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 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.

Print Friendly
Send to Kindle

Comments

  1. Gal says

    Amen. Totally identified with this piece, even though I am of an older generation. And it is particularly exciting see a young generation that has a strong Jewish identity and does not consider worrying as a prerequisite to being Jewish. Enough of gevalt Judaism! How refreshing to see this kind of take on the Pew survey.

  2. Dave Neil says

    Sarah,

    It is wonderful that you have become, through your writing, more involved in the Jewish community.

    But i disagree that there is no reason to worry.

    Here are the facts and tell me if you think if the following facts are reason to worry or not…

    Currently 7 out of 10 non-Orthodox Jews marry non-Jews (PEW stat 71.5%) .

    The inter-marriage rate for children of the intermarried is 86%
    Meaning once the children of the intermarried themselves marry 86% of them (8.5 out of 10!) will have only one Jewish grandparent. Not surprisingly only 8% or 9% of the grandchildren of the intermarried consider themselves Jewish, which means we are losing over time 90% of those who intermarry today…

    Combine that with the 1.6 fertility rate of the non-Orthodox Jews and you will find that the numbers of non-Orthodox Jews is plummeting. According to Steven M Cohen- “For every 100 non-Orthodox Jews we only have 55 such children” source of this quote here: http://www.synagogue3000.org/seeking-a-third-way-respond-challenge-intermarriage

    By the way that quote above was from 2008 – five years before PEW.

    So due to inter-marriage and low fertility rates non-Orthodox Jewry in America will see their numbers cut in half – every generation.

    Reason to worry? the vast majority of non-Orthodox synagogues will close over the next 50 years, (but you mentioned in your article that you are far from religion so i guess you don’t worry about that);
    support for Israel will be a fraction of what it is now (but you mentioned in your article that you are not close to Israel so i guess you don’t worry about that);

    contributions to the Jewish federation and other organizations which take care of our Jewish poor and elderly will also collapse (assuming this is something you support- shouldn’t we all be concerned?)

    For assimilated Jews – there is not really much concern over PEW.

    But since i am passionate about my Judaism, about Israel and about the well-being of the Jewish People of which i strongly identify with… the PEW report – and the current demographic projections for non-Orthodox American Jewry get’s people like me very very concerned.

    I hope that your writing for the Jewish community will lead to your great involvement and will help you discover the beauty of Judaism as well as the wonder of Israel.

    The last paragraph of your article is very telling.

    This is not a “holier than thou” response to your article- it’s just that you touched a very raw nerve with me when you write don’t worry about PEW- because i love Judaism, I love Israel and i love my fellow Jewish People- not only do i “worry” as you put it about PEW but much more than that i am totally heartbroken about the current situation of American Jewry and i really hope we can somehow get our act together and do more to prevent the collapse of non-Orthodox American Jewry, before it’s too late.

    P.S. You are living in New York so you feel surrounded by Jews… but most people with your background who were not pulled into the Jewish community as you were by being ask to start writing for the Jewish community, remain assimilated, aloof and not in New York.
    They have a 70% chance of marrying a non-Jew and of those who do 90% of their grandchildren wont be Jewish. (Many are also not getting married at all- or are marrying too late to have children, but that’s another topic.) The fact that all this doesn’t cause you and people like you to worry- is by itself a reason that Jews like me worry a lot!

  3. Joel Alperson says

    There is yet another reason to worry. While the Sarah Seltzer’s are great for the Jewish world, and I’m sincere about that point, this notion of ” . . . American Jews are proud of this identity. Where is the cause for alarm?” is a new low watermark for Jewish commitment. “I feel therefore I’m Jewishly committed” is about the same thing as saying, “I’m proud of my identity as an environmentalist, however I do nothing at all to better the environment.” It’s great when feelings lead to actions but let’s be clear, it’s actions that matter. Too many Jews feel too good about feeling good.

  4. Joel Schindler says

    I find Sarah’s article insightful and telling. i believe it does reflect a reality among a growing number of Jews – 20- and 30-somethings and much older – who have found a meaningful Jewish outlet and avenue for engagement outside the walls of traditional Jewish Institutional life. My concern, however, is that Sarah comes from a strong Jewish background – a day school graduate who attained the basics of Hebrew and Jewish history. By her own admission, she “loved being a Jew.” This is, of course, fantastic. She has a solid foundation upon which to build her connection with Jewishness as she desires. While she struggles with options offered by traditional Jewish institutions, she non-the-less has the desire to find her place. This background, foundation and desire is what is missing among the vast majority of American Jews. They have no basis for building something out of an empty Jewish background and no desire to do so. Sarah’s story is compelling but unfortunately not representative of the typical unaffiliated Jew. Having been trained academically as a scientist, i have learned that the big challenge was not finding the right answer, it was asking the right question. The issue for the Jewish community is not whether folks looking will find their way. Sarah and others have shown that they will. The real issue is what can be done for Jews without the foundation Sarah has to even have the desire to find a way rather than simply walk away.

