The Necessity of Outreach

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.


  1. An excellent book on the historical development of contemporary forms of American Judaism: The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness, by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Jewish Lights Publishing 2007. Objectively discusses ancient Judaism, the diaspora, emancipation, origins of the Reform movement, types of Orthodoxy, the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements, forms of secular Judaism, and conversion. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand the panorama of Jewish experience in the U.S.

    Who gets to be the gatekeeper of who is Jewish and who is not? Who gets to define what Judaism is or is not? The definitions have already been fluid for some time.

    Comment by Sara — March 12, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  2. According to Fishman:

    “Social scientists have long argued about whether the boundaries around ethnic groups are the most important defining characteristics of the group, or whether the nucleus, the cultural values and behaviors inside the group, are most significant to the group’s survival through cultural transmission. Many leaders and observers of the American Jewish community have focused in recent years on boundary issues: Who should and should not be considered a member of the Orthodox/Conservative/Reform Jewish community? Less attention has been paid to the revitalization of Jewish life itself than to who is “inside” and who is “outside” its boundaries.

    “However, contemporary American culture makes strict boundary maintenance distasteful to most American Jews, and it seems unlikely that maintaining boundaries will ultimately be the most effective strategy for Judaic transmission. Instead, because the boundaries around Jews and Judaism are so permeable and fluid, it is the nucleus of Jewish life - Jewish values and behaviors - that can more usefully take center stage. To the extent that American Jews are willing to be countercultural and foreground Jewish cultural ’stuff’ inside Jewish individual lives, families, and communities, Jews can transmit Jewish culture to each other and to their children.”

    Comment by Sara — March 13, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

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