Can Pew Help Us Renew?

By Rabbi Hayim Herring

We’re less than a week away from Rosh ha-Shanah, the peak season for personal introspection and communal reflection. Reflection on the American Jewish community leads me back to almost a year ago, when the Pew’s Study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, was released. In speaking with two colleagues the other day about a program involving my forthcoming book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis. A Community Conversation About Rabbinical Education, and how the one-year anniversary of Pew Study might serve as context for the program, they both commented: “Pew is old news, our people have already moved on.” I should have expected their remark – after all, the initial response to the Pew Study a year ago by many observers of Jewish life was, “There are no surprises in it.”

Pew may not have contained many surprises, but we can extrapolate implications from it that may be surprisingly beneficial for the Jewish future. A few examples….

1. We already have four generations of individuals in large numbers alive at any one time, and with advances in life sciences, we may soon have five. Because of studies like Pew, and local Jewish community studies, we have trustworthy knowledge about the age distribution of the Jewish community and centers of Jewish population. Our communal mantra is “from generation to generation,” (l’dor va-dor) but is that value manifest in our communities?

Many Jewish communities have a “campus model” for the elderly, with a continuum of care, ranging from independent living to full-time nursing home care. While Baby Boomers downsize and move into a smaller, generation-specific communities, the dream of home ownership for many younger adults is receding. Generations are unintentionally isolated from one another. What would happen if we envisioned Jewish communities in which young and old lived together, in ways that are practically helpful and spiritually enriching?

2. In addition to counting the number of Jews who are married to people who are not Jewish, what would happen if the Jewish community offered them heavily subsidized Israel experiences, on the scale of Taglit-Birthright Israel?

3. We know about steeply declining memberships in congregations and other some other Jewish organizations. What would happen if they renovated some space and leased it to social enterprise incubators or small nonprofits (Jewish or not) that were aligned with their missions?

4. Many individuals take advantage of the incredible array of resources for Jewish learning available on the Web. Could we take the thirst for Jewish learning one step further, and develop pilot project sites where any Jewish community could access the very best teachers of Judaica in the world using web-based technologies, and supporting online learning with stellar local educators?

5. We’re aware of the strength in numbers of the “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish community. But we are also seeing early indicators in Israel and in areas of dense ultra-Orthodox populations in the U.S. that some women and men are opting to earn college degrees and seeking employment. The financial burden of living an ultra-Orthodox life is becoming unsustainable, especially as governmental funding that helped to indirectly support its cost has decreased. Secular education and employment can dull the edge of isolationist tendencies in ultra-Orthodox communities. If investment by the broader Jewish community in properly vetted institutions of higher secular education that ultra-Orthodox Jews attend increased greater contact between ultra-Orthodox communities and more liberal sectors of the Jewish community, what would some of the benefits be? (For different reasons, remember that some wealthy Reform German Jews financially bailed out the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in the early 1900’s, so this kind of investment has precedent.)

It’s true that social science studies of the magnitude of Pew or the 1990 National Jewish Population Study can generate headlines with a few blockbuster statistical findings, but headlines don’t provide clear policy direction. It’s easier than ever to “get the word out” about significant studies, but bridging the knowing-doing gap, turning basic research into applied policy and programs, requires leaders who envision a different future, mobilize people around the vision and then provide funding, pilot sites, assessment, training, networking and scaling. And that’s a greater challenge in the American Jewish community today than in prior times. Our networked world connects people, ideas, and purposes, but social media also contribute to a culture where people talk at each more often than talking with one another.

Some thought leaders have already offered intriguing ideas in reaction to Pew, and I’m guessing that many philanthropic foundations will be doing so as well. Pew may not have contained many surprises, but I believe in our ability to surprise ourselves with our creative responses to it.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is C.E.O. of, a consulting firm that “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations™.