New findings from the American Religious Identification Survey show us why outreach is more important than ever before. The survey shows how “contemporary Americans identify themselves religiously, and how that self-identification has changed over the past generation,” according to the survey’s website. What they found was that 15 percent of Americans now claim no religion.
Here’s what they found in the Jewish community. Those who define themselves as “culturally Jewish” remained steady, but the number of people who identify as “religiously Jewish” dropped. The principal author of the study, Barry Kosmin, said in the New York Jewish Week that he wasn’t surprised about the results, pointing to growing intermarriage rates and a “drift from religious affiliation” as a couple of reasons for the decline.
But there are two problems with the survey. First, as Kosmin notes, the survey “is not the total ethnic Jewish population,” so if they were included our numbers would probably higher. Second, for the folks who are leaving, the survey doesn’t tell us why. It just says they are. For instance: If intermarriage is indeed playing a role in the decline, then what are we doing to help these families experience the value and meaning of Judaism? People don’t just stop being Jewish if they intermarry. Are we doing enough to reach these families, or are our efforts coming up short? The same goes for the people who are simply drifting away. What are we doing to engage them on their terms and increase their participation in Jewish life?
The answers lie with us. We need to continue to work across denominational lines to better identify and meet the needs of the intermarried, unaffiliated, multiracial, LGBT, adult children of intermarriage, and all others who find themselves on the periphery on our community. The warmth in which we welcome all these folks is what will determine our future.