Beyond the Numbers, Towards the Soul

Punxsutawney PhilBy Rabbi Aaron Potek

The Jewish groundhog, AKA the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, has reared its ugly head once again to revisit its old (fore)shadow, predicting yet another long winter of doom and gloom ahead.

A recent letter signed by an impressive group of Jewish leaders, some of whom I am honored to call teachers, mentors and peers, suggests some solutions to the problem of American Jewry. The only issue is – they are solutions for the wrong problem. The real problem of American Jewry is the obsession with numbers and bodies at the expense of meaning and soul.

The first sentence of the letter identifies an issue: “the declining numbers of engaged Jews.” Instead of delving into the reasons for this decline and suggestions for paradigm shifts, the letter quickly shifts to “population trends.” By focusing our attention on “the numbers,” the signatories seem to be more concerned with Jews than Judaism.

It’s true, you can’t have Judaism without Jews. But there are plenty of people (5.1 million) who not only identify as Jews but consider themselves proud Jews (94%) and feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (75%). The letter ignores these statistics, instead highlighting the 2.1 million people who have at least one Jewish parent but don’t identify as Jewish (talk about 2/7ths empty vs. 5/7ths full). It also ignores the fact that nearly 60% of children (ages 30 and under) from intermarriages identity as Jewish. And it doesn’t mention the 1.2 million adults in the “Jewish affinity” category, people who consider themselves Jewish in some sense despite having no ethnic Jewish identity.

It’s also true that Judaism won’t survive simply on positive feelings – those feelings need to be translated into something tangible. I can’t claim to love basketball yet not watch it, not follow it, not play it, not know about it, etc. Any solution to the articulated problem of decreased Jewish engagement should focus on engaging the large number of people who identify with Judaism and presumably are open to learning and engaging more.

Instead, the proposed solutions seem to be responding to demographic challenges such as “late marriage or non-marriage, intermarriage, and low birthrates.” Addressing these trends will not increase engagement with Judaism; at best it will only increase the number of unengaged Jews. Trying to increase the number of Jews not only doesn’t work – it exacerbates the problem. It further alienates people by objectifying them and defining their worth by their future progeny instead of their present selves. It also distracts us from engaging with Judaism, which is much less concerned about numbers: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). There is real danger in reducing people to numbers, an idea conveyed by the commentator Rashi in regard to the instructions for taking a census: “The evil eye controls that which is counted” (Exodus 30:12).

Instead of confronting the hard questions about why the very narrow brand of American Institutional Judaism is no longer compelling for many people, the solutions put the burden on the target demographic that we are supposedly trying to serve. The solutions assume people have already bought in, thereby ignoring the problem of disengagement that was articulated at the outset.

Of course getting Jews to socialize with each other will increase the likelihood that they marry each other and have children that are defined as Jews. But that attitude perpetuates the misconception that Judaism can only be relevant to those who have followed this particular path. It’s also solving different “problems” – of identification and numbers. If the real problem is Jewish engagement, shouldn’t we be finding ways to engage Jews around their Judaism?

Of course sending Jews to Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camps and supplementary schooling lasting more than 7 years will encourage continual engagement with Judaism. But if the issue is that people aren’t engaging with Judaism, shouldn’t we start by explaining why it’s important to engage with Judaism? Why would people send their children to day school if they’re not compelled by Judaism in the first place? And what about the Jews who are now in their 20s and 30s and didn’t have any of these experiences growing up or aren’t convinced that the sacrifices these choices entail are worth it? Are they lost?

Noticeably absent from any of the solutions is a root-cause analysis. How did we get here? Why aren’t Jews engaging with their Judaism? It might be that they just haven’t seen a Jewish Public Health Education PSA. But it might be more complicated and thus harder to pin the blame solely on the unengaged Jews.

It might be because an overwhelming number of Jewish organizations continue to promote denominational affiliation to a generation that overwhelmingly doesn’t care about denominations.

It might be because Jewish leaders continue to use guilt and apocalyptic language as the primary reason to engage Jewishly.

It might be because Jewish institutions continue to demand 100% commitment and view being “partly Jewish” as a problem.

It might be because Jewish leaders have not prioritized the exploration and articulation of a “meaningful and compelling Judaism” that is relevant to this new generation of Jews.

It might be because Jewish institutions continue to assume we all understand why this matters without ever taking the time to explain it.

Jewish engagement needs to be measured, but I worry that we are measuring the wrong things. An alternative approach begins with prioritizing people’s hearts, minds and souls instead of their blood lines and Jewish status. It needs to confront not just the demographic challenge but the serious ways in which American Jewry has failed its Jews. It needs to go back to basics and address the two fundamental questions that everyone seems to be avoiding: what is Judaism and why does it matter? That should be enough to get started.

Rabbi Aaron Potek was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY, and has been working with Jewish emerging adults since his ordination in 2013.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of his employer or its funders.