We need to ask new questions

We need to ask new questions

I have survey fatigue.

It seems that every other year a new survey about the Jewish population is published. When it is, we have the inevitable hand-wringing from many corners of the Jewish world about the statistics and trends present in the survey. Indeed, the last Pew Study on the American Jewish Population, which was released last fall, has caused the usual spike in anxiety.

What is interesting about this particular Pew survey, though, is that is can be read in two completely different ways, one positive and one negative. More ink has been spilled on the seemingly negative statistics that came out of the survey. Twenty-two percent of Jews identify as cultural Jews, or as the survey calls them, “Jews of no religion.” These Jews are more likely to intermarry and move away from the Jewish community entirely. Two thirds of the Jews of no religion are not raising their children as Jews. Intermarriage rates also are rising; the study says that six in 10 Jews who have gotten married since 2000 have married a non-Jew. Observance levels across the board are also declining; when compared to the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, slightly fewer Jews are attending Passover seders and observing Yom Kippur. And when people change denominations there is a trend toward becoming less observant – or more liberal. Reform Judaism is now being the largest Jewish denomination, and people leave Reform to become “Jews of no religion.”

When read this way, the Pew study would cause anyone concerned about the future of the Jewish community to shake in their boots. This narrative of erosion, the idea that the Jews are the ever-dying people, is a very popular trope in the organized Jewish world. Indeed, these numbers are concerning. But they are not the only thing we learn from the study.

Read a different way, there are many positive statistics that come out of the study. Ninety-four percent of Jews say that they are proud to be Jews, including 83 percent of “Jews of no religion,” and three quarters say that they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Large majorities of Jews say that other minority groups face more discrimination than they do; 72 percent say gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in American society, and an equal number say there is lot of discrimination against Muslims. More than six in 10 – 64 percent – say blacks face a lot of discrimination. These statistics show that Jews in America feel confident, safe, and proud of their identities. Though observance levels seem to be down, an astonishing 72 percent profess a belief in God, including 45 percent of Jews of no religion.

If you are like me, your eyes now begin to cross a bit looking at all of these statistics. They seem to be saying contradictory things: Jewish religious observance is down, yet Jews feel proud to be Jews and feel a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to God.

These questions do not actually give us the answer to the main questions at hand: What does the future of the Jewish people look like? Will Judaism continue to flourish in twenty-first-century America? These quantitative statistical analyses give us only a snapshot of what Jews in America in the year 2013 are doing. We cannot extrapolate on the Jewish future based on the findings in the Pew study, as much as demographers and Jewish communal professionals would like to.

To get at the question of what really is going on in the Jewish community, and what the future may look like, we need to start asking different questions, more qualitative in nature. I want to know why Jews do the things they do. What makes them be proud to be Jewish?

People who observe Jewishly, in whatever way they observe, do so because it adds meaning to their lives. The social connections they form through synagogue attendance make them feel better. Saying prayers to God reminds them to be grateful for what they have in their lives. Some people may strengthen their resilience by believing in a powerful deity who loves them and is there to back them up in hard times. These are just guesses on my part about what aspects of Judaism help people live more fulfilled lives. I would love to know for sure what aspects of Judaism make people flourish.

There actually is scientific research that can help us identify these things. The field of positive psychology, founded by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has developed scientific processes to ask these questions. Positive psychology is the study of how to make normal life more fulfilling; that is not the same as the goal of traditional psychology, which is how to treat mental illnesses. Researchers have developed a variety of tests to discover whether a person has some traits – positive outlook, hope, gratitude, resilience, to name a few – and then have identified certain behaviors that can strengthen those traits. When the traits are strengthened, then a person is far more likely to experience happiness, or if you don’t like that word, meaning, fulfillment, and enrichment.

Judaism as a religious practice can make us more fulfilled. Think of all of the gratitude practices we have built in to the system already. Observant Jews wake up and say “Modeh Ani” – Thank you God for bringing me back to the world this morning. Saying brachot – blessings – over food reminds us to be grateful for what we eat. Psychological studies show that when we feel grateful, we are happier.

Some may laugh, and say that being Jewish is not about being happy. It may even be anathema to it. We are good at beating our breasts and crying oy vey. Yet I strongly believe that for Judaism to have a future in an increasingly secular and individualist twenty-first-century America, we must understand how Judaism can add meaning to people’s lives. Then we must teach Judaism to the next generation in a way people find accessible, a way that shows the beauty and joy in our tradition, using new vocabulary we all can relate to.

People will not remain Jewish just because their parents were Jewish. We have to understand how Judaism works in people’s lives, and then articulate clearly, proudly, how it can work in everyone’s life.

The time has come to ask different questions in these surveys. The language and research methods used in positive psychology are a good starting point for developing new questionnaires. I will look forward to reading a survey that uses these new methodologies, and would love to be a part of developing one.

There is a lot to be learned about how and why Jews are Jewish. Let’s stop counting Jews, and start asking the right questions.