After #JewishAmerica Survey, What Do We Do?

Editorial

Look Who’s Family: Intermarried Jews are far less likely to be involved in the community. Taking steps to address that is one glaring message of the landmark Pew study on Jewish America.
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Look Who’s Family: Intermarried Jews are far less likely to be involved in the community. Taking steps to address that is one glaring message of the landmark Pew study on Jewish America.

Published October 03, 2013.
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• Forget the litmus test on Israel. About seven-in-ten Jews say they feel either very or somewhat attached to Israel, and 43% have visited Israel at least once, so let’s stop worrying that somehow American Jews are morphing into anti-Zionists. But this survey shows a huge disconnect 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.

Just 38% of American Jews say that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. Only 17% think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security, while 44% say that it’s harmful.

Clearly, the voices of these critical but still attached Jews must be included in the national conversation. It’s time to get past the silly debate about whether J Street or the New Israel Fund or other such organizations are kosher enough to speak in synagogues, at federation meetings and on college campuses. These venues should confidently welcome all knowledgeable, responsible voices — especially since those voices represent a sizeable segment of American Jews.

Rescue the Conservative movement. Only 18% of American Jews identify with Conservative Judaism, half as many as Reform and only 8% more than Orthodox, a stunning decline for the denomination that once was most populous. And the future is even less promising: Only 11% of young Jews say they are Conservative, while the median age of Conservative Jews, 55, is the highest of any denomination.

The initial responses by Conservative leaders to these stark numbers — ranging from denial to defensiveness — can be excused for the moment, but it’s a self-defeating strategy going forward. Younger Jews, especially, eschew the formulaic, often passionless Jewish worship that characterizes too many Conservative synagogues, and the movement’s understandable reluctance to embrace intermarriage has sent droves of its members to less restrictive, less demanding Reform temples.

Further shrinkage would be a tragedy, and not just for the Jews who believe in the Conservative mission of placing tradition directly in conversation with modernity.

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.


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