Alan Abrams

Spiritual-but-not-religious Jews and the big Pew-study mistake

Way back when I was a young adult living in New York City, I went years without going into a synagogue. I never thought about God. I had a long-term relationship with a non-Jewish woman. 

The researchers of the latest big Pew Study of American Jewry probably would have considered me a lost cause to the Jews. They certainly would not have counted me as one of the only 26% of Jews who believe “in God as described in the Bible.”

And yet if you were to look at me today, you would see a person whose spiritual journey has him now a rabbi married to another Jew (also a rabbi) and a father of two Jewish kids born in Jerusalem. I have a PhD in Education and Jewish Studies. Judaism is the center of my life.

Clearly, questions like “do you believe in God as described in the Bible” can miss a lot about how people actually relate to their Judaism and Jewishness. Unfortunately, these Pew studies are full of these kind of shallow questions that do more to harm our understanding than help. They lead our community efforts to focus on simplistic, often short-sighted, solutions especially regarding intermarriage.

What Pew misses is that every person is on a spiritual journey. We all have the potential to grow and change, especially around major life events that force us to ask what we really care the most about and who we want to be. Surely, one of those major events is the decision about who to marry. But it’s not the only one. The death of a loved one, a personal health scare, an intense international trip or a major career change can all also cause people to make major shifts in the direction of their journey. A Jewish community that’s interested in its own collective health will be prepared to touch people — hear and support them — at any of those potential ‘plot changes’ in life.

For me, the plot change was sparked by many of the things I mentioned, including, very much, the death of my Father to cancer. But what made the direction my life would take possible is something I think the Pew study would have missed, something fundamental about many people’s relationship to their Jewishness — a strong sense of belonging

Belonging is about more than individual identity. It’s the thing that made me always feel I was in some way connected to the lives of all other Jews. Mordecai Kaplan would have called this feeling peoplehood. It’s what people in nation-states like France or Germany can feel about other French or German people. Jews, somehow during their long journey without a country of their own, found a way to keep this feeling alive even without a land to connect it to.

A healthy Jewish community, one where there is room for people’s personal and spiritual flourishing, will be one that continues to understand being Jewish as being about more than a religious or even a personal identity — it will be one that continues to preserve this place for belonging.

I think Chabad understands this well. That is why they have their shilchim and Chabad Houses in every corner of the world and why they make such an effort to present as welcoming to all Jews at all places in their lives. They know that the special times when there will be a ‘plot change’ that will allow a person to grow spiritually can happen in any place and at any time.

But Chabad is not the right home for most Jews, nor is Orthodoxy in general. Liberal Judaism has to find ways to reach even the spiritual-but-not-religious among us. And we have to recognize that the nature of being spiritual-but-not-religious may look very different among Jews than among other Americans — it may have a lot more to do with belonging.

Birthright has (rightly) come under a lot of criticism for things like over-focusing on whether Jews marry other Jews. But they have gotten some things right, starting with their understanding that nothing cultivates Jewish belonging more than being exposed to the one country in the world where you can live not only among a Jewish majority, but one where there are many non-religious people who nonetheless live lives that are deeply Jewish, full of belonging.

Today, as I write this Hamas rockets are falling on Tel Aviv and the cities of the south. It’s a hard time to be living here, it’s hard, especially, to know that I brought children into the world in a place where things like this can happen, things that American Jews never have to worry about.

But there is not a part of me that wants to leave. I need this place, I need the ways it helps support my own sense of Jewish belonging and, especially, the parts of Jewish observance — Shabbat and Kashrut — that are most important to me. And, most of all, I am here because there is nowhere else in the world where it is easier to give one’s children a Jewish education, especially exposure to Hebrew.

I don’t write this to try and convince other people to make Aliyah — it’s a hard choice that is certainly not right for everyone — but only to help illustrate the power of time spent in this country to support Jewish belonging, Jewish observance and facility in Hebrew. If we want to make a stronger American Jewish community, we will not just try and encourage Jews to marry other Jews, we will work to find more ways to support people coming here beyond the intensive, but also shallow, 10-day experience of Birthright.

We will also support more in-depth research about Jewish journeys than the head-counting approach of the Pew study. One thing I’ve noticed during my rabbinical school years and beyond is that there are many Jews-by-choice becoming rabbis, and they are often the most educated and energetic among us. We need to know more about how these new Jews understand their journeys into Jewish leadership and what exactly they are bringing to American Jewish life. Shavuot, with our reading of the Book of Ruth, is an especially appropriate time to consider learning more about the Jews-by-choice among us.

We need to focus on the full journey of people’s lives, not just on counting heads and intermarriage.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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