Is Jewish Identity in America Half Full or Half Empty?

by James Hyman

A recent study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that there are over 6 million people who self identify as Jews in the United States. This is a lot more than we would have predicted there would be in 2011 thirty years ago. But we also know that their identity is thin, in the sense that they don’t know very much about their heritage. They also don’t connect to the institutional Jewish community very much, so we call them “unaffiliated.” By that we mean that they don’t pay membership dues, or tuition, or make donations, to Jewish communal institutions.

Why are so many drifting away from the institutional Jewish community? There are as many theories as there are Jewish professionals: poor quality education, not enough talented professionals, not enough money in the system. But I believe the very best explanation of what ails American Jewry was written 80 years ago, by the great American Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan. In his magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan wrote:

Normally, religion should take its place by the side of social, economic, scientific and esthetic activities without attempting to overshadow them or subordinate them to its own aims … It is imperative, therefore, to find outlets other than religion for the collective life of the Jewish people. Paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.

This was both descriptive of his community of the late 1920’s and prescient with respect to the future. A Jewish identity that is primarily religious would not suffice to engage Jews because Judaism has always been, throughout its entire history, far more than religion alone. Kaplan warned that this myopic focus would not only damage every other aspect of Jewish identity, it would be equally destructive to Jewish religious belief and practice itself.

The same Cohen Center study asked people how they understood their Jewish identity and what form it took for them. A full 83% replied that they viewed their identity as primarily or exclusively a religion and that they considered themselves to be members of a faith community. Yet year after year the Pew Foundation publishes its studies on the religious beliefs and behaviors of Americans, and year after year Jews end up on the very low scale of religious belief and behaviors. How could it be that most American Jews identify ourselves through a religious lens but the vast majority of us don’t behave in ways that demonstrate any consistent pattern of religious behavior?

Perhaps it is because belief alone is not the primary criteria of Jewish identification, in spite of the fact that it is the only lexicon we have been taught to understand our Jewish identity. Jewish identity is far broader and deeper than modern religious experience. However, the infrastructure of the American Jewish community is such that we prioritize religious identity quite often to the exclusion of all else.

Consider the fact that for the vast majority of Jews, Jewish education takes place exclusively in religious institutions. Yes some kids go to Jewish summer camps, Israel trips and day schools, but the vast majority don’t and are not likely to in the near or distant future. Synagogue education is virtually synonymous with religious education. Even in day schools, there is a division between “limudei kodesh” or “holy studies” and “secular studies.”

It has been eleven years since Arnie Eisen and Steve Cohen published their ground breaking work on Jewish identity in America. “The Jew Within” described a fluid identity common to a great many Jews that was increasingly disconnected to traditional categories of institutional membership. They found that Jews and Jewish identity shift for individuals and families, and this dynamic process did not portend well for Jewish institutions.

Jewish institutions face a formidable task in this period of volunteerism and mobility. They must have a range of options available to every individual at every moment, so that when he or she is ready to seize hold of Jewishness or Judaism, the right option is there to be had. Jewish professionals more and more seem like the operators of a transit system. They must be ready and waiting at the bus stop at the exact moment that the prospective Jewish writer appears. The fleet must be sufficiently large to be there whenever wanted, that must be sufficiently diverse to take account of the diverse tastes and needs of its potential clientele.

Since then, Jewish institutions have changed very little. That is not to say that there have not been, and continue to be, efforts made to change institutions. However, agility is not the primary characteristic of institutions, within or beyond the American Jewish community. What is more, the institutions were created to serve a very specific set of purposes, and that core mission is hard to ignore. For synagogues – still the primary institution of American Jewish life – it is serving religious needs and interests. By primary, I mean that when we speak of affiliation, that is defined more by synagogue membership than any other connection or relationship.

But what if the answer lay not in institutions offering a greater array of services, but communities offering a greater array of services? What if we created multiple venues where Jewish education could take place within and beyond the synagogue? We could utilize day school faculty, JCC staff, museum staff, independent organizations and individuals, all working together. What if there were ways to pool communal resources and develop a broad and deep set of educational experiences in which anyone could engage? This would have to be predicated on a much broader understanding of Jewish identity which encompassed, in addition to Jewish religion, music and art, history, literature and philosophy, a distinct set of cultural values and a rich linguistic  tradition, in addition to a deep seated commitment to the Jewish textual tradition. And the educational experiences would need to reflect that broader understanding.

In a recent conversation that I had with the head of one of the national seminaries, we discussed the concept of a communal passport. Picture something along the lines of this: one fee would enable you to go to any JCC or any synagogue that was participating in the program, along with discounts on programs and experiences that were being offered by any single institution, organization or program that was participating. The economics of this idea are revolutionary, and would require a sea change in the infrastructure of the American Jewish community. It would mean that some institutions would close, and others would be created anew. However, there is not a single community in this country in which institutions and organizations are not closing
every year. We can either be reactive or pro-active to this reality. We can sit around and watch affiliation rates continue to ebb away year after year, or we can create a much more engaging Jewish community that is responsive to who and what American Jews are in the 21 century. The choice in entirely our own.

Jewish identity throughout the millennia has been as broad as it is deep. It has included Jewish religion as we understand it in America today, as well as a set of values, a history, a complex philosophical tradition, rich artistic, literary, linguistic and musical traditions, and so much more. It is far more than we in the United States have been able to offer to our people. We need to offer American Jews an array of high quality experiences that enables them to connect to the richness of their identity and that at the same time enriches their sense of themselves as Americans. This would not only engage many more Jews, but as Kaplan predicted, it seems likely that it would enable them to explore the spiritual and religious aspects of their identity with more vigor. If religion isn’t everything, it might be far more appealing to American Jews than it is today.

The surprise is the fact that so many people willingly identify themselves as Jews today. If we don’t change soon, it seems unlikely that an identity as thin as it is for so many American Jews will hold one or two generations down the road. It is time to be pro-active and to re-create the American Jewish community.

James Hyman, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.