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 skeptical for that kind of organized religious enthusiasm.
This, strangely, is partly a product of my first decade of education at a progressive Jewish day school. Although I’m glad I attained the basics of Hebrew and Jewish history there, I also gained deep familiarity with many aspects of organized religion that I decided I didn’t want in my future life. I knew from an early age that I wasn’t going to be a regular synagogue attendee, or probably even a member.
Despite the fact that I was a very spiritual person who loved ritual and singing, I bristled at what I saw as competition and sanctimoniousness in the religious aspects of synagogue and day-school experiences. I found the organized and, specifically, the hierarchical aspects of organized religion antithetical to my own deep spiritual sensibility. We studied the hierarchy of the medieval church in school and I rejected its centuries-old schematic take on sacredness. But even in my liberal shul, I saw schema that I didn’t like.
Yes, I loved being a Jew, reading Jewish YA fiction and singing Jewish songs, but I did not love listening to people brag about having the rabbi over for Shabbat or about being more Jewish than thou. I didn’t love the fact that the most expensive High Holiday tickets got congregants access to the nicer chapel – or the fact that High-Holiday tickets cost money at all.
Over time in college, I began to change my identification from a spiritual agnostic to an atheist. This was the post-911 Bush era, in which religious fervor, arising from both Islamist and Christianist sources, turned me off from religion even further. But I would argue that my nonbelief alone wouldn’t have kept me from practicing my own religion – what I disliked was the condescension that the allegedly more pious so often offered towards the less.
If you ask for an example of that condescension, I would point to what happened to my friends when they went to Hillel to daven on the High Holidays. My joyous, riotous college friends would assume false levels of seriousness and grown-upness that I found put-on. I don’t reject serious spirituality – in fact, as a lifelong social-justice advocate there are many things I take quite seriously – but rather that the veneer of religion somehow meant our Jewish selves were separate from our everyday selves. To me, my Jewish self was my everyday self: inquisitive, questioning, funny, melancholy, seeking and obsessed with rectifying injustice.
I finished college, became a teacher and a writer in New York, and didn’t do much in the way of Judaism or Jewishness in the formal sense. And then Gabi Birkner, a neighbor of mine who was soon to be a friend and mentor, told me she was founding the Sisterhood Blog at the Jewish Daily Forward. Gabi suggested I could expand my writing repertoire to encompass Jewish topics and I agreed, but I was skeptical that I’d find material for more than a few posts.
Five years later, I write for three Jewish publications – the Forward, Lilith and ZEEK – and I just completed my first-ever organized Jewish outing (I skipped every single Shabbaton in elementary school) with the TENT: Creative Writing program at the Yiddish Book Center. I’ve also received fellowships from LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y in New York City and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, while I work part time at the National Council for Jewish Women and help communicate its social-justice mission.
Essentially, I have gone from being disaffected to totally invested in organized Jewish institutions. It’s a small world, and one opportunity has led to another. But also, these organizations found me where my interests lie and where my Jewish identity was: in art, in social justice, in journalism. My editors and the staff at these programs understood that Jewish identity was my identity, period. There was no facade of piety assumed on Saturdays, but rather a Jewish core that informed all my life choices every day. These publications and fellowships have helped support my pursuit of lifelong dreams that are intrinsically connected to my Jewish self: to create art, to consider current affairs and to try to repair the world.
A great deal of public worrying accompanied this season’s Pew poll, which revealed younger Jews becoming less religiously invested and more willing to criticize Israel. The statistics were called “grim” while intermarriage and assimilation, familiar bogeymen, were made scapegoats for the imminent destruction of our people.
But I urge deep breaths. My case demonstrates a great deal of reason to be hopeful. The Pew poll captured an exciting trend: the secularizing of a younger generation of Jews that encompasses my entire social circle and me. We are so Jewish it’s ridiculous. Like many of the Pew respondents, we have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” My friends and I in all sectors of life joke that our brains are wired in a Jewish way. I’d guess that my non-Jewish friends are probably tired of the number of times the Jews they know attribute characteristics – such as our bookishness, our neuroses, our health issues, our preference for events with lots of food – to our cultural and ethnic identity. Pew tells us that 94 percent of American Jews are proud of this identity. Where is the cause for alarm?
I have never been more actively Jewish, yet I am probably more distanced from Israel and less religious than I’ve ever been. But I’m actively Jewish because I feel supported and nourished by Jewish groups that have given me chances I might not have received elsewhere, and that are helping me to grow professionally, artistically and personally. The binary of religious vs. secular is old and out of date. To reach young Jews, find them where they are.
Sarah Seltzer is a writer living in New York.