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The Podium

A shift in Jewish identity

George Carlin would often quip that the glass was neither half empty nor half full. “It is just too damn big!”

The recent Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project survey of American Jews has many who care deeply about the future of this community sitting in sackcloth and ashes, prematurely mourning our inevitable demise. But the survey’s findings are not all that surprising. Reflecting major trends in American life, it is not a shock that fewer younger Jews identify religiously and join religious institutions the way their parents and grandparents did before them. But the glass is not simply half empty.

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The survey also found, “that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a ‘strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.’” Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard of CLAL suggested 10 years ago that we live in an era of pervasive choice where identities are no longer simply inherited; they are constructed individual by individual, family by family on their own terms. Young Jews, whether married to other Jews or to non Jews are engaged in creating myriad family configurations that were inconceivable only a generation ago. They also are constructing Jewish identities in ways the organized community must first actively support and only then measure with new sets of metrics.

The Pew Center survey should inspire collaboration and innovation, not despair. The greatest innovations that have sustained Jewish peoplehood across the millennia through crisis and rebirth came at the crossroads of our aspirations and desperations. The glass is not too damn big. It is ready to be half full — and then fuller.

Mordecai Kaplan, one the most influential thinkers and teachers of 20th century American Jewish life, the author of the seminal “Judaism as a Civilization” and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, suggested that one can identify with a religious community by behaving, by believing or by belonging. And for him, belonging was the most essential. New approaches to engaging and connecting those born after 1980 in particular and after 1965 more generally, must begin with a “Jewish” that is made relevant to the life choices individuals and families make every day aimed at living happier, healthier, meaning-filled lives. Many of those choices will lead them to connect with others on parallel but quite unique journeys. And the more those connections multiply, a more diverse, enriched, different Jewish community of the future will emerge.

From the survey: “A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey is to explore Jewish identity: What does being Jewish mean in America today? Large majorities of US Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73 percent) and leading an ethical life (69 percent) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56 percent) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43 percent) and having a good sense of humor (42 percent) are essential to their Jewish identity. But observing religious law is not as central to most American Jews. Just 19 percent of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Jewish law (halakha) is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And in a separate but related question, most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on the Sabbath or does not believe in God.“

New definitions of Jewish identification are emerging, aligned with the values based priorities and choices 21st century Jews and the people in their lives are making. The emphasis highlighted by this survey on belonging and behaving over believing, is a call to action.

The leaders of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in April of 1943, on the eve of their revolt, scrawled on the ghetto walls an Eleventh Commandment, ”Thou shall not despair.” The glass is not is not too big. It is just waiting to be filled.

Mark Sokoll is president and CEO of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.
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