David Kuney
David Kuney
Advocate for bankruptcy justice and Jewish values

The PEW Report and On Rockingham Street: Companion Pieces on Jewish Continuity.

As we approach the Jewish High Holidays, my thoughts turn to issues of Jewish continuity and survival. I write this during the Ten Days of Repentance, a period of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I ask myself whether I will be able to return to a deeper sense of my own Judaism and whether I can engage the High Holidays in a meaningful way—something that stays with me during the day, that reminds me I am Jewish. I cannot help but note that many of my Jewish friends are doing little about the High Holidays. Some work, some ignore and some even let the days slide by without acknowledging them. So I also wonder about the larger issue, the great fall-off in Jewish observance and commitment as documented by the recently released 2020 PEW Institute Study of American Jewry (published in May, 2021). This is an issue I have written about in my new family memoir On Rockingham Street: Reclaiming My Family’s Jewish Identity—Our Journey from Vilna to the Suburban South.  The PEW Report now strikes me as the unfinished last chapter in my memoir.

I have seen this fall-off up close when I served on the Board of our synagogue here in Bethesda, Maryland. During a recent board meeting, the Executive Administrator told me that Jews today are no longer twice-a year Jews—they’re now one-day a year Jews, or one-and-a-half days per year. The topic of course, was the Jewish High Holidays and how often people come to shul—or more precisely how rarely. We were debating whether to hold services in a local high school for the overflow crowd. Our building cannot seat all who show up—including those who are the twice-a-year-Jews. The Administrator reminded me that she manages the requests for tickets, and she had noted the fall off; she sat at the front door and saw the comings and goings; she saw who was there and who was not. The crowds were getting smaller. Some complained the local high school seemed not so spiritual—this from members who had not been in the shul itself for almost a year.

The PEW Report speaks to this issue of a loss of commitment to Jewish institutions and a loss of interest in things Jewish. Some of its conclusions are startling, including that many Jews find pet ownership more gratifying than Jewish religious experience. I have seen all of this before. My new book, On Rockingham Street is an eyewitness account of what it was like to live in the highly assimilated, suburban south of Arlington, Virginia. It raises the question of Jewish continuity. So does the PEW Report. The two are companion pieces. The PEW report is the body count, who lives and who doesn’t. On Rockingham Street is the backstory; the narrative of how we got here. The Jerusalem Post read the PEW Report and said, “we are coming apart at the seams.” My book readings are often entitled, “Is American Jewry hanging by a thread?”

In writing my family memoir I wanted to explore this journey of assimilation, and whether we could reclaim our Jewish identity. What I came to learn (already known to many) was that the Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe had already convinced many Jews to seek a more secular and rational life and to leave behind observant Judaism. What I did not realize until I wrote this was that the consequences of that historical shift in thinking is still playing out today. The loss of interest in observant Judaism in today’s world is simply a continuation of the consequences of the Enlightenment of over 100 years ago.

Have we overdosed on assimilation? Dara Horn spoke recently in a book launch for her new book People Love Dead Jews. She talked about how assimilation can “erase” us—that perhaps we are too eager to make others feel comfortable, and so we hide who we really are.[1] That sounded like a critical perspective on assimilation.

Assimilation may be impossible to avoid. Our Reconstructionist rabbi often notes that we “live in two civilizations,” which I take to mean that both are equally important or viable—or at least that he sees no need to give up the non-Jewish aspects of American life. Sometimes we work on shabbat and sometimes not. We eat kosher food sometimes, and sometimes not. We are mostly a la carte Jews—picking and choosing what feels good or easy.

Assimilation of Jews into the larger society has been eternal and even necessary.  The great heroes of assimilation are found in the Torah. The Joseph story is too often told as the tale of the coat of many colors—a story of sibling rivalry. But it is much more. It is the narrative of one who became the second highest person in what was then the greatest civilization in the world. His political agility—his ability to assimilate saved Egypt and for a while saved the Jews as well. Moses was raised by Pharoah’s wife as an Egyptian prince, and thus had access to the highest court in the civilized world where later he could say, “let my people go.” Esther was queen to King Ahasuerus, and at first refused to even disclose her Jewish identity, but then found herself in a position to save the Jews of Persia. Where would we be without such highly assimilated and politically savvy Jews? The prophet Jeremiah wrote of the need to assimilate, even while in exile. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7).”

Perhaps the problem is not assimilation as such but the utter lack of education among most Jews, save perhaps the Orthodox. Maybe the answer is to focus on education and not on assimilation. Dana Horn writes about illiteracy of modern Jews; noting that in our generation many Jews can’t even name the Five Books of Moses.[2]

Barry Shrage suggests the critical need is education. He writes this: “Establishing universal Jewish literacy as a communal norm … must be our highest priority. . . . We must. . . create a Jewish world that places the same value on understanding the basic works of Maimonides as on understanding the basic works of Shakespeare.” [3]

To achieve even a small part of what Barry Shrage suggests, we would need to send more of our children to Jewish Day School. Those who have observed the current reality of American Jewry know this to be true.  A recent interview of Rabbi Daniel Nevins, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), explained that he decided to leave the JTS to teach at a day school, because he discovered this: “Day schools were lifted up in my mind as the place where the most important Jewish identity formation was happening.”[4]

Convincing more Jewish families to consider sending their children to Jewish Day Schools will be a difficult, if not a monumental task. Encouraging young adults who are raising children to find time for serious Jewish studies will be equally daunting. Older Jewish adults seem, however, to be increasingly finding time for Jewish studies, especially in the Covid era.

But unless we can somehow address the issue of our Jewish illiteracy, and given the inevitable movement toward assimilation, a “Renaissance” of Jewish learning may be what we need in order to make sure that the PEW Report does not have the last word on Jewish continuity and survival.

[1] Interview of Dana Horn, Politics and Prose, Sept. 9, 2021. Available at https://www.politics-prose.com/multimedia.

[2] Dana Horn, “Adam Kirsch’s Anthology of Jewish Civilization’s Greatest Hits, WSJ, Oct. 10, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y5f2rbcu.

[3] Barry Shrage, Building a Community of Torah and Tzedek: A New Paradigm for the Jewish Community of the 21st century. Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 1996.

[4] Helen Chernikoff, “Why Rabbi Daniel Nevins is leaving JTS for a day school,” EJewishPhilanthropy, July 27, 2021, https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/category/news/

About the Author
For the past twelve years, David has been actively involved in Jewish adult education and literacy. David has served on the Board of Directors for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Adat Shalom Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland where he chaired the Adult Education Committee. He studied in Jerusalem at the Pardes Institute’s Executive Learning Session in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He served as the chairperson and organizer of a full day program at the Georgetown University Law Center entitled “The Moral Economy” which involved both academic and rabbinic professionals in discussions on the intersection of Jewish law and American civil law.
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