If you read about Diaspora Judaism, you will find it a frustrating and disheartening experience.
The most thorough and reliable survey of American Jews was done by Pew Research in 2013. Seventy-eight percent classified themselves as Jewish by religion and 22% as “Jews of no religion”, that is, Jews who consider themselves Jewish, but not religiously Jewish. But this percentage was markedly higher (32%) among Jewish millenials of no religion (ages 18-29).
Ninety percent of those who identified as Jewish by religion were raising their children as Jewish, but less than one third of those who identified themselves as “Jews of no religion” were raising their children Jewish.
While it is true and comforting that Orthodox Jews do marry Jewish and generally have large families, they comprise only 10% of North American Jewry, hardly enough to make up for those who opt out.
I began to wonder what these statistics meant for the future of Judaism when I arrived in Montreal for a meeting on a Sunday well before Covid-19. I stayed at a hotel around the corner from Chabad at McGill University on Shabbos.
I went to Chabad for Friday and Saturday services and meals, which had been planned in advance. What I could not have anticipated was my experience that Shabbos.
The students that attended the services, and took their meals there, were mostly not religious. Indeed, many more came for Friday dinner and Saturday lunch than for the prayer services.
But the fellowship of young Jewish students was heartening. The students at the services were enthusiastic and lively, singing practically the whole service. The students had obviously been there before as they were intimately familiar with the tunes and participated with delight.
The Friday dinner and Saturday lunch brought together a large group — my estimate is over a hundred — with the rabbi engaging the students in a relaxed and cordial atmosphere. The students, male and female, clearly felt comfortable and welcome. The gregariousness and camaraderie around the tables was uplifting and heartwarming. The group reminded me of the psalm: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”.
What I witnessed captivated me: I was inspired. I was deeply moved. Frankly, I wish that more synagogues had that level of joyous, engaged services and warm and inviting fellowship.
This success does not disprove the statistics. Facts are stubborn things. There is no denying them, even in an age where every truth has a short shelf life, if it is allowed to live at all. However, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s statement that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. Statistics are revealing, but they often hide as much as they reveal. Or, if not hide, at least they do not tell the whole story.
As I sat there, my mind’s eye imagined all the Chabad and Hillel houses in Canada and the United States celebrating Shabbos with the youth, on campus and off, bringing students together.
I realised that the truth lies in the fact that each and every person counts. Each person is a world. We need not only count statistics but also the success of connecting as many people as possible to what Adam Kirsch, the literary critic, calls “the intellectual homeland of my ancestors”.
It seems to me that the old denominations of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist do not reflect the current situation. Jews today, especially young Jews, are either affiliated, connected in some way to their Judaism and to the State of Israel, or they are not. There are many ways to identify as a Jew, and those who do need not be labelled.
What I saw was a different aspect of the situation “on the ground”. Those students represent an important constituency: they chose to attend services and meals in an atmosphere of Jewish solidarity. That is what we need to focus on. My experience was encouraging, positive and hopeful, because they are the reality. They are an important part of our future.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo