For my “Christmas” post, I’ve decided to share 12 of my long-overdue thoughts (in honor of 12 days of Christmas) on the Pew Report on Jewish Americans in 2020 that came out in May 2021 (when I was too busy changing jobs to blog about the Pew survey when it would have been timely). I want to be clear that this is not intended as a passive-aggressive attack on Christmas. I have absolutely nothing against Christmas, and I wish all who are celebrating a joyous, peaceful, wonderful holiday. This is simply a post that I anticipate people who are not Jewish will find more boring, so I might as well post it today. That said, I always welcome anyone and everyone to read and comment, so if you feel so moved, go for it!
Pew Research Center notes that the survey doesn’t reflect Jews in America during the pandemic, as most of the responses were received before the pandemic. The FAQs also cover the impact of the pandemic, among other questions, and are worth a read. The page #s in the headings below refers to the page # of the complete report.
1.) Jewish Identity & Denomination Breakdown (pg. 9)
I’m not really sure what my response as an individual should be to this. It’s not news. And it’s not going to change how I affiliate. I’m not going to chase the young people to Orthodoxy because a) I hate young people, b) I am not Orthodox in philosophy or practice, and c) I have no interest in becoming Orthodox in philosophy or practice.
Actually, I’m not even considered a young person in this survey. The youngest age bracket is 18-29.
2.) Are You a Jewish Atheist or Atheist Jew? (pg. 17)
I’ve never thought of “Jewish” and “Atheist” as necessarily competing identities so the distinction between “Jew By Religion” and “Jew Of No Religion” seems odd. Is “Jewish Atheist” or “Atheist Jew” the new “Are you a Jewish American or American Jew” question? I wouldn’t be surprised if a sizeable portion of the Jews By Religion don’t believe in God, in which case, what’s the distinction between a non-God-believing Jew By Religion and a Jew Of No Religion?
We know that Judaism is a religion, a people, and a culture. I have mixed opinions on Rachel B. Gross’s approach (on JTA and on Times of Israel) to broaden the definition of Judaism as a religion to include culture because I don’t think people see culture as a religion, and I don’t think culture and religion fulfill the same needs. But I agree that trying to figure out whether someone is a Jew By Religion or a Jew Of No Religion seems like the wrong question.
3.) The Other Denominations & The Israelis (pg. 21)
Shockingly (not), people see more commonalities between members of their own denomination vs. others. What surprised me was that Conservative and Reform Jews see more commonalities with Israeli Jews than with Orthodox Jews. (77% of Conservative Jews say they have a “A lot/some” in common with Israeli Jews vs. 66% who say they have “A lot/some” in common with Orthodox; for Reform, it’s 61% “A lot/some” in common with Israeli Jews vs. 39% “A lot/some” in common with Orthodox.)
Side note: I feel like the Israeli Jews question makes no sense. Israeli Jews are pretty diverse lot. Israel is largely a nation of immigrants, and there is a wide array of religious practice, political belief, and cultural background amongst Israeli Jewry. I have no idea how I would have answered this question if I were taking this survey.
4.) Religious Activities vs. Cultural Activities (pg. 27)
I disagree with the classification of some of these activities as “Cultural” rather than “Religious”. I would argue that marking Shabbat is religious, not cultural. As to visiting synagogues and participating in events with Chabad, it depends on intent. Here’s where I would have classified the activities differently:
|Cultural Activities (according to Pew Research Center)||Cultural Activities (accordingly to JYP)||Religious Activities (according to JYP)|
|Visiting synagogues or historic Jewish sites when traveling||Visiting a synagogue when traveling for the purpose of touring the building / learning the history||Visiting a synagogue when traveling for the purpose of attending services|
|Marking Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to you||Marking Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to you|
|Participating in activities/services with Chabad||Participating in social activities with Chabad||Participating in religious services with Chabad|
5.) Do You Want Your Grandchildren to Share Your Political Convictions, Carry the Family Name, or Marry Jewish? (pg. 41)
65% of Jews think it very/somewhat important for their grandchildren to share their political convictions vs. 44% who think it very/somewhat important for their grandchildren to marry someone Jewish. The takeaway is that Jews see a stronger tie between their political convictions and the values they want to pass down vs. their Judaism and the values they want to pass down. I actually found this to be one of the more distressing findings of the report.
