by Winnie Sandler Grinspoon
The organized Jewish world is still reeling from the Pew Research Center’s recent study on the state of American Jews. According to the study, one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion, a decline of about half since the late 1950s. Jews of no religion are much less likely to marry a Jewish spouse; 79% of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish. The rate of intermarriage has increased from 17% in the pre-1970s to 58% in each of the past dozen years, and intermarried Jews, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to raise their children in the Jewish faith. Roughly one-third (37%) of intermarried Jews who are raising children say they are not raising their children as Jewish or even partly Jewish. These are dramatic trends indeed.
Personally, I am not surprised by these numbers. I have seen them play out in my family and among my friends. What was once hard to fathom is now possible and even probable, both in my family and yours.
What can the Jewish community do about this? We can start by going back to basics.
If we want our kids to become musicians, we expose them to music. We play music in our living rooms and on our car radios. We sing along, sharing our love of music with our families. We enroll our children in piano lessons as soon as they are able. We start early and we keep at it, throughout those formative years. Our children may not grow up to be professional musicians, but we know that our efforts might create a love of music. We want this for them because we know that music will enrich their lives.
The same holds true for Judaism. If we want our kids to be Jews, we need to expose them to the joys of our tradition. We need to create a positive connection from the start, and then build on it. What we do in our homes, from our children’s earliest days, might just influence what they value and hold on to as they grow into adulthood.
Simplistic? Perhaps. But we know that the children who we taught to play instruments are now the teens performing in the high school band. And we know that young families – many thousands of young families – are looking to connect their children to Judaism from a very young age. We know this because of the popularity of a simple book program called PJ Library.
When the PJ Library program started offering free Jewish books to families with young children in December 2005, we were curious to see whether families would be interested. Reading was a favorite activity that we enjoyed with our own children, and the Jewish children’s books on our shelves were among their favorites. We felt good about giving our children a Jewish identity through simple stories, and we figured that other families might feel the same way.
It turns out that many people are interested. Today, PJ Library is sending books to over 140,000 young children across North America each month, starting at age six months, and continuing to age eight in many communities. Since its inception, the program has provided books to well over 200,000 children on a monthly basis. Think about that for a moment. More than two hundred thousand parents have made the choice to get a Jewish story book each month to read to their children. There are even more parents out there who want the program but are on waitlists. The demand exists.
Parents tell us that they want more than free books; they want the Jewish connection. They report that the program has reignited in them a desire to pass on what they cherished from their upbringing. Many thank us for exposing them to a religious tradition they hardly knew, whether they grew up with Jewish parents or in a different religion. We hear from the families that now light Shabbat candles weekly, the parents who excitedly built their first sukkah, the spouses who decided to become Jews by choice, and those who were moved to give Jewish preschool a try. Jewish organizations report that more and more families are choosing to not only attend Jewish-themed family events but to do so more frequently. Recent independent research surveys of PJ Library participants tell us that these changes in family behavior and practices – both at home and in the community – are occurring in significant numbers.
The Pew study is full of data that are of great concern to the Jewish community, but the demand for PJ Library tells us that hundreds of thousands of families with young children are interested in Judaism. Not only are they interested, they are acting on it, connecting their families to Jewish tradition on a regular basis. That is important news. As with our budding musicians, we know that starting early is key, but it is a first step only; we then need to encourage them to stay with it. Many families are new to this Jewish journey and will want our help. We need to create and fund programs and opportunities for Jewish engagement and learning that speak to them. Each step must lead to another, and another, as our families decide what to pass on, and as our next generation decides who they will become.
Winnie Sandler Grinspoon is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which supports Jewish causes, including PJ Library®, its signature Jewish children’s book gifting program, Jewish summer camp, and other programs and opportunities to engage the next generation in Jewish life.