Jews in the Pew: Why Organized Jewry Should Finally Start to Accentuate the Positive

Today the American Jew expresses identity through culture, ethnic origin, social values, civic participation and, yes, religious observance – as well as through the behaviors associated with all of these.

by George Wielechowski

If you’ve been listening carefully in recent weeks, you may have heard hands wringing and teeth gnashing among the American Jewish cognoscenti. When the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project released A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the first survey in a decade about American Jews and their relationship to Jewish identity, the reaction was, well, eerily familiar – and disappointingly short sighted.

American Jewish leaders quoted in major national papers bemoaned the survey’s “depressing outlook for the future of any continuation of Jewish affiliation outside of Orthodoxy,” and characterized it as “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.”

Besides sounding like a Greek-chorus reprise of the organized Jewish world’s completely ineffectual reaction to assimilation over the last 60 years, these and many other comments featured in national media coverage on this issue focus solely on the continuity of Jewish religion and completely ignore the growing pride in Jewish peoplehood. This study has effectively and officially introduced the New American Jew who stands at the door of the institutionalized Jewish world. It’s about time, and I should know. I’m a proud New American Jew. I’m knocking on the door. And I am not a threat to the survival of Jewish religion and culture in America.

I grew up in suburban Baltimore as a good, first-generation Latino American kid (and a very Christian one, thanks to my Guatemalan mother). Went to church every Sunday; ate a lot of tortillas. And then my hard-working single mom saved enough money to move our family from government-subsidized housing into our first single home – in a majority-Jewish neighborhood. Now, more than 20 years later, I am a convert to Judaism who is four semesters shy of becoming a rabbi. I speak fluent Spanish and mostly-fluent Hebrew. And I’m not afraid to say that I’m one of the many Jewish agnostics in the world. That even as a rabbinical student, I often struggle to connect to Jewish “religious life” but feel very much at home in the polity of Jewish peoplehood. As a New American Jew, I express my Judaism most strongly through my passion for Jewish history, art, literature, music and intellectual pursuits, and through a firm Jewish connection to social justice.

And as a future rabbi, I think the Pew study is the best news yet. The way I read it, Jews are not only proud to be Jewish; they’ve organically expanded on what it means to be Jewish. Today the American Jew expresses identity through culture, ethnic origin, social values, civic participation and, yes, religious observance – as well as through the behaviors associated with all of these. This hybrid identity is becoming the face of the 21st-century American Jew.

There is a place where the “Jew without religion” is already flourishing while facing similar challenges from those who insist on seeing “religious” Jews as somehow more valuable to continuity.

That secularist holy land is Israel, of course.

My family and I lived in Tel Aviv this past summer. And let me tell you, if you want to know what American Jews will look like in the next 50 years, look no further than Tel Aviv. There you’ll find the kibbutznik who has brought his neo-socialist culture and work ethic to the chic, beachfront city. You’ll find the Jew who expresses her proud MOT (member of the tribe) identity through her artistic and literary passions. You’ll also find the non-religious, yet loud-and-proud Jew who sees his sunset yoga class as a Jewish spiritual practice. And then there’s the modern Israeli rabbi who teaches her constituents in cafes and virtual classrooms. All of these represent the new, self-reconstructed Jew.

It’s easy for traditionalists to write off the quality and depth of the new Jew’s engagement based on how often he attends services, whether he belongs to a synagogue, and who he marries – or doesn’t marry. But it’s hard work – and, I would argue, authentically Jewish work – to see opportunity where everyone else sees doom. It’s characteristically Jewish to reject fear when facing an unclear future, and to embrace with love, support and, most important, acceptance all those who wish to enter our tent.

Our forefathers and foremothers were famous for their tents that were open on all sides. Perhaps it’s finally time for the American Jewish juggernaut to rethink the closed-entry mentality.

Because if our doors aren’t open to the many faces of the New American Jew, these Pew stats warn us, we can bet this population will close the door on Judaism writ large. And if that happens, then we will face a doomsday that Jews in America won’t recover from.

We’ve long measured who’s in and who’s out by how much they pray and practice, by how much they seem Jewish because they came through the right synagogue door, at the right time on the Jewish calendar.

My advice to the worry-weary Jewish world: Why not develop more and different paths to fully welcome New American Jews into our polity?

At the very least, more open doors might mean more people walking through them.

