Yesterday, the Jewish world was buzzing with reaction to the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. The results seemed to indicate the American Jews are even more assimilated and apathetic toward the Jewish traditions than had been suspected. Intermarriage is up and synagogue affiliation is down.
I have to admit – I was not surprised. As someone who has worked for a Jewish educational organization for years, I’ve been aware of that it is increasing a challenge to find enthusiastic students and participants. Perhaps more specifically, I wasn’t surprised by the Pew results because of the generation in which I was raised – Generation X.
When I began college at the University of Maryland at College Park in the mid-1990s, I found myself inundated with one cultural imperative – multiculturalism. All around me were signs and posters promoting cultures from around the world, but none encouraging students to explore, express or appreciate their own culture.
On my dorm floor, there were several Jewish students, most of whom had been raised with a strong Jewish identity, a limited Jewish education and a hope that they would eventually settle down with someone Jewish. Their parents were like my own – Jewish Americans who lived their lives surrounded by their own kind. My parents were both born and raised in Brooklyn, and they inhaled Jewish pride with every breath of their childhood. But had I, as a young adult, asked them why I should marry a Jew – I doubt they could have given me a truly convincing answer.
Twenty years later, as my peer group achieves, dare I say it, middle age, how can we be surprised that a generation inundated with the message of multiculturalism and armed only with a few years of after-school Hebrew school failed to connect to Jewish institutions or to transmit the significance of Jewish life to their children.
This was, of course, not everybody’s story. I went the other way. I said to myself that if everyone was supposed to admire all the other people’s cultures that I needed to first learn more about my own, to explore the traditions that had survived thousands of years, ages of persecution and years of wandering.
In the 1990s and 2000s, I was part of a unique movement of thousands of Jews independently deciding to become more observant. And while re continue to be young Jewish adults looking to learn more about Judaism, there has been a general shift away from religious exploration.
Becoming observant was no act of blind faith, rather is was a well-thought-out decision. I needed to immerse myself in Jewish life in order to understand the great personalities of Jewish history – like Maimonides, Rashi and the Vilna Gaon, all of whose brilliance was acknowledged by Jews and non-Jews alike. I wanted to connect to the way my great-grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents had lived so that I might have something beautiful and unique to hand down to my children. And I wanted to understand the value of a lifestyle for which so many had given up their lives. My reaction to multiculturalism was to explore my own culture, to know myself.
I was not unique, but the people like me were a small subset of my generation. In all that talk of loving and accepting people, no one ever spoke of living a Jewish life as something one needed to choose. To my Jewish peers, being Jewish was just part of their list of identifying features. You know: I am an engineer, a New Yorker, a skier, a Jew.
In 1999, I began to work for the National Jewish Outreach Program (now known as NJOP). My boss, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, had one interest – getting Jews interested in being Jewish. He founded NJOP because he wanted to make certain that no Jew ever walked away from Jewish life without the ability to choose, because being uneducated about Jewish life means one never had a chance to choose Judaism.
For the last five years, I have had the privilege of writing Jewish Treats, a daily email that we subtitled “Juicy Bits of Judaism, Daily.” The goal of these emails/blog posts is to bring a reminder into people’s lives each day that Judaism is a thriving system of laws, customs, history and legend, and thus to encourage them to continue to stay active in Jewish life.
To me, its all about the choice of living Jewishly. It’s about choosing to invest oneself in a world and a culture that, when you get to its barest ethos is (as the great sage Hillel said) about “Do not do unto others as you would not want done to you.” Oddly, that’s the most multicultural lesson of all – I’ll respect you and you respect me.
My personal response to the Pew study is not surprise nor a call to arms. I am dismayed, of course, but what I really feel is a reinforcement of my commitment to live a fully Jewish life, to present a positive image of traditional Judaism and to provide my family with a love of tradition that will survive for several more generations.