The recently released “Portrait of Jewish Americans” by the Pew Research Center offered many insights into the American Jewish community and in particular Jewish identity and affiliation. Most Jewish leaders and organizations have spent the past weeks decrying its results. Intermarriage rates have increased. Affiliation with synagogues has decreased. Religious sentiments have diminished.
Most see in these statistics cause for alarm. We would be better served focusing on the bright notes found in the study. “More than nine in ten Jews (94%) agree they are proud to be Jewish. Three quarters (75%) say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Jewish leaders however appear only able to speak about the negatives rather than these positives.
I wonder if the problem lies not in American Jews but in the institutions we have constructed. Yesterday’s synagogues were built around the premise that this is where Jews can best assert their Jewish identity. The fact is that American Jews no longer require the synagogue to reinforce their Jewish identity. I am not an expert at reading sociological studies, but the last time I checked a 94% translates into an A. Thus Jews proudly proclaim their Jewish identities.
And yet we only appear to know how to speak as if there is a crisis. Our institutions and their leaders have imbibed this crisis narrative. “Join a synagogue to stem the tide of assimilation. Only the synagogue can guarantee a solid Jewish identity.” These are the refrains we still hear. But yesterday’s refrains no longer hold sway over today’s Jews. Today’s Jews have aced Jewish identity. And they no longer require synagogues to keep earning high grades.
My teacher Tal Becker suggests that Judaism has a problem of arrival. We only know how to speak in aspirational notes about the future. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we say at our seders. But now we are there. We have a sovereign Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem. And yet we still speak as if we are living in a shtetl. “The world is out to get us!” we declare over and over again. And thus in medieval times we added to our seders. “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know you.” Now we have an army. Do we still only speak the words born out of ancient sufferings and oppressions?
In America as well Jews have arrived. Most American Jews (94%) do not feel their Jewish identities are in crisis. And yet Jewish leaders only know how to speak of crisis. We require a new language; we need words not of impending doom. The future can no longer be written as if we are always standing at the precipice, nearing disaster.
Jews no longer feel they need the synagogue to be Jewish. And so synagogues must change and learn to provide something different. Instead we must speak about the meaning to be found in the Torah and tradition and the beauty and joy to be discovered in community. People will always be searching. Perhaps the synagogue can become the new destination where young and old can add meaning to their lives.
The reality of this week’s Torah portion still resonates with import. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned…” (Genesis 37:1) Our parents, and grandparents, wandered to these shores in order to discover a place where they could proudly declare their Jewish identities. They built synagogues, and institutions and organizations, to provide venues where we could more easily declare our identities and there gain the courage to venture out to the world with our identities safely, and sometimes secretly, held in our hearts.
Now we are settled. We are no longer sojourners. Our Jewish identities stand firm. When will our language change? When will we lift our voices in joy and song and celebration and proclaim together, “We have arrived?”
For more of my thoughts on American Jewish life and synagogues read a prior post: Lobsters and Synagogues.