires a belief in God, “Technically, Jewishness is not dependent on belief. An individual who is halachically Jewish remains Jewish, even when his or her belief wavers.”

On the other hand, while findings showing that a certain number of affiliated Jews don’t believe in God is not startling, “we need to deal with it — to talk more to our children about the centrality of belief.”

Goldin said the message he takes away from the survey is that “we are all in this together. We need to find a way to reach out to those beyond our ranks and boundaries, and do a better job within our ranks, to touch both minds and hearts.”

He noted that “historically, when Jews are in an open society, the challenges we face are different than [those faced] when dealing with a society that forces us to be insular…. We need to recognize that while this is a wonderful country and we are provided with more opportunities than anywhere else, other than Israel, in our history, living in such a society has its challenges.”

Goldin said “we have to take a good look at our education,” suggesting that in his own movement “we are connecting to the minds of our children but not their hearts.”

The rabbi said that while he is not “passing the buck” — and synagogues and schools do need to understand their own roles — “we must calibrate our efforts much more aggressively to make sure that we are addressing the needs of the next generation.

“There is also a strong parental piece,” he continued, citing two problems in particular.

First, “parents want to be their children’s friends rather than parents. A lot of parenting done in previous generations is not being done.” In addition, he said, “the home has abdicated its responsibility as the primary educational institution and expects schools and synagogues to educate their children.” Parents, he said, don’t recognize what their children are picking up from them. “If their observance is begrudging and not filled with emotion and strength,” how can they expect something different from their children?

The rabbi said he will study the survey more closely and present some of his feelings to the community, “but the community at large should be convening and looking to see what we in Bergen County need to do to shore up our own ranks and reach out beyond those ranks.”

Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter and Sha’ar Communities said that while some of the trends uncovered in the study are alarming, “we mustn’t ignore the research that reveals the fuller picture.” The numbers, she said, show the continued pride American Jews feel about being Jewish and their strong connection to Jewish culture, history, peoplehood, ethics, and Israel.

Lewittes noted that results showing signficiantly lower levels of affinity for Jewish religious law and observance are not surprising, given growing trends both within and beyond the Jewish community. But, she said, “that revelation ought not permit us to judge harshly or withdraw from our investment in those segments of the Jewish population.”

Lewittes suggested that “unprecedented levels of interaction, across all sectors of society, between Jews and others from different religious and cultural heritages or none, have logically led increased numbers to understand their Judaism relative to other traditions, and opened up for them the myriad ways that people relate to and express their particular identities.”

The varieties of spiritual experience, “including those that differ dramatically from traditional beliefs and ritual observance, are becoming more attractive and compelling for people seeking to sustain their connection to Judaism in a manner that feels authentic and consistent with their intellectual commitments and social values,” she said.

As regards policy implications, Lewittes said the findings clearly dictate that we provide these people with opportunities to immerse themselves in Jewish culture, learning, and activism, “and expose them to creative lifecycle and holiday rituals to cultivate a deep and abiding commitment to Jewish tradition and to the people with whom they share it.”

Lewittes said she has never been “more proud, affirmed, and energized to be doing the work of Sha’ar Communities,” which, she said, has been responding to the rising trends identified in the study. “It is time for the Jewish community to invest deeply in efforts like ours, and others who are refusing to close the door on those who have left our legacy institutions and frameworks, but instead are committed to creatively rebuilding and renewing Jewish life for those who may no longer engage out of religious belief but whose passion for Jewish identity and heritage remain integral to their lives.”

She said it is the responsibility of the community to turn that passion into “identifiable and concrete expressions of Jewish action and fellowship not only to re-engage those American Jews, but to provide them with the means to transmit that passion to the next generation and secure the ongoing vitality and dynamism of Judaism and the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, spiritual leader of Teaneck’s Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom, said that he was most struck by four findings in the study. “First, contrary to what we have been hearing for several years, large segments of the Jewish community, including the younger generation, still remain committed to the idea of Israel as Jewish state, but they are not in agreement with much of the American Jewish establishment as to how the Israeli government should behave,” he said.

“Second, the intermarriage rate for Jews of the younger generation who have gotten married in the last 10 years or so is over 70 percent. Third, the Conservative movement is much smaller than it was a generation ago, and fourth, the number of Jews, especially young Jews, who feel bound to Judaism but not to Jewish ritual or practice is quite high.

Of those four facts, the only one that surprised him was “the evidence of a still strong connection between young Jews and Israel,” Pitowsky said. “We have heard so much anecdotal evidence contrary to this finding over the past several years. I’m not sure exactly what ‘support Israel’ means to all people, but if these people believe that Israel should exist as an independent, democratic Jewish state, then we are in the same camp. I think we should stop pretending that J Street and the New Israel Fund are outside of the mainstream. It seems to me that they are the new mainstream, at least for younger Jews.”

