You’ve probably seen or heard about the results of the recent Survey of U.S. Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center. (If not, here is a link to an on-line version of the Survey Report: http://pewrsr.ch/16IN5U4.) There has been a spate of articles over the past several days that have tried to make sense of the data, and to draw conclusions and recommendations about what might be done to mitigate the negative trends that were highlighted by the survey.
The report paints a picture of the Jewish population in America that is indeed worrisome. I'll mention a few key survey results here. Note that the report does have a few positive results, but it’s the negative ones that are of course of greatest interest and concern.
Of the 5.3 million adult US Jews, 78% identify themselves as Jewish either fully or partly on the basis of their religion, and 22% identify as having no religion. The latter number is an increase from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) in which only 7% of US Jews self-identified as non-religious. This trend of increasing secularization of the US Jewish population over time was found to occur in several of the survey results, and reflects trends in other religions as well.
Looking at the age categories of respondents shows another significant trend -- while only 7% of those in the Greatest Generation (born 1914-1927) self-identify as non-religious Jews, the corresponding percentages are 19% of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and 32% of Millennials (born after 1980). Clearly, our future generations are becoming less and less linked to the religious roots of their parents.
From the perspective of Jewish denominations, while 70% of Jews indicated having an affiliation, only 18% identified with Conservative Judaism. There are nearly twice as many Reform Jews (35%), while Orthodox affiliation is 10%. Of Conservative Jews, 50% belong to a synagogue.
Finally, the rate of intermarriage has increased over time. Of all currently married couples, 44% are intermarried. Of couples married before 1970, 17% are intermarried but of those married since 2005, 58% are intermarried. Interestingly, about two-thirds of intermarried couples with children are raising them as Jewish.
These results indicate to me that the trends of assimilation, secularization, and intermarriage that many have been concerned about for some time, and particularly since the results of the 2000-2001 NJPS were published, have continued – despite the ongoing efforts of Jewish leadership to understand the reasons that drive these trends and to develop approaches to counteract them.
So what can be done, within the Conservative Movement and specifically by FJMC, to make a significant impact and turn around these trends? Here are four areas, and as you might expect I will link them to the elements of FJMC’s tagline: Leadership, Innovation, Community (but not in that order).
- Community: At our last Convention we learned from Ron Wolfson about the importance of relationships in attracting people into our synagogues, encouraging them to get involved, and retaining them as active members. In his new book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, Ron emphasizes that developing personal relationships creates intimate, caring communities, and “communities offer meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing” to their members. And who better than FJMC and our Men’s Club members to serve as role models for building community in our synagogues? We simply have to be proactive in extending a hand and in developing a relationship with everyone we see at our synagogues.
- Innovation: Every two years men and women leave our convention and nearly everyone says, commenting on their experience of worship, “Why can’t services be like this at home?” We think they can. That’s why we are developing a new initiative to better involve Jewish men and their families in Jewish prayer that is meaningful to them and which inspires them. (I wrote about this in my blog last month.) Our plan is to provide guidelines and training material to enable our men’s clubs to conduct a variety of alternative ritual services that provide meaningful spiritual experiences for the participants. Wouldn’t more Jews come to services if they knew that they would be moved by attending?
- Innovation: Some 100 years ago, the author Ahad HaAm wrote: “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Shouldn’t this still be true today? If so, then helping more people celebrate Shabbat should help keep the fires of Judaism alive. Our new Celebrating Shabbat initiative (which I also wrote about last month) is aimed at doing just that.
- Leadership: FJMC, with our 250 clubs and 20,000 members across North America, has a virtual army of volunteers and committed men who are Jewish role models in their communities. But we can’t do it all by ourselves. That’s why we have been working closely and collaboratively with the other arms of the Conservative Movement, including United Synagogue, Women’s League, Jewish Theological Seminary, Ziegler School, Rabbinical Assembly and Cantors Assembly, to address the issues facing Conservative Judaism (and the larger overall Jewish community) in a united way. I’ll address some of the specific areas of collaboration in a future Blog posting.
The challenges highlighted in the recent Pew Survey may seem overwhelming, and yet we know that the Jewish people have faced existential threats many times in our history and we have always ultimately survived and prospered. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought, and maybe some reasons for optimism.
I’d like to hear your views on my comments, and would welcome hearing whatever suggestions you may have for impacting the situation. That’s the beauty of a blog like this, it provides an easy way for us to think together to tackle important issues. I look forward to hearing from you!