Excuse me a moment, I have to go grab my soapbox.
(Clattering in the closet, drags out a box and plops it unceremoniously in the public square)
As you likely know by now, the Pew Research Center released the results of a major study of Jewish affiliation and identity. As you also likely know by now, thanks to the New York Times, the sky is falling.
Yeah, guess what I think? The voices in The Times are wrong. Their sky is falling. Our sky is not.
I particularly love this line: “a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.”
Yet the same Jews who are “assimilating” are also largely proud to be Jewish, according to the poll. And they’re strongly attached to the State of Israel. These aren’t self-hating Jews.
I think the poll shows something important: Jews outside the “Orthodox” world have largely decoupled their Jewish identities from traditional modes of Jewish religion. Those modes don’t always mean that people believe; that definition is what happens when your concept of religion is dictated by being part of a mostly Christian, largely Protestant culture (as is true of the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe).
Rather, “cultural” Jews are becoming more the norm, and those Jews are comfortable having families that are much more diverse than those of their grandparents’ generations. This has happened despite all the hemming and hawing over the last forty years about shrinking Jewish communities.
So what are we to make of the problem of assimilation? The approach of the Humanistic Jewish world is to say that one of the great flaws of Jewish attempts at engagement is that we continue to impose the various halakhic norms–modified or not–upon Jewish identity. So we’ll find Reform rabbis that won’t perform intermarriages, for example, despite the position of the CCAR that intermarriage is permissible and that a child with one Jewish parent–either parent–is Jewish.
Look: if you welcome people in with one hand, and smack them away with the other, they’re going to leave. And when every Jewish institution behaves this way, you’re going to make a whole lot of people leave.
However proud they are of being Jewish, people know not to return to places at which they aren’t wanted.
In some ways, I’m one of those people. But I’m also one of those people who is so attached to a Jewish identity that, ultimately, I’m putting in work to create institutions and environments where the people smacked away can come and be welcomed; it’s why I’m a Humanist Jew working to build places that actively welcome blended families and individuals who are Jewish but don’t necessarily do Jewish the way our heavily Ashkenazic modern institutions think about doing and being Jewish.
I think existing Jewish institutions will continue to shrink–and may ultimately simply fail–if they continue to behave as they have for the last forty years.
The current generation of large donors will die out. Will the next generation be large enough and concerned enough with the older institutions to support them? I’m not sure.
Jane Eisner of The Forward is right: ““This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews,” she said, “to think about what kind of community we’re going to be able to sustain if we have so much assimilation.””
Let’s see what happens when we don’t push people away.