Jewish Identity in America: Half-Full or Half-Empty?

Earlier this month, featured a piece by James Hyman discussing the American Jewish identity. What does it mean to be an American Jew today, and how involved in Jewish life should we be? If we consider ourselves Jewish but don’t practice the religion or participate in the community, are we still Jewish?

Hyman begins his article by citing a study that shows there to be some 6 million people who self-identify as Jewish in the United States. This number is much higher than originally thought, yet there certainly aren’t 6 million members of synagogues in the United States. So who are these Jewish Americans? Some belong to synagogue and are active in their local Jewish communities, but most are on the periphery, identifying with Judaism more as a culture than a religion.

Hyman points out that the study shows an increased desire to identify oneself as Jewish, yet year after year, across the country, Jewish institutions are closing due to low membership and lack of funding. The question then becomes how do we, as Jewish communal professionals, engage those who consider themselves Jewish, but don’t participate in the Jewish community? Hyman suggested a vast restructuring of Jewish institutional networks—offering the ability to pay a fee to access several institutions, instead of just one synagogue or JCC. While I think Hyman is on to something, I believe we can start simpler, and that ease of access is only one of the barriers that needs to be addressed.

Making that initial connection is essential, but there’s a larger question we need to address in all of our programs, and through all of our institutions, that doesn’t get addressed by restructuring fees or reorganizing organizations. We have to offer compelling answers to: Why be Jewish? And why be Jewish within the context of our organized Jewish community? What’s the benefit? How does it improve ourselves and the world around us? JOI has been asking these questions for years and we are gratified to see more and more people asking the same questions on big stages, such as at the recent General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America and in the pages of our communal newspapers such as this recent piece, “The problem with worrying about ‘Jewish continuity.”

With JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM programs, we open the tent of the Jewish community to those on the periphery through low-barrier, free events. Before we can even consider asking for someone to pay for something, we have to show them what they’d be getting. What’s the benefit of being involved? By attending a Public Space Judaism event like Hands-On HanukkahSM or Passover in the Matzah AisleSM, people are welcomed to participate in Jewish-themed activities in secular spaces where they feel comfortable. They don’t need to walk into a synagogue or JCC, and they definitely don’t have to pay anything. This shows that the doors to the Jewish community are open to all those who wish to come inside. For all of the American Jews who choose to identify as Jewish yet remain unaffiliated, we have to show that the Jewish community is a welcoming place, regardless of your “Jewishness.”

1 Comment

  1. Typically a synagogue will be a place where people talk about ethnicity, the Holocaust, Israel, intellectual or academic interpretations of Torah, political activism, or community building - or, if at the more traditional end of the spectrum, gender roles, sartorial comportment, and ritual. There is a time and place for all of these things, but because I can find them elsewhere, I don’t need to attend a synagogue.

    What I want is spiritual engagement and development. I want to learn as much as I can about what Judaism says about how to live a good life, how to improve as a human being, how to connect with God. I’m interested in discussions of Jewish ethics and values. I want to understand the thinking of our greatest teachers - the Ramchal, R’ibn Paquda, the Rambam, various Talmudic commentators, as well as about the Zohar, and the philosophies of more recent teachers such as R’Nachman, Martin Buber, R’Heschel etc. I would like to know how to interpret our sacred texts, which is difficult to do without a context. I would love a study group that goes into depth on Pirkei Avoth or Derech Eretz - what the rabbis taught about how to live in a spiritual mindset. Although I have read enough to know that much of the wisdom in these texts is as relevant today as when it was written, there is still more of it that I can’t understand very well without a guide. I would prefer a synagogue that is more of a school than a social gathering place. If true Judaic knowledge is not taught, who is going to be able to pass it on to the next generation?

    Comment by Sara Davies — November 22, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

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