There are some lessons to be drawn from the results, Pitkowsky continued.

“People today, young people, middle aged, and older, are searching for meaning and purpose in life. They are unwilling to accept that because an organization has functioned in a certain way for a long time, that it needs to function in that manner. They are also unwilling to accept that guilt or a sense of ‘otherness’ should define their Jewishness. These ideas are certainly more present in the younger generation than in the other age groups, at least in my experience.

“Many people today think that younger Jews are not interested in the Jewish community or in working hard to help the community,” he continued. “I could not disagree more with that idea. My experience and this survey teach me that young people are willing to work very hard for the Jewish community if we — the establishment — allow them to do two things: give them the room to shape their own experiences, which in many cases means that they don’t want to be part of the institutions that a previous generation built, and challenge them to live lives of meaning and purpose. Challenge them to live up to something, some ideal, some vision of what they could be, or of what life could be.

“There is no room in Jewish communal organizations for mediocrity. We need to be excellent at everything we do because people will not tolerate mediocrity. In a previous generation they might have tolerated mediocrity out of a sense of community or guilt. Today, they will not return if we disappoint them.”

Although he does not want to assign blame, he can think of a few possibilities.

“Too much defensiveness on the part of the establishment,” he said. “Movements change, programs change, and there is no reason to think that a program, institution, or movement that ‘worked’ for one generation will necessarily work for another generation. We need to rework our institutions for a new era.

“I am a strong believer in being welcoming to all people, no matter their observance level, no matter who they are married to,” he continued. “However, this does not mean that Judaism should not challenge people, should not push people, should not urge them to be the best member of the Jewish community (whether they are Jewish or not) they can be. You know the old saying, that a rabbi’s job is to make the uncomfortable people comfortable, and the comfortable uncomfortable. Well, I think we’ve been doing not enough of the challenging part of that sentence. Ask people to do more, and they will find resources inside of themselves they never knew they had.

“If one denomination loses, we all lose. I think there are too many people who get excited when they hear good news about their particular group, but bad news about another. In a way, they say to themselves, ‘See, I told you I was right and you were wrong!’ When Jews distance themselves from Judaism, no matter the denomination, we all lose.

Rabbi Jim Rogozen of Teaneck, chief learning officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, pointed out that while many of the survey’s findings were not new, “one major finding is that people use a very different vocabulary in describing their reasons for being Jewish, the ways they connect to the Jewish community, and the way they see themselves in relation to perceived definitions.”

“The word ‘religious’ means so many different things to people,” he said, “and it’s different now from what it meant 20 or 40 years ago.” The way people use words to refer to their Jewish identity or connection “are windows into our opportunities to connect with them.”

Rogozen said he doesn’t view the survey’s findings as negative but rather as opportunities and challenges. The major challenge, he said, “is to transmit Judaism in ways that connect with, attract, and retain” members of our communities.

“The problem with surveys in general is that they don’t always come with instant ‘to do’ or ‘do differently’ lists,” he said. “They’re a snapshot that makes you take stock of what you’ve done and perhaps change what you need to be doing.”

He noted that the study results were not disturbing because “anyone involved in the Jewish world locally or nationally sees individuals, families, and communities as constantly changing…. Judaism is a religion that has embedded within it the understanding that change is a part of life and we have to respond to it.”

Rogozen said that as an educator, he wishes that the role of education could have been highlighted more in the survey, adding that “what’s sad is that those who felt that a minimalist Jewish education was going to secure the future of the Jewish people were misguided.”

He said also that the use of the words “affiliation” and “denomination” were misleading because “those words don’t resonate. They’re not useful terms for a lot of people in the 18-30 age group.”

The survey, he said, gives the impression that members of that cohort are not making — or will not be making — a commitment.

“We have to address that group better, shepherd them along in ways that make sense to them — be there when they come into our sphere,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

He pointed out that if a synagogue sees itself as serving mainly people of any particular age bracket, those who don’t fall into that group may feel unwanted.

“Those who feel tended to will feel connected,” Rogozen said. The others will feel that the synagogue is not interested in them. To avoid this, he said, synagogues should have larger engagement plans.

“Larger synagogues are making a mistake if they wait for people to show up at age 35,” he said. “There’s something to be said for investing in this age group now, even as they ‘do Jewish’ in different venues, so that down the line young people will stay connected, perhaps even joining the larger, established congregations.”

Rogozen said that rather than highlighting reasons for Jewish attrition, we need to find out “what is lacking on the positive side, compelling people to want to be Jewish. If you love being with a group of people, you can’t imagine leaving them or not passing that along,” he said. “A drive-by connection to a synagogue is not the best way to do community.”

He stressed also his belief that when people have a great Jewish education, “when they see it as just as sophisticated and meaningful as anything else they’re learning, they really own it.”

 
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