Time for Rethinking What It Means To Be a Jew

#JewishAmerica: The Pew Survey

By B. Elka Abrahamson

Published October 06, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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Traditional Jewish sources place clear restrictions on counting people. Ironic, then, that we tend toward the obsessive about the numbers, beliefs and behaviors of our community. The Pew survey nourishes this tendency in healthy, responsible and fascinating fashion. A read of the report will find Jewish leaders drinking in the results from cups half-empty and half-full.

Discussions will undoubtedly focus on the standout finding that six out of 10 Jews see being Jewish as mainly a matter of culture or ancestry, compared with 15% who say it is a matter of religion. The population of “Jews of no religion” — now up to 22% — is less likely to belong to synagogues and to Jewish organizations. These “Jews of no religion” are less likely to make donations to Jewish causes, and less likely to say they feel particularly connected to the Jewish community. Perhaps more significantly, they are much less inclined to raise their children Jewish.

A central question for emerging adults in the Jewish community is less “Who is a Jew?” and more “How do I Jew?” If not clear prior to this report, connection to the organized Jewish community as built by the past generation will require significant rethinking, deconstruction and openness.

We will need to consider pathways that will meaningfully engage these so-named “Jews of no religion” free from blame and from defensiveness about what we already offer. My hope is that this report triggers new energy and intentionality in creating a collaborative spirit yet to be realized among our leaders and the organizations we represent.

Elka Abrahamson is president of the Wexner Foundation.


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