A survey of the state of American Jewry conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center dropped like a bomb in October. The numbers seemed to augur a dramatic change in American Jewish life, with intermarriage increasing, religious observance by the non-Orthodox decreasing, and a general sense that Jewish identity was fading. Commentary and analysis proliferated, with most offering dire warnings about the future and what needed to be done to ensure continuity. But there were others who didn’t think things were all bad — in fact, they pointed to increases in Jewish population and the very high figures of Jews’ self-declared pride in being Jewish as signs of health. It was a “portrait,” as the study was called, that was interpreted in myriad ways.
Taking the value of Judaism for granted is not going to work, particularly because many of the iterations of that value just don’t matter to a whole lot of people. They don’t want a particularist identity in a multicultural age. They don’t agree that there’s merit in ghettoization, endogamy, or us versus them thinking. They may be inspired by Jewish history, but not enough to change their lives. And they certainly don’t want a religion that sets down rules.
For better or for worse, those are the clean slates from which we must begin. Square one. Why do you do what you do? What product or service — to use the language of the marketplace — does Judaism deliver for you? And how might Jewish institutions focus on it in a way that makes it appealing to the unconverted, trimming away the extraneous parts, while not diluting the authenticity of the core?
What makes people so upset when they hear we’re not dying? For one thing, there are those, mostly Israelis and Orthodox leaders, who feel threatened by the notion that Jewish integration in the open society might have a happy ending.
And some folks just can’t abide good news. For them, anything that says Jews aren’t dying must be a lie. Look at the pattern. In 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey reported 5.5 million Jews, but 52% intermarriage. Hysteria: We’re vanishing. In 2000, NJPS admitted intermarriage isn’t 52%, but gave the impression of falling numbers. Hysteria: We’re vanishing. In 2013 Pew reported more Jews than ever, but growing numbers disavowing religion. Hysteria: We’re vanishing.
Maybe. But here’s the thing: We don’t know what’s ahead. In 1964, when Jews numbered 5.2 million, Look magazine published a cover story, “The Vanishing American Jew.” Fifty years later, Look has vanished and the Jews are still here.
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).
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