by Glenn Drew
This past October, The Pew Report of American Jewry, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” was published. Leaders of major Jewish organizations, scholars, pundits and naysayers rushed to respond, editorializing about the report’s findings. I resisted the temptation to join the fray, instead choosing to “sit on the sidelines”, listening to the debate unfold and then quickly fade into obscurity. Anecdotally, a lot of what the report revealed was well known but the publication of hard data to support the fact that Jewish identity is changing in America seems to have raised the ire of some and the consternation of many.
Notwithstanding all of the commentary written on this subject, let me perhaps be among the few to simply say publicly, “thank you”, to the Pew Research Center for the extensive work they performed. Pew is a nonpartisan fact gathering nonprofit that seeks to inform the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic and other empirical social science research. It does not attempt to take policy positions or render political opinion. Whether viewed as a bitter pill or a dose of good medicine, the findings of this secular organization will serve as an important resource for all American Jews regardless of how they define themselves.
To the surprise of many, as if a revelation that Jews in America have evolved into a diverse group, is to ignore Jewish history in its entirety. Who could be blind to the growth of intermarriage and discontent among younger Jews over the past five decades? It didn’t occur in a fleeting moment. And can we criticize those generations who sought to assimilate and make a better life for themselves and their children in America? Rather than lament over the way we were, what can be learned from the Pew study is the direction we should be heading. We seem to have forgotten the controversy that grew from the ideas which gave rise to denominational Judaism in America or the very reasons for its popularity. Yet now we seem to fear its demise as we enter what appears to be a post-denominational era among many American Jews, religious or otherwise.
At the American Hebrew Academy, an international Jewish college prep boarding school, we’ve witnessed this trajectory for years on so many levels. While many believed the Academy was “ahead of its time” back in 2001 when its doors first opened to all Jewish students, the Academy has now earned a worldwide reputation for its creativity and response to the changing needs and desires of 21st century Jewish families seeking both new and traditional options for their children to explore and discover their Jewish identity in a diverse world. Our recognition of the “global Jewish citizen” who is “connected” to the Jewish people in multiple ways has spurred the growth of international students coming to the Academy in significant numbers. These young people still seek to live the American dream no different from generations of immigrant Jews who came before them. And American families want their children to engage and share in this unique educational experience as well.
While American Hebrew Academy students clearly recognize that they are among the minority within their peer group, given declining numbers of American teenagers enrolling in Jewish schools, they have taken the findings of the Pew report to heart. While many of them agree that their generation will be more clearly identified with Jewish culture than religion, they equally support the growth of the orthodox community and its importance in assuring our freedom to enjoy a Jewish life in America rich in choices that are engaging and personally fulfilling. They also recognize that all Jews share far more in common than that which divides them and the existence of those divisions, no matter how defined, need not be divisive.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh writes, “Jewish identity is increasingly diverse, malleable, differentiated by age and likely to change many times within a lifetime. Young Jews display positive and active Jewish identities, for example, in untraditional, sometimes idiosyncratic and often innovative and unusual ways. While they may seek communities within which to share Jewishness and may even abide by the norms that a given community enacts for itself, doing so will be a matter of choice. Individual choice is indeed, the overriding factor in Jewish identification, especially among younger Jews.”
There is a time for every purpose, a purpose for which time will allow for change and a change in time that redefines our purpose. I steadfastly believe that graduates of the American Hebrew Academy will be among the future leaders in America and the world who will assure Jewish continuity in their own way for the benefit of us all.
Glenn Drew is Executive Director at American Hebrew Academy.