7. What are your reactions to survey respondents’ answers to “What does it mean to be Jewish”? What creates Jewish meaning for you?
Dr. Steven M. Cohen, sociologist: These questions pertain to areas of great ambiguity. I wouldn’t over-interpret them.
Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, linguist: I think the answers to that question can spur organizations to reach out to certain types of Jews (and can be useful on grant applications). One finding in particular can serve as an impetus for communal activity: Only 28% say that “Being part of a Jewish community” is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. If many Jewish organizations establish one of their primary missions as building community, maybe this percentage will increase in future surveys. What creates Jewish meaning for me? Great singing during services, building tight-knit Jewish communities, and raising my children to be knowledgeable about and to enjoy Jewish history, religion, and culture.
Eliana A. Glogauer, student, IDC Herzliya: : I really do not like the idea that the majority of people who took this survey believe that remembering the Holocaust is fundamental tenet of what it means to be Jewish in today’s world. While the Holocaust was a horrendous blight on the history of humanity, and we absolutely need to remember those that perished, regardless religious affiliation. Additionally, Judaism existed prior to 1939. The Holocaust is not an event that created, or even defined the essence of the Jewish people and therefore I do not believe that remembering the Holocaust should be connected in any way or have any bearing on religious identity.
Jonathan P. Katz, student, University of Chicago: My reaction could be described as: “Baruch Hash3m; oh my.” I’m really happy to see the diversity of things of what it means to be Jewish among the respondents, and I’m thrilled to see the emphases on morality, curiosity, and justice that respondents produced. On the other hand, I feel that the importance of being part of Jewish social networks was underplayed – there’s also the sense of community, what sociologists call Gemeinschaft, that not only keep many in the Jewish fold, but draw Jews to it. Finally, I also feel the questions may have excluded minorities in American Judaism – Sephardim, Jews of color, and Jews who live isolated from other Jews. Although that might just be me griping.
8. What is the significance of the survey’s results on acceptable practice within the Jewish community? Where should the lines be drawn, if anywhere? Should anything be beyond the pale of Jewish communal acceptance?
SMC: Of course we should have standards of behavior. But they should be applied with compassion and encouragement, as well as social sanction when necessary. In other words, I would not erect exclusionary rules; I would support praising some behaviors and criticizing others. That’s different.
SBB: This survey reminds us that there’s great diversity among people who consider themselves Jews, including many who have no Jewish ancestry and have not converted but see themselves as Jews because they are married to a Jew or have Jewish relatives or friends (and also many who say they are Jewish because Jesus was Jewish). But outside of Israel the question of large-scale communal boundary drawing is relevant only for people who count Jews on surveys like this. Each Jewish organization should decide who its constituency is: some will serve all people who consider themselves Jews, some will, according to Jewish law, use a halachic definition (matrilineal descent or halachic conversion), and some will use the Reform movement’s criteria: at least one Jewish parent and raised Jewish (or conversion).
EAG: Acceptable practice is extremely hard to define, and is often determined by specific communal affiliation. That being said, certain behaviors or beliefs when expressed are incompatible with Judaism and Jewish values. As a specific example, taken from the survey, the belief that Jesus is the messiah is not compatible with Jewish tradition, beliefs and values. At its core, Judaism espouses monotheism and thus, I believe that it is rational to draw the general lines of acceptable practice at the expression of beliefs and values that are not in line with the fundamental tenets of Jewish belief. Again, more specific boundaries would need to be created on a communal basis.
JPK: Acceptable practice is always hard to determine. I would say that things obviously beyond Jewish values – e.g. Jews for Jesus, organized crime, supporting dictators – should still be “no”’s, but much of this must also be communally determined.
9. Does the survey match your observations about American Jewish life? Could they have done it better?
SMC: The major survey results are consistent with a long line of research including the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011. And, of course, they could have done better. Every research study could be done better. But we need to appreciate the great gift that the Pew Research Center bestowed upon American Jewry.
SBB: They did a great job, and I didn’t find the results surprising. But surveys like this shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of research on American Jews. They don’t tell us much about marginalized populations, about the efficacy of specific programs, or about ways the organized Jewish community can better serve Jews. To answer those questions we need more qualitative research (based on interviews and observations), like the masters theses of my students in the Hebrew Union College School of Jewish Nonprofit Management. When will the press be as excited about a study of gay Iranian Jews or of the impact of a year in Israel as they are about a national Jewish population study like the Pew survey?
