Unlike many of my fellow pundits, and in particular the rabbinic ones, I see some very encouraging signs in the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs. For me, the most significant revelation is not the increasing rate of assimilation or the attrition rate of all the movements (Orthodox included). Here’s the headline:
Most American Jews love being Jewish. The era of the self-hating diaspora Jew is officially over.
When 94% of U.S. Jews (including 97% of Jews by religion and 83% of Jews of no religion) say they are proud to be Jewish, this is nothing short of miraculous, given the “oy vey” version of Jewish history that so many generations have been force fed. Even Jews who are bringing their kids up in another religion are proud to be Jewish! That means they are not completely lost to us.
I can’t think of another Diaspora community in Jewish history where 94% would even have had the confidence to open the door for the pollster, much less admit openly that they are proud to be Jews.
We need to figure out the source of this pride and bottle it. And this is a pride that actually increases for the younger cohorts.
We’ve officially entered the post-guilt era of American Judaism. In part that’s because a wider variety of behaviors have become normative and acceptable. Fewer are being left out of the tent – including those who are non religious, intermarried, gay or people of color.
We also have the Birthright Israel factor playing out here – young adults rediscovering very positive reasons to proudly identify as Jews. After a generation of handwringing, Israel has become a source of pride for Jews again, despite widespread concerns over some Israeli policies. The rebranding of Israel, as a Startup Nation, gorgeous, magical and pulsating with creativity, has worked.
But what of the vaunted 22 percent who consider themselves “Jewish with no religion?”
What does it mean when a Jew claims to have “no religion?” Countless people tell me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Does that mean that they can’t relate to the old-man-in-the-sky image of God, especially after the Holocaust? No big surprise there. Most Jews can’t, myself included. It’s interesting that only 39% of “Jews by religion” claim that God even exists.
Does “no religion” mean that they don’t keep 100% of the 613 commandments? Well, few Jews do. Actually, none do. The confusion is compounded when we read that a significant percentage (42%) of Jews of “no religion” attends Passover Seders, and many attend High Holidays services. Sounds pretty religious to me!
Ultimately, the big winners of the survey are Mordecai Kaplan and Theodore Herzl. Jewish peoplehood, culture and civilization are the prime motivators of Jewish pride and connection. Ritual observance is not. Like Israelis, American Jews no longer tie intensive observance (or synagogue affiliation) to Jewish identity. There are many ways to be – and to do – Jewish. But I would suggest that the poll underestimates the power of ritual and community to reinforce that connection, even among the highly assimilated. I see that in lifecycle events all the time, and I see it at services, even on the High Holidays.
I’m delighted that the survey indicates that the Holocaust has enduring power for American Jews, one that affirms life and ethical behavior and pride in being Jewish, not fear, shame, hatred, revenge and despair. As I’ve written here before the Holocaust can be a prime positive factor in Jewish continuity.
The survey indicates that the Holocaust is no longer interpreted in an “us against the world” manner. Fewer than half (43%) feel that Jews face discrimination. In fact, Jews think several other groups face more discrimination than they do, including LGBTQ and, wonder of wonders, Muslims. This sensitivity toward discrimination against other groups stems from the lessons of the Holocaust, combined with with traditional Jewish ethics, calling on us to “Love the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt.” Seventy years after Auschwitz, the mourning has morphed into pure, constructive remembering. We are moving on.
Pew paints a picture of a Jews drained of guilt, paranoia and self-hatred. They love their neighborhoods and feel safe from discrimination. Many have drifted far from communal structures, but they are so filled with pride that they are susceptible to being drawn back in. Without the guilt, there is nothing negative keeping them away. All they need is an invitation.
Synagogues that are inclusive, joyous, relevant and proud can capitalize on this overwhelming sense of pride that even the most assimilated Jew evidently feels. And yes, it can even happen in an established shul.
If the doors are opened wide enough.