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 Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, set out to explore the ramifications of the Pew survey from a range of perspectives, from the possibilities of capitalizing on pervasive Jewish pride to the challenges institutions face in appealing to Jews today, from considerations of secular Jewish identity to insights into the myth of Orthodox outreach. Taken together, the essays use the survey as a springboard for reflections on how to strengthen and revitalize a community grappling with emerging Jewish identifications that often defy expectations and traditional norms.
eJewish Philanthropy is grateful to The Steinhardt Foundation for allowing us to share this series of articles with our readers.
by Michael H. Steinhardt
The concept of Jewish pride is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the middle of the last century, one of the defining aspects of Jewish life was the rush to eliminate one’s connection to Judaism. People were discomforted by their Jewish roots; they recognized the barriers that overt Jewish identification created for them, and they sought, first and foremost, to scale those barriers in order to succeed. Levis were changed to Lanes, Goldbergs to Greens. We can credit a range of factors, including anti-Semitism and the desire to succeed in American culture, but the result was that Judaism was not something to cherish, but to escape.
Now along comes Pew, which tells us something that would have been mind-boggling just 50 years ago: 94 percent of Jews are “proud to be Jewish.” The reason for this enormous change is a subject unto itself – whether it is pride in Israel or a gradual recognition of Jewish achievement that allows Jews to participate in almost every industry and profession. Regardless, one point remains clear: This pride is unprecedented in Diaspora Jewish history, and it contains enormous opportunities for philanthropic engagement.
Among secular Jews, the dramatic increase in pride has been extraordinary. The question then is: What exactly is this pride that an overwhelming majority of Jews possess? What are its contours, and what does it omit? Here the issue becomes more complicated. In other areas explored by Pew, particularly in the realm of communal and denominational identification, the numbers are seemingly not so sanguine. One-third of Jews in the Millennial generation consider themselves to be “Jews of no religion.” If we resist belonging, what exactly are we proud of?
I would maintain that we are proud of secular Jewish achievement and accomplishment, a phenomenon that has only grown in recent years. I remember when I was a child, I knew the name of just about every successful Jewish athlete. For Jews, these sports stars were heralded, their scores memorized, their victories savored. We had the same feeling about exceptional Hollywood actors who were Jewish. Now take that very specific pride in Sandy Koufax or Barbara Streisand, and expand it into more fields than you can imagine, and you can understand part of what constitutes Jewish pride for younger Jews today. Nobel Prize winners, scientists, musicians, great writers and artists, commentators in every conceivable media – it all comes together in a new, all-encompassing mosaic of pride that isn’t jingoism but something akin to connection, familiarity and kinship born of shared cultural experience. As the Pew report revealed, halachic Jewishness isn’t a prerequisite for such feelings. The pride comes not from traditional lineage but from a broader association, a societal association – and that too is different today.
Tallies of Jewish achievement are not meant to be simplistic or chauvinistic. On the contrary, they tap into deep, sometimes ineffable feelings of connection to previous generations of secular Jewish life, and they reflect an appreciation of a Jewish sensibility and perspective that has framed Jewish and Western cultures since the time of European Jewish Emancipation. I like to say that my Jewish history began 300 years ago, because before that, all Jews were religiously observant and halacha was the dominant criteria of Jewish culture. After that, Jews were slowly and inexorably unburdened of limits – and our creativity soared. This creativity and its resulting achievements are the source of Jewish pride for the non-Orthodox majority of Jews today.
This is why I maintain that the roots of secular Jewish pride stretch back 300 years, from the time Jews first began interacting with the outside world. This doesn’t mean that Jewish history prior to Emancipation is immaterial, but that because it was often shrouded in religious cues and contexts, and because it was by necessity cloistered, it doesn’t speak to most Jews today in the same way as does our secular cultural imprint. One could argue that today, most Jews are ambivalent about ritual, but they are passionate about accomplishment. Our communal organizations need to recognize this. Jewish pride is not about laying tefillin. In fact, it has nothing to do with Jewish spiritual devotion, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with religious practice. It’s about Jewish sensibility, striving and accomplishment.
Perhaps the greatest secular Jewish achievement of this or any age is the establishment of the State of Israel. What started as the most vivid dream in Jewish history was forged into a nuts-and-bolts reality that has become a laboratory of the Jewish creative spirit. Its triumphs and challenges are born of Jewish wisdom and experience, and both serve as potentially exhilarating educational tools. Israel expands Jewish pride, adding new dimensions and horizons to our sense of self. Why is it not the source of more secular Jewish education in the Diaspora?
Our philanthropy must contend with Jewish pride and orient itself to a newly understood landscape. Given what we now know about this pervasive sense among secular Jews, it is time to invest more seriously in educational endeavors that reinforce it and build upon it. Simply put, for a Jew to be Jewishly educated today, he or she must know the history of the past 300 years. We must learn and understand our achievements, and explore the background and basis of our success. Was it DNA? Social cues? Pressure from persecution? Education? We need to educate more thoroughly in this area than we have in the past.
After all, as we know from the Pew report and other places, there are discernable areas of decline in terms of Jewish affiliation, particularly in terms of institutional connection. We have pride, but not much desire to affiliate. How can this be? Our institutions are not meeting the needs of an integrated, intellectually curious people that arguably obtains more of its Jewish education from television than from Hebrew school. Frankly, pride is largely absent from Jewish education as we know it. Yes, many Jews may know that Marx, Freud and Einstein were Jews of great achievement. But there is very little effort made to educate how their ideas were Jewish in iconoclastic ways that might not fit with traditional definitions of Judaism, and how they – and countless other men and women, from societies near and distant – were part of a Jewish intellectual and cultural revolution that rein- vented our ways of seeing the world.
Unfortunately, at this point in our history and culture, we have pride but not enough knowledge to back it up. It’s inchoate; it needs to be equipped with articulation. We must start focusing on educational models that bring the knowledge and content of secular achievement to young Jews, and that help explain what historic Jewish values and ideas contribute to that achievement. We must find and train educators with a knowledge base to help Jews understand what elements of Jewish history and wisdom have informed the actions of Jews in the secular world. After all, it will be much easier to strengthen a sense of Peoplehood if we teach our children the secular history of our peo- ple. This will create a substrata of emotional connectivity upon which a more durable Jewish identity can be built. In the end, our goal must be that in the next generation, “94 per- cent” will be bandied about not just to describe Jewish pride, but education, connection and commitment – the recipe for a vibrant Jewish future.
Michael H. Steinhardt is Chairman of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.