Writings from the Rabbis

Demographics, Decision and Destiny
Nov 6th 2013

The recently released Pew Report on Jewish Identity described a statistical disaster engulfing America Jewry like the waters of Noah. Canadian Jewry faces comparable challenges; looking at American trends gives us a lens to see what is ahead. In reflecting on the Flood, it is important to recall that Abraham was a source of hope, despite demography.

The Pew Report suggests that secular or cultural Jews are less connected to Jewish organizations and less likely to be raising children as Jews. The study shows that the rate of intermarriage remains very high, particularly among younger Jews, those with little connection to Jewish life, and those who live away from strong centres of Jewish population.

Most of the others who identify as Jews say that being Jewish is primarily a matter of ancestry and culture. Beyond ethnicity, markers of Jewish identity are remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, working for justice, having a Jewish sense of humour and religious practice.

The study shows that the modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish communities are experiencing losses, with higher retention among the fervently Orthodox. About three-in-ten say they are “just Jewish”. The revival of Jewish observance seems to take place within the various movements, not between them, which indicates that outreach efforts are retentive rather than transformational. The Conservative movement is aging, but Conservative and Reform Jews with day school and Jewish camp experiences have higher rates of commitment than others within the same movements.

The Pew Report gives us the metrics for what we already knew. Young Jews are marrying later, deferring Jewish families, having fewer children and connecting less to Jewish institutions and Israel. They are choosing a “sovereign self” filled with pride, but with only partial engagement in community. This picture of Jewish life has been developing for some time, just as Noah built the Ark over many years.

Avraham was different. Unlike Noah, Avraham did not retreat into the protection of the Ark. Like us, he had a tent open to the world. From the beginning, Avraham was counting descendants, concerned with carrying on the Covenant. Professor Jon Levenson of Harvard writes that Avraham is “the realization of the hoped-for reversal of the curses on Adam. The man without a country will inherit a whole land; the man with a barren wife will have plenteous offspring; and the man who has cut himself off from kith and kin will be pronounced blessed by all the families of the earth” (Inheriting Abraham, p. 20). The saga of Avraham is about a revolution of hope, about going against common expectations.

Avraham is not only a noble warrior who stands against the high culture of Mesopotamia; he is deeply concerned with building a people, a covenantal community, from his own family in the Land of Promise. 

In a similar way, the Pew Report points to pride in Jewish identity and attachment to the Land of Israel.  While Jews tend to be less religious than the American public, 80 percent say being Jewish is important to them. Even though the content of that pride is thin, we are challenged to galvanize that pride to construct a more substantive identity from it. 

Jews in the Pew Report said that leading an ethical and moral life is essential to being Jewish. These are central values to Judaism, but are not unique to Jews. In the century before 1492, teachers and scholars emphasized the singularity of traditional Jewish practice to withstand the pressures of the Spanish Inquisition. Can we strengthen the core of home and synagogue, school and camp to enable us to face social integration?

We are working very hard at Beth Tzedec, using many models for Jewish engagement. Meditation services, outreach to interfaith families, Mishpacha programs for young children and parents, youth activities and the active involvement of shinshinim, teen trips for service learning, sports and cultural initiatives for young professionals and much more. We are constantly trying new approaches for outreach and engagement. Our Adult Skills and Knowledge (ASK) program offers opportunities for adults to become bat or bar mitzvah or to upgrade their early Jewish education. We are limited not by our imagination, but by our budget.

The metrics of intermarriage can’t be ignored, but those who connect to community and tradition are more likely to raise Jewish children. Can we develop programs for single Jews to meet each other, actively encourage conversion and support mixed families as they raise Jewish children? The Pew Report seems to indicate that this is an area of opportunity. That is why Rav Adam and I work with so many potential Jews-by-Choice and why Beth Tzedec has sponsored The Mother’s Circle for non-Jewish moms.

At ˙Hanukkah, we think of the successful efforts of the Hasmoneans to secure independence, restore national identity and revive religious practice. ˙Hanukkah is a festival that celebrates the victory “of the few over the many”, creating a model of “great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day”. In the midst of the dark of winter, we kindle small lights of hope, harbingers of the future light. Judaism was transformed in the period from the Maccabees to the Mishnah and spread out to the world. The determination of the few created a new destiny for the many.

Following the 1964 Look Magazine article, “The Vanishing American Jew,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel declared, “Our community is in spiritual distress and our organizations are too concerned with digits. The significance of Judaism does not lie in being conducive to mere survival but in being a source of spiritual wealth and source of meaning to all peoples.” Can we draw on Jewish wisdom to bring meaning to a wide swath of our society?  

Professor Jonathan Sarna, who spoke last year at Beth Tzedec, has pointed to many creative reversals, unexpected developments in Jewish life in earlier generations. There are many possibilities for innovation to build a Jewish future. Jewish life is built on the past, but pointed forward. Past trends are not necessarily indicators of the future. What can we do to influence the yet to come?

Avraham and Sarah represent hope despite demographics. ˙Hanukkah symbolizes pride in who we are and the possibility for creative flourishing. On a micro-level, each of us is challenged to intensify Jewish living and learning and to have the faith that others might also find meaning and fulfillment in what we love. After all, the miracles were in “those days and in our time”.