A personal story: My grandmother z”l (strongly partisan to one party) raised my father, who later grew up to be strongly partisan to the other party, who in turn raised children who spanned a range of political viewpoints and affiliations. And yet, in the eulogy he gave at her funeral, my dad credited my grandmother instilling a strong sense of values, even if he ultimately thought another party either better represented or had better policies to implement said values.
That’s the thing about political affiliations. In the USA, our political system is a mess. We have two parties in a broken system that encourages taking more extremist positions and vilifying opponents, as opposed to crafting policies that actually work, rampant corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, fraud, and a deeply flawed electoral system. I know that political conviction is broader than party affiliation, but still.
6.) Ancestry vs. Family vs. Peoplehood (pg. 63)
I’m not usually the word choice police, but the use of the word “ancestry” over the word “family” or “peoplehood” in this chart really bothers me. It feels needlessly non-inclusive of Jews who are adopted or Jews who converted to Judaism. You can have a Jewish chosen or adoptive family who are not your biological ancestors. You can feel a connection to Jewish people without being a direct descendant.
7.) Marking Shabbat in a Personally Meaningful Way (pg. 73)
Not surprisingly, Orthodox Jews are far more likely to mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them than anyone else. But it surprised and saddened me to see that 12% of Orthodox Jews rarely or never mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them. I have no doubt that 99.9999% of the Orthodox Jews surveyed are Shomer Shabbat, as keeping Shabbat is so central to frum Jewish identity. It’s just sad to me that these 12% don’t find their Shabbat experience meaningful.
Also, Reform Jews are missing out. I’m not a kiruv (Jewish outreach) person trying to tell Reform Jews to become Orthodox (I do think the pre-COVID Orthodox big party Shabbat dinner and oneg scene was awesome, but that is not the point). On the contrary, I think Reform Jews should check out Reform synagogues on Friday night. Pre-COVID I went to some big Reform synagogues for Kabbalat Shabbat services while I was traveling…and it was amazing! The quality and spirit of the service when you permit musical instruments and focus on amazing cantors, choirs, and vocalists for Friday night was just fantastic. It gave me a new appreciation for the Reform movement.
Actually, now that I’ve given myself permission to quit traditional Shabbat observance, I should really start going to Kabbalat Shabbat services at a big, musically awesome Reform synagogue. I think that would dramatically improve my Shabbat experience.
8.) Political Activism as Jewish Expression (pg. 76)
The percentage of Jewish Republicans/Republican-leaning and the percentage of Jewish Democrats/Democrat-leaning who see their political activism as an expression of their Jewishness are roughly the same. We may have more in common with the enemy than we think.
9.) Participation in Chabad, aka The Chart That Is Almost Useful (pg. 79)
This chart annoys me because it stops short of being actually useful to non-Chabad community organizers trying to get more people to go to services and events. We don’t know if the Chabad model, in which Chabad provides services, classes, and meals to build engagement and then people donate, vs. the traditional synagogue dues structure, is preferred due to cost because this chart leaves off the income brackets. A breakdown of Chabad participation by % of people who have a membership at another synagogue that is not Chabad vs. people who do not have another synagogue membership would have been extremely useful in evaluating whether Chabad is taking the place of traditional synagogue membership or supplementing it. But of course, that is missing also. Age and education levels is included, but % of attendees currently in college (Chabad being extremely big on some university campuses) is not. This chart is annoyingly useless.
