Forward Dissects Major Report on US Jews

Generational shifts, moderate voices and intercultural marriages characterize Jewish Americans in the first comprehensive and independent survey of the community. (Photo by asterix611, Creative Commons license)

Generational shifts, moderate voices and intercultural marriages characterize Jewish Americans in the first comprehensive and independent survey of the community. (Photo by asterix611, Creative Commons license)

The U.S. Jewish community includes more voices critical of Israel, a younger generation that is only “loosely” involved in the community and an overwhelmingly majority of non-Orthodox Jews marrying outside of the religion. These are some of the major findings in the first comprehensive survey of the Jewish community in the United States, conducted by the Pew Research Center.

In addition to its broad coverage of the report, The Jewish Daily Forward published an editorial that underscores the significance of this first-of-a-kind study and how the community should approach the findings, with recommendations that include embracing the growing number of moderate voices, preserving conservative Judaism, and welcoming converts.

Unlike previous surveys sponsored by Jewish organizations and therefore somewhat suspect, the Pew data are unassailable. We shouldn’t argue about the facts. What we should do is argue about what they mean and how to constructively respond.

The editorial leads off with the report’s finding that the younger generation may call themselves Jewish but are not involved in religious activity, or “only loosely engaged in community,” as they describe it. This evolution of what it means to be Jewish is addressed in the editorial’s first suggestion on how Jews can adapt to sustain the future of the community.

First, the editorial confronts the question of a “litmus test on Israel.” It’s noted that about seven-in-10 Jews say they feel either very or somewhat attached to Israel, and 43 percent have visited Israel at least once.

But, regardless of age, a large gap exists “between the self-proclaimed ‘pro Israel’ lobby that generally supports the Netanyahu government without question and the sentiments of the actual Jewish public they purport to represent.” At 38 percent, only slightly above a third of Jewish Americans believe that the Israeli government is conducting genuine efforts to forge peace with the Palestinians. The ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank is considered by only 17 percent to be helpful to Israeli security, with just under half believing it does harm, at 44 percent.

With these kind of numbers, the article says it is time to acknowledge this large slice of the demographic: “Clearly, the voices of these critical but still attached Jews must be included in the national conversation.”

The second troubling issue, the editorial notes, is that the Pew survey found Jews turning away from conservative factions. In response to the findings, conservative leaders see no need for alarm, according to a separate article in The Jewish Daily Forward. But the editorial argues that dwindling conservative numbers is cause for concern for the whole community.

A weakened Conservative movement harms other denominations as well. Orthodoxy has benefited from the influx of Conservative Jews seeking a more observant lifestyle; already that flow has recessed as the numbers have shrunk. All Jews benefit from having multiple choices and outlets, and from the high level of scholarship and communal leadership that has emerged from Conservative institutions in the last century. Many of the creative rabbis now leading pioneering nondenominational congregations were educated in Conservative seminaries.

The constriction of Conservative Judaism is not just a Conservative problem — it’s everybody’s challenge. Without a strong middle core, Judaism will become weaker, more polarized and simply less viable.

Finally, the editorial addresses another worrying issue, at least to those who hope to see a “thriving, egalitarian, pluralistic American Judaism in the future”: ever since 2000, 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews have married outside of the religion. Individually, it is not a problem but when intermarriage is undertaken by a sizable chunk of the community, it is “devastating” in the sense that Jews in intercultural marriages are “far less likely” to engage in Jewish activities whether religious or cultural or raise Jewish kids. A suggested antidote?

This central conundrum for the modern Jew is impervious to a simple solution, but there is an immediate, modest step that could make a difference: Enthusiastically encourage conversion before or soon after marriage. For centuries, Jews have made it extremely onerous to join the club. Now it’s time to fling the doors wide open.

The Jewish Daily Forward ends with a call to maintain Jewish identity.

We need to teach, emphasize, model and promote what is distinctive about Jewish tradition — its devotion to community, its belief in the here and now, its rich melding of faith and culture, its time-tested but often counter-cultural values. Divorcing Judaism, however it is practiced, from Jewish life invites more assimilation.

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