Who Is A Jew, Really? Some More Thoughts on the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans

by Ron Wegsman

The virtual ink was not yet dry on the PDFs of the Pew Research Center’s survey of Jews in the United States, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” when Jewish cyberspace lit up with reactions. Many of the commentators had not yet read the survey itself, and some even admitted as much. By and large, each of the pundits found in the survey (or the reports about the survey) confirmation of their own previously held opinions.

No one can deny that the survey results reflect a very high level of assimilation among American Jews. But before we rush in with the latest “innovation” or “disruption” to address the crisis, it might be worth our while to examine the assumptions behind this and all other analyses of U.S. Jewry – and one of the biggest assumptions is that we know who a Jew is.

How can we tell that the people we have surveyed really are Jews? This is a genuine issue, and the authors of the Pew study recognized it as such. They devoted an entire page of their report (they modestly called it a sidebar; by chance, it appears on page 18) to the question, as well as a sizable chunk of the appendix that details the survey’s methodology. Bottom line: anyone who told the surveyors they were Jewish, was taken to be Jewish. Needless to say, this is not a definition that would be accepted in Israel, or probably even in most American synagogues.

The survey, after distinguishing between Jews, on the one hand, and non-Jews with a Jewish background or affinity, on the other, then placed the self-declared Jews into two categories: Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. But what a curious religion this is: 16% of Jews by religion do not believe in God, and another 41% are not completely sure. Only 14% of Jews by religion attend religious services at least once a week. Only 17% of Jews by religion said that being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion. And when asked what is an essential part of being Jewish to them, only 23% chose “observing Jewish law.”

Clearly, religion here is a stand-in for something else: the strength of the respondent’s attachment to the Jewish People. 56% of Jews by religion said that being Jewish is very important in their lives; only 12% of Jews of no religion said the same. 71% of Jews by religion are raising their children exclusively Jewish; only 8% of Jews of no religion are.

The Pew survey shows that American Jews share the characteristics of the social milieu in which they live. Most U.S. Jews live in the “blue” coastal areas and big cities; like their neighbors, they tend to be politically left of center and secular. The religious aspects of Jewish heritage can be attractive to many people; but Judaism must offer more than just religion if it is to retain more than the religiously observant minority.

Secular Judaism is nothing new; the Haskala has been around for almost 300 years now. And still, secular Judaism has not yet proven that it can generate the kind of personal commitment needed to ensure continuity beyond a generation or two. “The question that haunts me is how long Judaism can survive in this land of freedom without religious belief and practice at its core,” writes Gary Rosenblatt in The New York Jewish Week, with great justification. But if Jewish life can only be focused on religion, we will inevitably lose the majority who do not have a religious sensibility.

Ironically, among the Jewish community leaders responding to the Pew survey, it was the head of one of our religious denominations, Arnie Eisen, who most clearly articulated this. “Mordecai Kaplan wisely insisted 80 years ago – as did every Zionist thinker I know of – that we stop thinking of Judaism exclusively as a religion, and instead conceive and live it as a civilization or culture,” Eisen wrote in Ha’aretz. “Many American Jews have not gotten this message. They have never experienced high-level and exciting Jewish learning or reaped the tangible benefits of strong community or seen Jewish wisdom shaping social policy.” What is needed, Eisen writes, are “institutions that offer what Kaplan called ‘maximalist Judaism’ in nonreligious forms.”

I don’t know what such a “maximalist Judaism” might consist of, but I do know that the main carrier of any culture is language. Yet, as the Pew survey found, very few American Jews know enough Hebrew to be culturally literate. Only 12% of Jews, including only 15% of Jews by religion, said they could have a conversation in Hebrew; another 5% and 6%, respectively, said they could “sort of” have a conversation. How can any culture survive without its language? Can a person really be a Jew by culture without Hebrew?

The minority of American Jews who learn Hebrew, learn it only as the language of prayer. Of the great corpus of Hebrew literature, poetry and art, most American Jews are unaware. Should it surprise us, then, that people who are not attracted by religion are drifting away?

Outside the orthodox community, the definition of who is a Jew has become increasingly circular: a Jew is anyone who considers themselves to be Jewish. Today every Jew is a Jew by choice. For non-religious people to choose to be Jewish, Judaism must offer substance – beyond remembering the Holocaust or leading an ethical life, however important these things may be. (And “having a good sense of humor”? Boy, we don’t give ourselves no respect.)

That substance exists – indeed, it has existed for countless generations. But it is a closed book to those who don’t know Hebrew. Why can’t we teach Hebrew not just to “decode,” but to give students the key to this treasure?

About at least one thing, Mordecai Kaplan was right: Judaism has endured to our day because it has been not just a religion, but an evolving religious civilization. It will continue to endure, in America as well as in Israel, only if it continues to evolve and to embrace the entirety of what a civilization or culture represents. It may still be a religious civilization, with the religious tradition at its core; but it must also offer viable secular options – options based not on market surveys or on what people say they want, but on authentic cultural heritage.

Ron Wegsman is a consultant to nonprofit organizations in grant seeking and project development. He is a Certified Fund Raising Executive who has been working with Jewish and Israeli organizations for over 20 years.