The recent Pew Report on American Jewish Identity has been compared to the Flood of Noah. But it’s important to recall that Jewish life has not been determined by numbers and mere survival, but by vision and values rooted in the hope that Abraham came to bring to the world.
Looking at U.S. trends may give Canadian Jews a lens to partially anticipate what lies ahead. One-fifth of U.S. Jews identify themselves only by background. The rate of intermarriage remains very high, particularly among those who have little connection to Jewish community. They are less likely to be raising children as Jews than those whose identity is primarily religious.
Most say being Jewish is primarily a matter of ancestry and culture. Denominational identification is weakening. About three in 10 say they are “just Jewish.” Jews who have day school and Jewish camp experiences have higher rates of commitment and retention than others within the same movements.
Young Jews are rewriting the norms of behaviour that have long characterized Jewish life. They’re marrying later, having fewer children, connecting less to Jewish institutions and Israel, and choosing a “sovereign self” filled with pride, but only partially engaged in community.
Abraham, who appears in our Torah cycle as we think about Jewish demography, was counting his descendants from the beginning. He represents a hopeful revolution. The saga of Abraham is about going against common expectations.
Abraham is not only a noble warrior who stands apart from the Mesopotamian culture, he is deeply concerned with building a people from his own flesh. The Pew report points to pride in Jewish identity and attachment to Israel. Although the content of that pride is thin, can we galvanize that pride to construct a more substantive identity?
Pew respondents said that leading an ethical and moral life is essential to being Jewish. These are central values to Judaism, but are not unique to Jews. Can we strengthen the core of home, synagogue, school and camp to enable us to face social integration?
The metrics of intermarriage can’t be ignored. But those who do connect to community and tradition are more likely to raise Jewish children. Can we acknowledge the challenges of intermarriage by developing programs for single Jews to meet each other, actively encouraging conversion, and supporting mixed families as they raise Jewish children?
Following the 1964 Look Magazine article, “The Vanishing American Jew,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel declared, “Our community is in spiritual distress, and our organizations are too concerned with digits. The significance of Judaism does not lie in being conducive to mere survival, but in being a source of spiritual wealth and source of meaning to all peoples.” Can we draw on Jewish wisdom to bring meaning to our civilization?
Prof. Jonathan Sarna has pointed to many creative reversals, unexpected developments in Jewish life in earlier generations. There are many possibilities for innovation to build a Jewish future. Jewish life is built on the past, but pointed forward. What can we do that will influence the yet to come?
Abraham and Sarah represent hope despite demographics. Rather than despair, can we share a love of living and learning with hope that others might find meaning in the heritage of Abraham and Sarah?
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl