In the wake of the Pew Research Center’s findings on American Jews, the Forward’s headlines told a disheartening story: “Boundaries Are Blurring,” “New Study Finds Jews Fleeing Faith Traditions” and “Can You Be Jewish and Believe in Jesus?”
But for Jews in Russia and Ukraine, none of this was news.
With two Russian colleagues, in 1992–1993 and in 1997–98, I conducted extensive face-to-face surveys of 6,600 Jews in Russia and Ukraine. The findings foreshadow the Pew results. It seems that American Jews are following post-Soviet Jews in their “blurring of the boundaries” between Christianity and Judaism, and are disconnecting their cultural or ethnic Jewishness from Judaism as a religion.
Russian-speaking Jews see little connection between the two. Being Jewish for them is belonging to a “national’nost,’” an ethnic group. American Jews seem unsure whether they are a religious or ethnic group; many duck the issue by declaring themselves “cultural Jews.”
There is no such ambiguity among Russian Jews. Asked which in a list of 17 components “are essential to being a ‘good Jew,’” very few chose religious mandates like keeping the Sabbath or circumcising sons. Nine of 10 Jews in Russia and Ukraine did not observe kashrut, despite two decades of activity by religious emissaries.
In St. Petersburg in 2004, Jews observed holidays less frequently than Russian and Ukrainian Jews had in the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1997, the proportion that “never” attended synagogue rose to 63% from 56%. Only 5% in the 1990s said they attended synagogue regularly, less than half as many as American Jews.
Yet, about half our respondents said they “believe in God” or that they were “inclined to such belief.” But even among believing Jews, as among religious Russians, belief in God did not translate into observing a religion. Jewish believers did not follow commandments, nor did they see God as intervening in human history— two major premises of Judaism — to any greater extent than nonbelievers.
In 1991, only half of them fasted on Yom Kippur or participated in a Passover Seder. By 1997 in Russia, the proportion of religious people fasting on Yom Kippur increased only slightly, but nearly three-quarters participated in a Seder, probably because the Seder gained in popularity as an enjoyable communal event, while Yom Kippur remained an onerous religious obligation.