We Are So Jewish It’s Ridiculous: Stop Worrying About Pew

The Pew poll captured an exciting trend: the secularizing of a younger generation of Jews that encompasses my entire social circle and me. [This essay is from "Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew," reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.] by Sarah Seltzer During my early and mid-20s, I embodied the attrition phenomenon in organized Jewish life. My growing disinterest was the very kind that the recent Pew study, subject of so much attention in both religious and secular media, captures. I dropped into free services at the theological school near my apartment and had holiday dinners with my family, but that was pretty much it. I joked that my first Hillel Shabbat dinner at college was also my last. I was, and am, just too … [Read more...]

Can the Pew Findings Guide Philanthropic Investment in the Jewish Community

Philanthropic efforts need to walk a line between supporting the existing institutional structure and disruptive efforts that foster development of new forms of engagement. [This essay is from "Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew," reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.] by Leonard Saxe The 2013 Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” was like manna from heaven for pundits across the Jewish world. The study unleashed a virtual tsunami of commentary. Most commentators lamented the state of American Jewish life described by Pew and saw the findings as evidence of fuzzy identification with Judaism, growing secularization and lessened Jewish engagement. Pundits typically saw the findings as confirming their … [Read more...]

The Federation Movement and the Challenge of Jewish Identity: Interpreting Pew

The Federation movement is at a crossroads. The key will be a commitment to developing a Judaism of meaning, rooted in substance. We must build a community with no barriers to entry, but with a vision of Jewish life as high as Sinai... [This essay is from "Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew," reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.] by Barry Shrage In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke to the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds at the General Assembly (GA) in Montreal: "There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary: “surveys” and “survival.“ Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and … [Read more...]

The 94 Percent


Now that the initial hysteria from Pew's Portrait of Jewish Americans has subsided, it’s time to catch our breath and reflect on the insights and nuances of this comprehensive assessment of American Jewish life. Beyond the headlines, the Pew survey is replete with data on all aspects of Jewish identity, affiliation and experience. It provides a portrait of a community in transition as individuals chart new ways of connecting to Judaism that are consistent with life in a society that fully accepts and often even celebrates Jewish culture. In particular, as the philanthropic world regroups to consider the most effective areas of resource allotment in light of the study’s findings, it behooves the community to approach the survey with sobriety. With that in mind, Contact, a publication of The … [Read more...]

The “Wicked” Child of the Pew Study

by Rabbi Danny Burkeman Pesach is coming, and at sedarim across the Jewish community we will once again label four children as wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. I have always struggled with this part of the seder for two reasons. All of my work with young people has taught me that we should avoid labeling children because it gives them a negative message, often encouraging them to live up to the label we ascribe. And on a secondary level, I have always found it hard to understand why the respective questions correspond to the labels which the Hagaddah gives them. While we could analyze each of the children and their corresponding labels, I would like to devote my focus on the wicked child. He asks: "What does this service mean to you?" The Hagaddah's preoccupation … [Read more...]

Enough Identity Already

The Pew study confirms what we have seen in every other study in recent years. American Jews today are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identities. by Jon A. Levisohn In the blizzard of articles, reactions, and blog posts about the Pew Research Center study of American Jews, the most unexpected came from the prominent public intellectual Noah Feldman. Writing in Bloomberg, Feldman’s column jumps from the Pew study to some observations about, surprisingly, the Lakewood yeshiva. He explains that Lakewood is a massive ultra-Orthodox educational institution (6500 students embedded in a community of 55,000) focused almost entirely on the study of Talmud and exclusively for male students, that its educational model is "astonishingly egalitarian and democratic," that it demonstrates that … [Read more...]

Lies, Damned Lies and Big Data

by Russel Neiss Nary a day goes by that there isn't yet another response to what seems to be an endless myriad of reactions to the Pew Study. And this week, JTA reported on a $750,000 initiative by the NY Fed for twelve NY-based congregations to promote "more sophisticated data use among synagogues." Ostensibly, these and countless other "data driven" initiatives going back to the establishment of the Bureau of Jewish Social Research in 1919 have existed in order to facilitate and support the work of Jewish educators and communal professionals and help them engage in the holy work they do - but I wonder if our fetishizing of these figures is doing more harm than good. A Mashal: Robert McNamara was appointed as the U.S. secretary of defense when the Vietnam conflict began to rear its ugly … [Read more...]

Scattered Sunshine with Pew Clouds: The URJ Biennial Forecast


Demography is not destiny and the results of the Pew survey are a cloud, not a rainstorm. by Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok As thousands of Reform Jews gather this week in San Diego for the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the assembly is no doubt thinking about the recently released Pew Research Center’s Portrait of U.S. Jewry. We expect that many are confused. The study simultaneously documents the strength of Reform Judaism in contemporary America and its weaknesses. The positive news is that Pew confirms that American Jewry is larger than some skeptics had imagined and that, among the growing population, Reform Jews comprise the largest denominational group. Thirty-five percent of those considered to be Jewish by Pew identify as Reform. Reform Jews are also … [Read more...]