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Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Time to do more Jewish

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Rabbi Catharine Clark

Based on the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews released earlier this month, America’s 6.6 million Jews know that 76 per cent of them attended synagogue services “a few times” or less in the past year, 32 per cent had a Christmas tree in their home last year, and 31 per cent say they’re “not very attached” or “not at all attached” to Israel. The survey is a snapshot of assimilation. 

With numbers like these, the American Jewish press and Jewish leaders throughout the United States went, predictably, nuts. The Forward and the Jewschool blog can’t stop talking about the survey. In response to the finding that 48 per cent of American Jews think that the Israeli government isn’t making a “sincere effort” to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, went so far as to dismiss half of American Jewry, saying, “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care… I’m not going to follow this.” 

Based on the 2011 National Household Survey, we know that 329,500 Canadians self-identify as Jewish by religion and that 20,155 Canadians report that Hebrew was a language they learned at home as a child and still understood at the time of the census.

And that’s all we know. There’s no current national survey of the attitudes and behaviors of Canada’s Jews. Federations in some of the major cities, notably Toronto and Montreal, have surveyed their local Jewish communities, but for Canada as a whole, we have only the most basic numbers about population and Hebrew-speakers.

Do we want to know more? Scholars of the Canadian Jewish community, such as Ira Robinson and Harold Waller, have long pointed out the influence of American Jewry on Canadian Jewish life and the parallel demographic trends between the two Jewish populations, albeit with a couple-of-decades time lag for the Canadian Jewish community. If they’re right, our future is a much smaller, less-connected, Jewish community – unless we take action. 

Conducting a survey, however, isn’t the most urgent action we need to take. In her editorial response to the survey, Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, points out that a Jew is what a Jew does.

It’s time for us to “do more Jewish.” If you’re like the 76 per cent of American Jews who don’t frequent synagogue services, it’s time to show up. If you could be grouped with the 31 per cent of American Jews who aren’t attached to Israel, it’s time to visit, or at least have a real conversation with someone who is connected.

If you’re a rabbi or synagogue lay leader, it’s time to make synagogue services an experience that all Jews will want to attend. If you’re a Jewish communal leader, it’s time to listen to Jews who don’t agree with you, even about Israel.

Demographic studies give us a good picture of the present and the past. They’re predictive only if current trends continue. Let’s make sure the trends identified in the survey of American Jews don’t hold true for our Jewish community. And next year, let’s decorate a sukkah, not a Christmas tree.

Rabbi Clark is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Shalom in London, Ont.

 

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