The Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, released last October, really is the gift that keeps on giving.
As much as the Jewish community deplores the study’s findings, it seems to exert a magnetic pull over us, as if it were the moon and we the obedient tides. We can’t seem to stop talking about it. (Of course, part of that appeal is the license it gives us to talk, once again, about ourselves. We fascinate ourselves endlessly.)
That is why we found ourselves at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last Wednesday night, with the next in the seemingly endless series of snow-and-ice storms just a few hours away, discussing the Pew study yet again.
In case anyone’s memory needs prodding, the study showed that although most identifying Jews declare themselves proud of that identification, that pride seems based not on religion but on such nebulous things as a good sense of humor. Intermarriage is up, connection to Israel is down, and raw numbers are down. In general, Jewishness seems to be leaching out of the Jewish people like minerals through limestone.
The study is full of bad news.
But there continue to be genuinely interesting things to say about it.
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Center/Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park moderated the panel. In refreshing the audience’s memory about the study, he answered a question that had nagged at many of us, and had gotten in the way of taking it seriously. The study showed that a miniscule but still surprisingly large number of Orthodox Jews – 4 percent – admitted to having Christmas trees in their homes, and that 16 percent of them say that they go to non-Jewish religious services occasionally. That, Rabbi Engelmayer suggested, is because researchers accepted respondents’ self-identifications unquestioningly. Those Orthodox Jews probably say that the shul they go to at most, three times a year, is Orthodox.
That question settled, Rabbi Engelmayer turned to the panel – made up, like some all-Jewish version of a classic priest-minister-rabbi joke – of an Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi, as well as a representative of the Jewish camping movement. Strikingly, throughout the evening the rabbis agreed with each other far more than they disagreed; the lesson there, it seems, is that if anything can overcome the barriers between us, it is the fear of complete dissolution.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, who is Orthodox, said that the report was not surprising. The trends it marks have been clear for some time. “It’s clear that one day God is going to turn to the affiliated Jews and ask them, ‘Why didn’t you work harder to stop this?'”
He is conflicted, he said. It is of course necessary to meet people where they are, “but we can’t keep watering things down. I think we have to embrace all Jews, make sure that nobody disappears – but if it is done by moving away from the way Judaism has been, we all will lose more than we gain.”
Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, who is Reform, was up next. “The Pew Report highlighted the changing nature of Jewish identity,” he said. “We define it in ways that are more complex and fluid.” He compared it to something he had heard about training for the Olympic biathlon, the one where “you ski fast, then stop and shoot,” he said. (He did not answer the obvious question about that sport – why do they do that?)
“They used to be trained to lower their heart rates before they started shooting,” he said. “Now they are told to shoot with an elevated heart rate.
“Same goals, different approaches.
“One hundred years ago, classic American Reform Judaism was do-it-for-you Judaism,” he said. “You sat and listened. The rabbi spoke. The cantor sang. Now we are in an era of do-it-for-yourself Judaism. Anything you can get from a synagogue you can do online, but you miss the opportunity for connection.”
The synthesis of those two forms of Judaism are his goal. He calls it “do-it-together Judaism.”
Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, is an Orthodox Jew and a member of Rabbi Goldin’s shul, but he was on the panel as a representative of one of the few Jewish institutions that is thriving unambiguously. “We need a new denomination,” he said. “Joyous Judaism.
“How do we bring more joy and passion into Jewish life?”
(Jewish camping’s success is a result of its comfort with both joy and passion, and its ability to integrate them into daily life every summer. For more on Mr. Fingerman and camping, see page 8.)
Rabbi Fred Elias, who is Conservative, is the rabbi at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. “Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 94 percent of all Jews say they are proud to be Jewish,” he said. “That’s a lot of people.” But how to engage them? How to turn that vague, untethered pride into a deeper connection?
He quoted other statistics showing the importance of in-marriage for keeping the next generation Jewish. “I belong to the Conservative movement, and maybe they’ll impeach me for saying this, but the movement made a big mistake in pulling its money from Koach,” he said. Koach was the movement’s program on college campuses; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, its parent, starved the group for a few years and then defunded and disbanded it completely. (According to United Synagogue, Koach is “on hiatus,” but it seems to observers to be as dead as Monty Python’s parrot.)
“It was a huge error,” Rabbi Elias added. “Take away money from anyplace else, but figure out how to get to college kids.”
On a second round, Rabbi Goldin said, “I started by asking ourselves why we’re here. I realize that question is double-edged. It means why are we in this situation, but it could also mean why are we still here?
“What is it that has held us together for thousands of years and allows us to identify as Jews today? It’s a miraculous phenomenon.
“For thousands of years we lived all over the globe, through tremendous persecution. And we’re here, not only surviving but identifying. To my mind there is only one answer. It’s because we had Judaism.
“We can’t just talk about being Jewish. We have to realize that it was Judaism – its belief system, its rituals.
“In many ways, Jewishness is an outer-directed experience. I want to connect to something larger than myself; to a God, to a people.
“So many times – and Orthodoxy is not immune from this – religion is becoming more and more about what it can do for me. I want to come to the synagogue and be entertained, as opposed to being engaged. If it doesn’t move me, if it doesn’t change me, then it doesn’t have value. Or maybe, maybe the value will be discovered when I give rather than take.
“If we are going to turn the tide, it won’t be just by meeting people where they are,” he concluded.
Rabbi Widzer agreed and continued, “What is our purpose here on earth? What is God’s intention for us in this world?
“We are aiming for lives of meaning and purpose that are shaped by our relationships with each other, with our history, with our future, in the context of our relationship with God. There is a trend toward seeing Jewish life as a commodity. The solution to that is moving toward the notion of Judaism as a community.”
“Community to me is what Judaism is,” Mr. Fingerman said. “It’s not do it for yourself. We do it together. We can pray on our own, but we are commanded to pray in a minyan.”
Rabbi Elias agreed with Rabbi Goldin on the importance of refusing to dilute Judaism. People buy Otterboxes for their cellphones, he said, so that the valuable electronics inside are protected. We are giving people the equivalent of cardboard phone cases, flimsy devices that cannot stop their precious contents from being damaged. “It is up to us to come up with Otterboxes,” metaphoric devices that would keep Judaism from becoming too battered to continue to work.
Repeating his strong desire to keep young people connected, “I would like to see a foundation for people from 18 to 25,” he said. “That’s the critical niche.”
How can all the streams that make up Jewish religious life work together to make sure that we all have a community? As always, that’s the hard part.
“We must value each other without validating each other,” Rabbi Goldin said; indeed, that is his frequently repeated mantra. Rabbi Elias, who also heads Kol Haneshama, a Conservative synagogue in Englewood, said that although he and Rabbi Goldin hold different beliefs and engage in different practices, “at the end of the day we would also go to bat for one another, to support one another’s traditions and community.”
“I am not a zero-sum rabbi,” Rabbi Widzer said. “I would rather someone be happy, and find a segment of the Jewish community that they feel engaged with. When that happens, the whole Jewish people wins.”
“I represent an organization that has found common ground,” Mr. Fingerman said. “Let’s find areas where we can agree. We have done that, and through that discussion we have learned to respect each other.”
So. Is there hope? Do we have a future? According to this panel, yes there is, and yes we do.