What it Means to Be Proud

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Rabbi Boris, November December 2013

There has been much talk over the past few weeks about a survey recently conducted by the Pew Research Center on American Jews’ identity, religious practices and beliefs. While there have been many studies in the past including a well-publicized “Jewish Population Survey” in 2000, this most recent one is the largest survey in decades, and some would argue, also the most useful. It says much about the current state of Judaism in America, and brings to light some of what is working in the organized Jewish community and also some of the challenges we will encounter in the years ahead.

It has always been difficult to estimate the number of Jews in America, since Jewish identity means so many things to different people. Nevertheless, the new survey found that there are 6.7 million Jews in America, far more than the 5.2 million found in the last survey.

Another important statistic: while ten years ago 93% of people who were raised Jewish
and identify as Jewish said that their religion was Judaism, today only 78% do.

And this is where things get interesting. The term “religion” for those surveyed, does not seem to be only about theology, God or religious practice. In fact only 39% of people who said Judaism is their religion are sure that God or a “higher power” exists. Yet, these Jews by religion (not necessarily “religious Jews”) believe that Jews “have a special responsibility to care for other Jews” (72%) and give to Jewish organizations (62%), and as expected, more also end up marrying other Jews (64%). In a way, religion seems to signify connection to community, values and tradition, more than specifically a connection to God.

But here’s the most remarkable number of all: 94%. This is the percentage of American Jews who say they are proud to be Jewish.

How can this be? With so many unaffiliated Jews, and a large number with little or no connection to Jewish practices or beliefs, nearly all Jews are proud of their heritage. What has changed over the years are the various ways that people can identify as Jews, and how others relate to the Jewish community. Unlike in the Old Country and even in the early years of Jewish immigration to America, in contemporary America, being Jewish is a choice. People do not need to act or even identify as Jewish. While some stay connected to Jewish life and community, many don’t. But nearly all are proud. Compare this to 1937, when quite the opposite would have been found, when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote: “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.” Oy, have things changed.

There is a lot that we can take from this survey and there are many challenges that the American Jewish community and TBI need to work on. But it can also give us some hope. What it says to me is that our goal to become a more welcoming, a more diverse and a more creative community — both here at TBI and in the greater Jewish world — is what has allowed such a remarkable number of Jews to be proud of their identity. The more “doorways” we can open into Jewish life, the more ways that we allow people to identify and connect as Jews, then the more people can say “I’m Jewish,” even if each person might have a different reason why.

I am proud of what we have done in our community to be a welcoming and diverse “Center for Jewish Life,” and I also know that we are not alone. There is such an incredible growth and flourishing of Jewish life in America, with a new understanding of spirituality, music, education and Yiddishkeit — Jewish culture and life. So, I think we are all doing something right, and we as a community and a people are in just the place we need to be.

What can we learn from this new survey? Stay proud of the way that you are Jewish or connect to Jewish life, and be proud that there are so many ways to be. Beyond belief, practice, politics, theology and everything else that we could be worried about, this is what will keep Judaism strong long into the future.