  5. Chaim Lieberperson says

    I identify strongly with your essay. I came back to Judaism through a) a college abroad experience in Cairo b) Spoken Word cinched and colorized by my ethnicity c) Graduate school in the Seminary/Grad/Professional school. Cairo taught me how little I knew and how my own rascal youth sold me short in knowledge areas. Spoken word revealed my true spirit. Grad school set me forth professionally. I am happiest now as a Jewish Museum Educator, a member of a Temple after years of spirited chavurah adventures (having kids changes things) and as my own person. I am committed to Tikkun Olam in a brave new world sans snobbery, macherism and pediatric PEWsters who love bricks, mortar and networking more than Creation. My kids are steeped in Jewish Day School but having taught in many I am not expecting religiosity as an outcome. Jewish summer camp is their suffused joy, so be it. I hope that the spirit of attraction to Judaism/Jewish culture is there for them, as it is for us, but they will walk their path, not I.

  6. Dave Neil says

    In response to Joel’s comment above… his last two lines…
    “The issue for the Jewish community is not whether folks looking will find their way. Sarah and others have shown that they will. The real issue is what can be done for Jews without the foundation Sarah has to even have the desire to find a way rather than simply walk away…”

    I think you really hit the nail on the head!
    Sarah had a strong Jewish background early on… and so when invited into the community to write she readily found her niche. Those with a Jewish background may drop out – but they have the ability to find their way back. This is why it is so important that we reach Jews BEFORE college. It needs to be planted into them earlier on… This is where Birthright often falls short (and i like Birthright)
    When college age Jews have no Jewish background – and we send them on Birthright – often the effect wares off and, especially when there was little to no follow up- even when the follow up is offered such students often don’t go- we spent the money, but the student is still gone.

    We need to invest more in Jewish education formal and informal from k-12 but especially from 7th grade to 12th grade. If a Jew has a Jewish background – even if they are temporarily turned off to Judaism, Israel and going to Jewish social events- you can turn such a Jew back on.. But a Jew who has no Jewish background… it is really hard to get him or involved in Jewish life for the first time when he or she is already 18 or older. It happens, but it is much more rare.
    Plant young to harvest later.

  7. Elie Avitan says

    Sarah,

    Imagine being the great-grandchild of Shakespeare. Your great grandfather being the most famous writer of all time. Possibly his son, your grandfather loved literature, and had a massive library. He told your father many stories and always quoted his father. But his son, your father, moved to a new land. He couldn’t take all of his father’s books with him and even if he could have, he had other more immediate concerns in building up his new life. Occasionally, though, when he had the energy, he would quote a line or two to his beloved daughter, you.

    One day, when you have grown up, you hear that a report has come out, about the descendants of Shakespeare. It does not have good news to share. 7 out of 10 aren’t even telling their kids who they come from, let alone reading them Grandpa William’s epic words. People are talking about the end of the true Shakespearean family. Everyone is heartbroken, but you decide to speak up. “Wait everyone” you declare “There has been a mistake! There’s no tragedy here. We are all living the Shakespearean legacy to the fullest! Sure we may not have read any of his works or speak his language but we have heard of Romeo and his lady friend and we all know that above all else to our own selves we must be true! See we are truly experts!! We are just as Shakespearean as ever.”

    Sarah, no one doubts that you feel Jewish, and that you are Jewish. You are the great great great granddaughter of Abraham and Sarah and of those who stood at Sinai. Yet to be living that legacy, the bar must be set higher than neurotic tendencies, and a love of free food. Or even Jewish literary groups. Or art shows. That is why people are concerned. To live Shakespeare’s legacy would take serious commitment, not just forming groups with other descendants to do unrelated things. Judaism requires no less than Shakespeare.

    To be sure, Judaism is a way at looking at the world, a perspective on life. Obviously then, it encompasses everything else, and spawns Jewish philosophy, ethics, food, music, art, literature and language. Yet, those things alone are consequences of Judaism, not replacements of it. There may be secular Jews, but there is no such thing as “Secular Judaism” because no part of life is devoid of religious meaning in Judaism. However, to insist that the heart of Jewish life still beats as long as young Jews have interest in Jewish themed books or art says to many of us that the situation is worse than even the Pew report could ever know.

    While you are correct that we must reach out to young Jews where they are, we dare not leave them there. Rather we have to turn those interests into signposts leading back to a vibrant, committed, Judaism.

    May we merit doing so.