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A Poll Causes Jews to Ask, What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?

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The hinge moment in Jewish-American concern for what is somewhat euphemistically called “Jewish continuity” came in 1990, when the Jewish Federations’ National Jewish Population Survey found that more than half of Americans born as Jews—52 percent—who had married had married non-Jews. The figure was wrong, and ten years later revised downward to 43 percent, but the damage was done. Jewish education was revamped. Taglit-Birthright—the program that sends tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel for free each year—was started: Though now often criticized as a stalking-horse for teaching right-wing politics, it was originally the brainchild of left-wing Israelis who wanted young Jews to marry young Jews and make Jewish babies (“Birthright”). An entire generation of American Jews (cough cough) was brought up to see marrying outside the faith as a looming specter. And the divide between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox never seemed so stark.

In the past decade or so, Jews got smarter about Jewish continuity. Partly this was in reaction to the 1990 study—Birthright, for example, is an astonishingly effective engine for all-Jewish marriages—and partly it was in reaction to the changing reality. The Reform movement (still the biggest denomination in America), whose rabbis will officiate “mixed” marriages, proposed special blessings rather than discouragement, and its focus increasingly is raising Jewish children (which, admittedly, is an easier and statistically more likely proposition if both parents are Jews).

So Tuesday’s Pew Research study on American Jewish life—the most comprehensive such report in a decade, according to The New York Times—is not likely to be greeted with the same apoplexy and panic with which the 1990 report was, even though this new one finds the overall intermarriage rate is 44 percent, and 58 percent for marriages since 2000. Such high numbers are no longer shocking, and are probably not unrelated to numbers finding decreased attachment to religion itself among younger Jews, with 32 percent of millennial Jews saying they have no religion.

And as Jews increasingly tolerate intermarriage and focus on other signifiers—pride, religious participation, and above all child-rearing—some good news appears. Ninety-four percent of U.S. Jews are proud to be Jewish, says Pew, and three-quarters feel a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Seventy percent attended a Passover Seder, and more than half fasted during Yom Kippur. Fewer than 20 percent are not raising their children Jewish to at least some extent; 59 percent are raising them Jewish by religion, although, again, this number is insanely divergent depending on whether the marriage is all-Jewish (96 percent) or interfaith (20 percent).

“The most important finding is that contrary to the lachrymose narrative of a declining, disappearing, vanishing Jewish population, there are many more people who say that they are Jewish, claim Jewish identity, and the vast majority [who] say it is their religion,” Leonard Saxe, a Brandeis professor and prominent Jewish-American demographics expert who consulted on the Pew survey, told me Tuesday. “That’s important, because some prior work suggested that we were declining and that the only remaining [growing] segment of American Jewry was the Orthodox.” (At Brandeis, they came up with their own Jewish population estimates, which closely mirror what Pew found.)

Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, a rabbi to many a Brooklyn Jew (and—disclosure—a friend and personal rabbi of mine), has a great blog post responding to the survey. “In America, we love and marry who we want. That means intermarriage rates will be high,” he states frankly.

How we translate that fact into a sense of responsibility and continuity means everything. For decades, a person who intermarried was seen as having ‘given up’ on Jewish life. In our community in Brooklyn and certainly in countless Jewish communities everywhere, that is simply not true. Marrying someone not Jewish often leads to the couple making Jewish decisions together—for their benefit and enrichment as a couple, and certainly when it comes to raising children inside the value system and faith of Jewish civilization—especially if they’re embraced by the Jewish community and not harshly judged for ‘marrying out.’ What helps no one is excoriation and blame for assimilation.

Going forward, this will be a hard pill for many Jews, particularly older and non-Reform ones, to swallow. But these are, to borrow a term from a different Jewish conflict, the facts on the ground.

There are other findings that might be of interest. U.S. Jews have college degrees at exactly double the rate of the general population, which has prompted David Duke’s website to charmingly allege a “Zionist” conspiracy. Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic. They feel an attachment to Israel but not to West Bank settlements. They live predominantly in the northeast. The Orthodox community remains relatively small—just 10 percent—but also by far the fastest-growing denomination. And, again, the divergence between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in their attitudes toward Judaism and assimilation is starker than ever.

And the poll is not all roses even through rose-tinted lenses. It is plain old bizarre that 34 percent of Jews would think one can be Jewish and believe that Jesus is the Messiah (this isn’t something up for dispute, or eligible for compromise). One-third of Jewish households have Christmas trees. Gevalt.

And to some extent, it is cheap to point to Jewish attachment to cultural cues as proof of overall Jewish attachment when the intermarriage rate is so high and the synagogue membership rate (39 percent) is so low. I took to Twitter Tuesday morning to parody this a bit: “67% of Jews reported not knowing that Jason Biggs is not Jewish”; “62% of Jews reported not knowing where to get a decent bagel in this town.” But when you read that 73 percent of Jews think remembering the Holocaust is an “essential part of what being Jewish means to them” while only 28 percent think “being part of a Jewish community” and 19 percent think “observing Jewish law” are, it is no longer a joke.

Then again, 42 percent said “having a good sense of humor” is “essential.” Right or wrong, these symbolic attachments are pretty clearly something to build off of, particularly since Jewishness in America (like most kinds of identity in America) has become primarily an expressive value rather than an instrumental one. “For me,” Saxe argued, “the headline in the Pew study is: We can put the vanishing part of it on the shelf, and how do we make [being Jewish] meaningful and something we want to do?” There was much in the survey, he added, to make him hopeful that there is much to build on. “We can either cry, be very unhappy that people are not engaging in Jewish life—that would be a very Jewish reaction,” he said. “But what it is is an opportunity. We have an opportunity to engage a lot of folks.”

My favorite figure in the survey is that 69 percent said “leading an ethical life” is “essential” to being Jewish. Sixty-nine percent of Jews are right about this! 2000 years ago, when a non-Jew asked Hillel (who was not the guy who donated the money for the Jewish group at your college) to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot—that is, quickly and easily—the great rabbi responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” Jews are a people who are very in to the commentary. But if the essence of Jewishness is as simple as Hillel says, it won’t be too tough a sell.

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