What happens when everyone looks at the same thing

and seessomething different?  

As expected, the Pew research on American Jewish identity (CLICK HERE for the full report) that was widely publicized last week – and referred to in Bisseleh Bytes – has created a firestorm of responses. Many have taken the opportunity to decry the health of North American Judaism. The Kansas City Star’s report headlined with the lack of faith and the focus on culture. Several traditional sources (i.e. Orthodox) railed against the dissipation of practice, and placed blame at the feet of liberal Jews. And Reform Jewish leaders? Their responses have been…well…all over the map.

Here is how Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, responded: “As you may know, the Pew Research Center has released what already is a much-discussed survey of American Jews…Although the results are open to varied interpretations, the data include much good news for Reform Judaism
  • More than one-third of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform Movement.
  • Fifty-five percent of Jews who were raised within the Reform Movement stay within the Movement. At the same time, 11% of Orthodox Jews and 30% of Conservative Jews switch to join the Reform Movement.
  • Social justice, a cornerstone of Reform Judaism, is of prime importance to American Jews.
  • Sixty-nine percent of respondents say that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewish identity, and overall support for Israel is in line with our Movement’s positions.

Rabbi Jacobs clearly sees hope in the numbers, and support for the way in which Reform Judaism is viewed by American Jews. Others have interpreted the results differently.

One rabbi felt it was important to illustrate this was an American phenomenon, not just a Jewish one. “A LifeWay study of 1,200 young adults age 18-30 found: Nearly three in four (72 percent) call themselves “more spiritual than religious.” More than two in three say they rarely or never pray with others, attend worship services, or read the Bible. More than one in four (28 percent) said God is “just a concept,” and four in 10 said the devil is merely a symbol. Only half said that “Believing in Jesus Christ is the only way to get to heaven.”

Another rabbi believes that the study is an important tool to guide us in how we program in the future: “Analyzing the data from a Reform perspective is very worrisome. Although one third of American Jews “identify” as Reform, only one third of that group (= 700,000) “affiliate” with Reform synagogues. Among all Reform Jews, only “13%” view “religion” as important.  The study also reports only 4% of Reform Jews can decode Hebew. The weirdest number in the study, which must be challenged, is that Pew claims 25% of Reform identified Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah! My experience in the community doesn’t even remotely suggest that last number whereas the other results seem reasonable.”

A third rabbi questioned what it all means: “I’m not particularly surprised by the findings [of the Pew Research report]. There are some big shifts afoot: weakening Jewish institutions, outdated theologies, obsolete congregational and membership structures, failures to meet Jews where they are….to name a few.

And a final rabbi writes, suggesting the report undermines the good that is currently being done by rabbis each and every day. This rabbi writes: “A recent article about “boring” High Holy day services caught my attention because it railed against congregational rabbis in our most grueling season…The Pew Study and its aftermath and the New York Times article on the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution simply seem to fuel the fire against congregational rabbis who dutifully serve our people…Instead, [let] us recognize the committed congregational rabbis who serve our people in the trenches with love and faith…, day in and day out.”

What is clear is this: the Pew Research report has touched a nerve in the Jewish community. Some are frightened. Others are encouraged. All are challenged. What it means for B’nai Jehudah is still unclear. We are at the beginning of a journey. Together, we will travel along this path, understanding our choices, and – in shared dialogue – determining our direction.

Last week, I invited anyone who wanted to comment and/or make their own suggestion to email me. (It’s not to late. Just CLICK HERE.) I received a score of responses reflecting on both specific situations and the general state of the American Jewish experience.

I will be speaking on this topic this Friday night, during Erev Shabbat services. I hope you will join me as we continue this important conversation.

In closing, I quote a colleague of mine, Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who – with apologies to Bob Dylan, offers this thought….sung to the tune, “The Times They Are A’Changing.”

We wonder exactly how this came to be
Maybe it happened because we are free
To keep or discard our identity
But this great tradition’s worth saving
Let’s say it one last time, we all can agree
That the Jews, we are a changing.