The Future of American Jewry

pewJudaism has thrived in the United States for centuries, which makes A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the newly published Pew Research study on American Jewry, unexpectedly grim.  Ten years of data tells us that the future for American Judaism is more unstable than we thought.  Today’s Jewish institutions will shape the Jewish future, and if the Pew study says nothing else, it is time for a new set of tactics.

The Pew study concludes that one of every five Jews today identifies as having “no religion.”  When we look more closely at Jewish millennials, this number shoots up to one in three.  Congregations of all stripes have responded by offering some version of “Judaism lite.”  As a millennial and a rabbi, I think this mostly makes things worse.  Young Jewish adults are exploring their Jewish identities every bit as seriously as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and when Jewish programming stops at happy hours and kickball teams, it is no surprise that 20s and 30s might walk away saying, “This Judaism does not speak to me.”  Jewish experiences for any age can and should be content-rich.  They should challenge and inspire.  They should breathe life into the Jewish soul, and if they don’t, then they have fallen short.

To stem the tide of Jewish dissolution, every stream of Judaism now plays a pivotal role.  Orthodox Judaism, with its cutting-edge millennial outreach initiatives, will always be an answer for some.  For most Jews who are drifting from Judaism, however, Orthodoxy is not a realistic or accessible option.  This means that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and thoughtful non-mainstream institutions have a greater role to play than they ever did before.  Ninety percent of the American Jewish community is at stake.

To strengthen the 90 percent, Jewish communities need to serve and energize the Jews in the pews while reaching out to those who are not.  Gone are the days when Jews joined a congregation simply because it was there.  As bonds to organizational Judaism continue to fray, congregations will need to spark Jewish interest before ever suggesting membership.  We have to reach people where they are, and increasingly, this is behind a computer screen.  Jewish institutions typically do an amateur job marketing themselves and the Judaism they espouse, and until we do, we can no longer expect people to walk through our doors.

For some Jews, especially the intermarried, our synagogue doors seem forever closed.  Encouraging Jews to date and marry Jews is and will always be an indispensable part of Jewish continuity, but according to the Pew study, 58 percent of Jews (71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews) now intermarry.  Intermarriage is an American reality, and the future of American Jewry depends on how well we address it.  The numbers are telling us a truth we need to hear.  If we are concerned for the Jewish future, it is time for rabbis and congregations to value and honor our core members while embracing intermarried couples and inspiring them to raise Jewish children.  If we don’t provide interfaith families with the warm community, the rabbinic embrace, and the Jewish passion they deserve, Jews will leave us for their loved ones and intermarriage will continue to unravel the Jewish community.  We have not yet wrapped our heads around a Jewish future where interfaith marriage is normal, and in turning away those who love non-Jews, today’s standard-bearers are a part of the problem.  It cannot be this way.

I am a rabbi, a millennial, and an optimist at heart, and I don’t think this means some inevitable end of American Judaism.  Two statistics tell me that, if we’re smart, we’re going to be just fine.  Seventy-five percent of Jews in America report “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” and more significantly, nearly 100 percent are proud to be Jewish.  That is the most important number of them all.  Some Jews might not know how to express these overwhelmingly positive Jewish sentiments.  Many lack both the vocabulary to give their Judaism a voice and the rabbis, congregations, and, communities to animate their Jewish souls.  This can change, and when it does, I believe that American Judaism will change along with it.

There are two futures facing America’s Jewry.  If all remains the same, America’s Jewry will be anemic, stale and dwindling to an ever-shrinking core.  But nothing in Judaism has ever remained the same, and the Pew study tells us loud and clear that staying the same is not an option.  The other future for American Judaism is one that is vibrant, alive, and expanding in ways that have only recently seemed possible.  The end is not near.  Not even close.  We are a generation of Jews who, like every generation before us, has paved the road for the next.  If the generation ahead of us does its job, and if we do ours, ani m’amin b’emmuna sh’leima, I believe in perfect faith, that the next generation will do the same.

This article was originally featured in the Washington Jewish Week.

Rabbi Aaron Miller is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation.