To save American Judaism, focus on the community

To save American Judaism, focus on the community

A new Pew Research Center survey confirms yet again what we have known for at least three decades, ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was released: American Judaism is in serious trouble of disappearing.

The Jewish birth rate is bad enough. The general population nearly doubled in the last 50 years or so; the Jewish population increased by only about 15 percent.

Other numbers are more troubling, however.

People in the United States who identify as Jewish declined to below 2 percent of the population. Another half-percent identify as born Jews, but do not otherwise see themselves as such. Roughly two-thirds of those who identify as Jews “with no religion” say they are not raising their children “as Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion,” according to the survey’s summary.

The intermarriage rate stands at 58 percent; before 1970, it was only 17 percent. Fewer than one in every four Jews live in homes in which at least one person belongs to a synagogue.

Attrition rates cut across the streams, including the Orthodox. The survey found that “roughly half” of the respondents who were raised Orthodox no longer identify as such. The trend is less pronounced among younger Orthodox Jews, but only time will tell whether this is an anomaly or a new trend.

While an overwhelming percentage of American Jews say they are proud of their Jewishness, there is a wide disparity of views defining what it means to be Jewish.

The survey offers reasons to cheer for both the Reform movement and the variegated Orthodox sector. Reform is clearly the largest group, with 35 percent of American Jews (Conservatives stand at 18 percent and the Orthodox at 10 percent). Orthodoxy is supposedly the fastest-growing group among those Jews “with religion,” but this is a complicated picture. For example, the number of people who identify as “modern Orthodox” are outnumbered two-to-one by the charedi.

“Fastest-growing,” however, is a relative term: In the last 13 years, the “Jews with no religion” category soared from 7 percent to 22 percent. They are the fastest-growing – to our detriment.

Most troubling about these trends is what we are doing about it – very little that is effective. In 23 years, ever since the 1990 survey, the negative numbers have steadily moved upward. Whatever efforts have been made failed to staunch the bleeding. As I see it, at least, the efforts to save the American Jewish future have focused on observance almost exclusively, and miss the problem entirely.

The problem is that our sense of community has broken down everywhere but the Orthodox world.

Contrary to common belief, peoplehood, not practice, is Orthodoxy’s attraction; its unique sense of community is absent elsewhere within American Jewry.

The post-World War II migration to the suburbs took Jews from their enclaves and spread them out, often at great distances from each other. It was because “the numbers of people who find themselves living in widely scattered suburbs is increasing” that a reluctant Conservative movement allowed driving to synagogue on Shabbat, according to the mid-1950s “A Responsum on the Sabbath.”

Because Jews now lived so far apart, “participation in public service on the Sabbath is … indispensable to the preservation of the religious life of American Jewry,” the responsum declared. Indeed, it said, “in our time, regular attendance at the synagogue has become a sine qua non for the maintenance of Judaism….”

The numbers are clear proof that focusing on observance misses the point.

It is not the eruv that defines Orthodox Jewish identity; it is the sharing of Shabbat meals, the walks in the street on Shabbat afternoons, the stopping to have conversations with other members of the community, the sharing of s’machot and grieving. Living together permits a stronger Jewish identity because everyone around you shares that identity. That is not something that comes from spending two hours in a building on Shabbat. It can only exist if it is experienced 24/7/365.

When my mother passed away some years ago, we never wanted for a minyan, day or night, during shivah. People I did not know and who did not know me nevertheless crammed into our downstairs living room twice each day because I needed a minyan. In the non-Orthodox world, we sometimes go begging for a minyan, and we are not always successful.

It is not possible to maintain a strong sense of Jewish identity without a concurrent strong sense of Jewish community. That is where we must start if we are to reverse the downward spiral.

In Teaneck, the Beth Sholom community is arguably among the more observant within Conservative Judaism because so many of its members live amongst each other, and within walking distance of their synagogue.

Short of creating Orthodox-like communities, the other streams may be able to ratchet up a sense of community in other ways. Bikur cholim societies need to be re-established; visiting the sick is a communal responsibility. Non-Orthodox synagogues should also consider establishing chevrah kadishah groups, to handle all matters related to funerals and burials – with follow-up procedures so that mourners receive ongoing support. Synagogues also need to create more inexpensive social events unrelated to fundraising. Rather than late Friday night services, members should be encouraged at regular intervals to host small groups of fellow members in their homes for Shabbat dinners, preceded perhaps by Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv in the living room. Synagogue newsletters need to invite members to contribute items about their own lives.

Will a stronger sense of community save the Jewish future in the United States? We will never know unless we try.