The Results of Pew: It’s all about you

For days, I have been mulling about the results of the Pew study published this week, which spoke of the astounding rate of assimilation that is plaguing the Jewish population in the United States. I have read blog responses to the results and frankly, I have been shocked.

Not by the results of the study. I grew up in an all-Jewish enclave in Long Island, New York and while there was a time in my life (the first twenty-seven years to be exact) when I would have been shocked by the results- and even questioned their veracity, I now live in a small Jewish community in the South and I did not find these results surprising at all.

What I did find shocking was the lack of personal accountability in the responses to these findings. Some responses included the need for global changes in outreach. Others came out and said let’s change the religion because clearly it isn’t meeting the needs and desires of the people. And yet another stated that the answer to the problem is that we should teach Jewish values to non-Jews.

I have yet to see a post or blog that includes the honest statement of: Wow, this was a wake-up call; we should be strengthening our Jewish identities before we finish the job of wiping the Jewish people off the face of the earth that Hitler began.

And this is the problem of our generation. If there’s a problem, it’s someone else’s fault. It must be that Jews are not engaged because the religious community is too judgmental (which is a real issue). The religion itself is too rigid. G-d didn’t write the Torah with respect to my needs and desires so we should change it to one that fits more with the 21st century society.

Never mind that the Jewish people are rapidly disappearing off the face of the earth. In our society the motto seems to be: “if it’s not my way, change it to my way”.  If I choose to assimilate, my response to this study becomes: “let’s change the expectations to make me right”, rather than, “I am part of these statistics and maybe I should change”. No wonder more Jews claimed that having a good sense of humor was paramount to their Jewish identity rather than observance of Jewish practice. It doesn’t require much sacrifice to tell over a good joke about a rabbi, a preacher and a monk.

The answer to how to solve the problem of Jewish assimilation does not require much brainpower. Other studies have been done before to determine what we can do as a Jewish people to ensure Jewish continuity and there are two basic answers: Jewish education and Israel.

Jewish day school has been proven to be the number one way to invigorate your child with a strong Jewish identity. In a Jewish day school, surrounded by other Jewish peers and becoming knowledgeable of their Judaism, religion begins to mean something to students.

In Why Marry Jewish, Doron Kornbluth issues the following challenge:

Do you know what Jesus’s mother’s name was?

Do you know what Moses’s mother’s name was?

If you know more information about a religion that is not your own,  your level of Jewish education is probably lacking.

It seems that many parents today are afraid of their child knowing more about Judaism than they do. It’s not really clear to me why that’s the case. Are you afraid of your child knowing more math than you do? When us parents went to school, there may or may not have been AP classes; today kids are learning higher level math, science and even Spanish in middle school, than we learned in high school. Does that bother you? It probably doesn’t. So why shouldn’t you want your children to know more about your religion? Are you afraid they will come home telling you how to observe? Ask you why you don’t observe certain practices?

We all make choices about our observance level and at the end of the day, if we feel comfortable with our choices, we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when our children ask us questions but rather have the courage to share our well-thought out answers with them. Our children deserve to know why we choose to live our lives the way we do. Our answers are the basis of their Jewish identity.

The goal of a Jewish education should not be to dictate Jewish observance, but to make our children knowledgeable and proud Jews. And no Jewish parent should ever be afraid or threatened by that. We owe our children a Jewish education as their birthright.

What is the answer for how to engage adults, who are long-passed the age of Jewish day school?

The opportunities for Jewish Education do not end in 8th grade or after a bar-mitzvah.

There are a number of classes and programs available to adults in both elementary and advanced Jewish learning. Every adult is encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities. There is no excuse nowadays to know more about your chosen profession than your religion. These classes don’t require life-style changes; but they do enhance your Jewish knowledge and pride.

And possibly most important, a trip to Israel can be an eye-opening, life-changing experience. There is nothing that can push you to make Judaism a central-point in your life than going to Israel. Our synagogue is running an affordable and exciting trip to Israel this February, including touring all over the country and the chance to spend two Shabbatot in Jerusalem. In publicizing this trip, I have been shocked by how many Jews in our community have never been to Israel. Jews in their 50’s who have never had the awe-inspiring experience of being in a nearly all-Jewish country, hearing our language spoken as the dominant tongue, kosher food abound (even if you don’t keep kosher, the sight of so much available kosher food is astounding), and the Israeli flag representing our freedom and sovereignty after years of oppression waving proudly in the air against the backdrop of the bluest sky you’ll ever see.

A trip to Israel is not cheap. It’s not easy to take off time to go to Israel. But it is an investment in yourself that a trip to Bermuda can’t compare to (I know, I’ve been). It gives you spiritual strength and pride. It makes you feel G-d’s presence. It makes you feel like your religion should be a paramount part of your life- in whatever way that means to you. Aside from paying day school tuition, there is no more important way to spend your money than on a trip to Israel– especially if you have never been.

So there you go, the arrogant 32-year-old’s solutions to the Jewish world’s problems of assimilation: Jewish education and going to Israel. And an honest approach to the results of the study called personal accountability.

Will the next Pew study have different results? Only you can answer that question.

About the Author
Ariela Davis, a native New Yorker, is the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, and the Director of Judaics of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She is the wife of Rabbi Moshe Davis and the mother of four children.
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