(Warning: The following questions could be considered disturbing, outrageous, maybe even ludicrous.)
But that’s just fine if the questions spur debate on responses to the very real issues identified in the just-released Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews, which painted a stark picture of Jewish life in America today.
That survey points to findings in matters of religious identity, intermarriage and even Israel that do not bode well for American Jewry.
We don’t advocate any particular answers, but we do think these questions should be discussed, no matter how painful they are.
For starters, Jews are losing their religion. One in five (22 percent of those surveyed) say they have no religion — a sobering statistic for those who embrace their faith.
What does that mean? Are an ever-increasing number of Jews turned off to the rote liturgy of Judaism? Are rabbis failing to teach the spiritual beauty and compassion of Judaism in favor of its mechanics? Are Jews turned off to the politics of synagogue life? Are they confused by the differences in denominations? Do we simply have too many synagogues for too few worshippers, touching off internal competition within our communities? Are there better ways to find God than praying from a book in a synagogue?
The intermarriage rate continues to climb. Among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly 60 percent have a non-Jewish spouse, up from 40 percent in the 1980s and way up from the 17 percent rate of the 1970s.
Clearly, young Jews don’t buy their elders’ pleas to marry Jewish and preserve the faith, a point driven home by the finding that one-third of intermarried Jews (37 percent) are not raising their kids to be Jewish at all.
Where did we go wrong? Did we offend the next generation by emphasizing Jewish identity over love? Should patrilineal descent be universally accepted? Is the freedom of Diaspora life away from shtetls just too strong? Did we not welcome the non-Jewish spouse, driving away the couple (and their kids) for all time?
(To be fair, the survey offers this proviso to the intermarriage data: “It is not clear whether being intermarried tends to make U.S. Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make U.S. Jews more inclined to intermarry, or some of both.”)
On the subject of Israel, it is clear that a generation gap exists and is widening: “Older Jews are more likely than younger Jews to see caring about Israel as an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. More than half of Jews 65 and older say caring about Israel is essential for their Jewish identity (53 percent), as do 47 percent of Jews ages 50-64. By comparison, 38 percent of Jews in their 30s and 40s and 32 percent of Jewish adults under age 30 say caring about Israel is central to what being Jewish means to them.”
We’ll ask just one question here: Is caring about Israel essential to being a good American Jew? We care deeply about it (and if you read this paper, you probably do, too), but what of those who don’t? Should they be beyond the pale?
Finally, one of the more interesting findings we came across was this: “Jews think several other minority groups face more discrimination than they do. Seventy-two percent say gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in American society, and an equal number say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims. Sixty-four percent say blacks face a lot of discrimination. By comparison, 43 percent say Jews face a lot of discrimination. Overall, 15 percent of Jews say that in the past year they personally have been called offensive names or snubbed in a social setting because they are Jewish.”
Many of us were raised with the mantra that the Jews are the world’s victims. Are Jews now rejecting that notion? Does it tear at our social fabric if a generation of Jews rejects this narrative?
According to this survey, many traditional Jewish narratives are under fire; we’ve only touched on a handful here, and we encourage you to read the report in
its entirety (pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/). The only answer we have is that the community — Pittsburgh and national — must have a thoughtful, mutually respectful discussion of all these questions. For the sake of our future, the time is now.