EAG: As Steven points out, the major survey results are consistent with a long line of research. I would add that we need to remember that the ways in which we observe people acting outwardly (vis–à–vis religion) may not reflect their thoughts regarding religion, and that for some, it can be easier to tell the truth to an online survey than to begin acting on that truth in real life.
JPK: Yes and no. On the one hand, it does match the large-scale demographic trends I’ve observed and seen crop up in my own research. On the other hand, I’ve seen many young American Jews – perhaps including myself – re-embrace traditionalist ways of practice in opposition to a complacent, Israel- and bloodline-worshiping Judaism practiced by an older generation. The importance of immigrant Jewish identities is also understated: for example, I not only identify as an American Jew, but also as a South African Jew – my parents are originally from there. This identification is huge for Russian-speaking and Latin American communities.
10. What does it all mean for college-aged Jews?
SMC: If you want to have engaged Jewish friends (aside from the Orthodox) for yourself and your children, work to bring Jews into contact and relationship with other Jews. All the rest is commentary.
SBB: New Voices, keep doing what you’re doing, and focus on community building.
EAG: We need to focus on positive outreach, community building and strengthening programs and communities that already exist. In particular, we need to focus on developing a more pluralistic and inclusive outlook that is based less on denominational classification and more on understanding, thinking and reasoning in order to actively strengthen, develop and maintain our Jewish identity.
JPK: It’s an exciting time to be a young Jew – things are changing and we can create a stronger Judaism for the next generation. I think we – college students and young professionals – can work to create communities that more accurately represent and reflect the trends the Pew report describes. I’m also hoping to see a cultural shift. I think this report should act as a warning for people who use denominational or political fences to determine the level of authenticity or applicability of someone’s Jewishness. If this report can teach us anything, it should teach us that “Reform” and “anti-Israel” does not preclude real Jewishness, real identification, real connection to the Jewish world; nor can it serve as a fence to allow someone to act superior. I see this trend too much among young Jews, and it needs to stop. This report can go towards that.
We might just be the last Jewish organization to respond to the big bad Pew Survey and we’re fine with that. It seems like every response so far is other people giving one opinion, whether we should be scared, take it as a a dare to engage singles in their 40′s suffering attrition, be optimistic, or think they got it all wrong. But here at New Voices, we (and by “we” I mean “me,” editor Derek Kwait) aren’t so into only getting one side of the story. To this end, we’ve engaged two of the best and brightest Jews in academia and two of NV’s best and brightest student writers to participate in an inter-generational, inter-denominational, inter-gender, inter-orientation, inter-community, inter-national (we included a Canadian)…in other words, inter-human dialogue on the Survey’s results in the hopes that, after hearing all these varied perspectives, you will be able to find yourself a little in all of them, and be a little offended by all of them.
By engaging such different Jews in conversation with each other here, we hope to engender better conversations among different Jews in campuses and communities out in the world, thus bolstering what all agree to be the most important thing about Jewish life: a strong and vibrant Jewish community.
Meet the conversers:
Dr. Steven M. Cohen [SMC] is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College in New York, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. He received an honorary doctorate from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, the Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, and a National Jewish Book Award. He had been cited as one of the Forward Fifty. In 2012, he was elected president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.
Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor [SBB] is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She teaches about the social science of American Jews, as well as about language and culture. She wrote the acclaimed book Becoming Frum, about the way Jews who become Orthodox later in life use language, has published many academic papers, and given lectures around the country about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, and American Jews. She edits the Journal of Jewish Languages and the Jewish Language Research Website, both of which she founded.
Eliana A. Glogauer [EAG] is New Voices’ chief editorialist. She currently studies government at IDC Herzliya, and is a co-founder of the Israel advocacy initiative, AskMeMore. She is the promised Canadian, from Toronto.
Jonathan P. Katz [JPK] is a New Voices contributor, and studies history and geography at the University of Chicago. Originally from New York City, he is also a polyglot and was a summer research intern for the Urban Land Institute.