George Wielechowski is in his fifth year of study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the Philadelphia area. He is director of communications at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

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  1. says

    So well-written George, yasher koach! I agree that the days of judging the quality and depth of Jewish engagement based on number of services attended are gone — precisely because there are so many different avenues these days to living a modern Jewish life. If you read your kid a book from the PJ Library, laugh at an essay on or look up a new prayer on –it’s clear you’re already in the tent and you should be welcomed.

  2. Rabbi Avi Winokur says

    If there is one thing we Jews have done throughout the ages it is to adapt, and those adaptations have not always been small. Maybe what George is suggesting in his response it that we renew our faith in our capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and do what is needed for our time, rather than lament that the “good old days” are behind us. Those of us in 20th century pulpits (99% of pulpit rabbis) will have to become part of the 21st century if we want to thrive rather than merely survive. Nothing the old guard does will decrease rates of intermarriage. Tripling the investments in Jewish day schools will have a negligible effect. However much Birthright Israel Judiazes its young participants (a question much in debate), even tripling that enormous investment will not reverse the trends in the Jewish world that mirror mega trends in society—mega trends that are more sweeping and powerful than any social engineering our community can put together. The implication of George’s exuberant reimagining of the Pew study is that we need to meet today’s Jew asher hu sham/ where he is, not where we wish she is. Get rid of the sackcloth and ashes. How about a new study: One that measures aspiration and passion, not allegiance to the Jewish norms of another era.

  3. Marilynn Rothstein says

    I think the leadership of the Reform Movement is on the right track: breaking down barriers, focusing on youth and relevancy, opening it’s biennial conference to anyone who considers him/herself Jewish.

  4. Rob says

    All the interpretation and teeth-gnashing over the Pew study is pointless. The study empirically supports the correlation of Jewish separation by lifestyle (i.e. ritual and law like shabbat, kashrut, avoiding intermarriage, etc.) with the strength of Judaism and the Jewish people. And all that comes from Torah, the sine qua non of Judaism. The farther from Torah that we live and act, the farther from Judaism we fall. “Social Justice”, even if called “Tikkun Olam” is not unique to Judaism and does not strengthen Judaism and the Jewish people. In fact, just the opposite: the Jewish philanthropic world has been eating its young and sabotaging its own long-term cash flows by focusing too much on social justice so as to attract Jews with ever weaker affinity for living lives that are meaningfully distinct from non-Jewish life. Even before Madoff, the funds were not rolling in like right after the Shoah, and they now come from ever smaller percentages of self-identified Jewish populations. The communal funding models still work, but the targets for appeals and the spending priorities have long been misplaced.

  5. Chaver Steve says

    We can celebrate new forms of Jewish expression and engagement while, at the same time, acknowledging the erosionary forces of assimilation that will continue to ravage Jewish numbers as they have down through the ages. (If all of the descendants of the 4 million Jews alive 2000 years ago had remained Jewish there would be a billion of us today.) Truth be told, the decentralization of Jewish life allows Jews to reconstitute and reorganize themselves at will into new kinds of affinity groups without asking for permission from any authorities within the Jewish people, for there are no such overarching authorities. So the 21st century flowering of new types of Jewish expression and engagement will occur as they please – whether or not any existing Jewish group “opens their tent” to them or not. Cultural evolution is a beautiful thing to behold, especially Jewish cultural evolution. I fancy myself and my children as part of that evolutionary Jewish force. But all this is not to say that the descendants of a huge percentage of today’s Jewish population seem likely to end up so far removed from their Jewish roots 2 generations hence that they, themselves, no longer identify themselves as Jews. We who do continue to identify as Jews might do well to carry a consciousness that we are but a pitiful remnant of what the Jewish people might have grown to were it not for the slow, steady erosion of assimilation always in our midst.

  6. Shelly Barnathan says

    Yasher Koach, George – I am proud to be your classmate and colleague. You express so eloquently (as you always do!) the need to see things through the lens of the Kos – cup- that is more than half-full! Opening every doorway to today’s Jews – of every age and every stripe – is what synagogues, rabbis, and every Jewish institution needs to do. We are all different “spiritual types”, and all of us need to create entryways that will invite in every Jew.
    Thanks, George, for stating this so beautifully.

  7. Bil Zarch says

    Yasher Koach, George! You have captured the essence of what Jewish life must look like in 2014. Glad to have you part of my community.