Programs Fostering Meaningful Connections to Jewish Tradition Cannot be Side-Lined:
A Response to Grinstein & Shayshon

By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall

In Jewish People Grand Pivot Against CoronaGidi Grinstein and Eran Shayshon outline the particular challenges and opportunities presented to the Jewish world as a result of Covid-19. Their piece provides an insightful and realistic assessment of the probable impact of the disruption facing the greater Jewish community in the days, weeks and possibly years to come. I want to concentrate on one element of their prediction – their observation that given the probable increased need for resources and more limited availability, “projects which are focused on intangible-yet-important matters such as Jewish identity and Jewish Peoplehood … may be limited.”

Even prior to the onset of Covid-19, we have witnessed a diminishing interest in topics pertaining to Jewish tradition, practice, and even identity and Peoplehood among a large sector of the Jewish world. For example, Federation employees have told me more than once that these are not seen as the “hot” topics, as compared with Israel, anti-Semitism, and even politics, that draw large crowds for fundraising events. The same is often true for synagogue programming which also tends to concentrate on topics believed to have a wider appeal to congregants. 

But the problem is that absent a sustained, deep connection to Jewish tradition, a connection that includes practice as well as identity, there will be fewer and fewer Jews around to support all of the important initiatives of the Jewish community. Unless people of Jewish descent regard that descent as something worth preserving down the line, our fundraising priorities will look no different than the priorities of everyone else. Even the authors’ assessment that Jews might lead everyone into a new age of Tikkun Olam will not do much to preserve Jewish tradition unless these social justice initiatives are coupled with a sustained focus on the richness, beauty, and particularities of Jewish practice, and how these practices can add meaning to one’s life.  

Jews, particularly in the liberally religious camp who do not equate Jewish practice with Divine command, would greatly benefit from initiatives that allow them to deepen their connection to Judaism by finding personal meaning in selected practices. The need for developing personal meaning in Jewish practice is essential if Judaism is to remain more than a matter of ancestry for most liberal Jews. The comprehensive 2013 Pew Report on the American Jewish community revealed that a strong majority of Jews in the United States “see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance.” In other words, most American Jews do not see religion as the main component of Judaism. But on the other hand, although Jewish identity still claimed a strong allegiance among American Jews, the exact content of and basis for that identity is unclear. 

Of course, Jews are not alone in showing a decreasing interest in religious observance in the United States. In November, 2019, a study by the American Enterprise Institute documented how participation in religious activities among American families, including religious education, reveals a strong downward trend. Among adults between the ages of 18-29, a significantly lower percentage participated in religious activities while growing up. Also, the study found that even among people who are religiously affiliated, young adults are less likely to see the importance of religion compared to senior adults. 

Moreover, the authors of Generation Z: A Century in the Making, found that religious affiliation in general declined with each generation.  For Judaism in particular, they saw a decline in affiliation from Boomers through Gen X, and a plateau with Millennials and Gen Z. Significantly, however, Gen Z experts tell us that among the qualities important to this generation are fulfillment and meaning, as well as authenticity. Gen Z people, born between 1995 and 2010, believe religion and spirituality are important, but formal affiliation or participation not so much.  

We have strong reason to believe that for Gen Z, their Gen X parents, as well as Millennials and Baby Boomers, the ability to find meaning in religious practices is important. Fostering this ability is the key to keeping Jewish tradition alive among religiously liberal Jews. The good news, as also noted by Grinstein and Shayshon, is that innovative use of technology and a willingness of some clergy to innovate in certain halakhic matters have tremendous promise for helping liberal Jews find meaning in Jewish tradition. Still, it is worth emphasizing that if Jewish organizations and initiatives are forced to abandon a focus on deepening personal and family connections to Jewish tradition, there will be fewer and fewer Jews among the liberally religious groups to sustain any sort of Jewish practice, and ultimately, philanthropy. Already, we are moving far too quickly into a world in which Judaism is strongly divided between the deeply religious and the Jewish none’s. This is not a world in which Jewish practice, tradition, and philanthropy can thrive.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is a law professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World (Roman & Littlefield, 2020), and The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition (Oxford U. Press, 2015).