10.) Intermarriage: Correlation Not Causation (pg. 94)
Full disclosure: My sibling-in-law is not Jewish and has no intention of converting to Judaism. I adore my sibling-in-law, I think Sibling & Sibling-in-law are perfect for each other, my sibling has been more engaged with Judaism since dating my non-Jewish sibling-in-law, and I am overjoyed that they are married. Blast me all you want, but I won’t tolerate comments blasting my sibling for marrying outside the faith.
The Pew Report found that intermarriage rates are high and rising. Intermarried couples tend to have less engagement with Judaism and are less likely than in-married couples to raise children as Jewish. (The Pew Report does have some interesting points about the challenges of measuring intermarriage which are worth a read.)
The problem with these surveys is that they give you correlation but not causation. Does intermarriage drive people away from Judaism, or were they already less engaged? Or do intermarried couples want Jewish engagement, but Jewish institutions need to do a better job of engaging them? I’m inclined to agree with other commentators on this. If you don’t treat intermarriage as the end of Judaism or compare it to the Holocaust as was done in the 90s, it doesn’t necessarily have to be; if you do, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
11.) Teaching Congregants About Anti-Semitism (pg. 135)
I don’t really have much to say about the anti-Semitism results. The results do not surprise me. It might have been interesting to know where American Jews perceive the source of anti-Semitism (ie. from the Right? From the Left?) but I can’t think of a way this could have been asked in a scientifically valid, unbiased way.
The report includes a sidebar based on interviews with Rabbis. One Rabbi talks about the need to teach her politically active congregation about anti-Semitism, how to recognize it, and about anti-Semitic tropes because they are “ill-informed”. There is something odd to me about the image of these Jewish young-ish adults (she references Hebrew School education in the 80s and 90s) learning about anti-Semitic tropes for the first time from their Rabbi.
12.) Jews Of Color / Diversity (pg. 170)
How many “Jews of Color / are People of Color / BIPOC are there?” is probably the result of most interest. Pew makes it clear that this survey didn’t ask the question in that terminology, although the report includes several data tables around race, ethnicity, etc. that can help piece together an answer.
I feel like this is the most talked about part of the study (my own congregation’s email conversation on the Pew study centered on these results – the accuracy, the definitions, whether the results meshed with individual anecdotal experience, etc.) and yet, I find these results the least telling. What I find more telling are the interviews in the report sidebar and various reflections written by Jews of color about how they have been treated within the Jewish community.
Fellow Jews, let’s resolve not to be racist dicks – to anyone really – but especially not to our fellow Jews. Examples of racist dickery in this context can include:
- Assuming someone is lost / does not belong based on their skin color. Instead, assume that everyone in a synagogue has a good reason to be there. I mean, let’s be honest – synagogue can be awfully boring. Do you really think someone would go to synagogue if they didn’t have good reason to?
- Assuming the universality of Jewish-American Ashkenazi nostalgia culture. Celebrate it by all means, but don’t assume it’s a universal for all Jews. There are a lot of Jewish cultures.
- Playing Jewish Geography. I’m guilty of this, but this article brought up some good points about how Jewish Geography can be non-inclusive of Jews who didn’t have the money to go to Jewish schools and camps, Jews who grew up in another part of the world, Jews who joined the Jewish people later in life, etc.
- Asking invasive/uncomfortable questions in the name of being interested and welcome. Nobody owes you their life story.
Side note: Someone please explain grammatical usage of “diversity” and “diverse” to me. Like “Jewish population in U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse” makes grammatical and logical sense to me, because a population can be diverse or homogenous. But,
- “Younger Jewish adults are more racially and ethnically diverse” – I keep reading this headline as individual adults becoming more diverse, which seems…not possible. Am I just reading this wrong?
- “Amount of diversity in U.S. Jewish population varies depending on definition” – Maybe “amount of diversity” is the right usage, but doesn’t that sound weird? Is it just me?
Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday and healthy and happy new year!