Are we responding to the significant challenges?

Professor Steven Windmueller teaches at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He has just published an essay that examines the informative Pew Report of five years ago that examined the characteristics of the Jewish community in the United States. Appropriately enough his essay is entitled “Pew: Five Years Later: What We Have Learned & What Do We Need to Do?”.

Prof. Windmueller’s essay is important. It raises once again and places squarely in the centre of our communal discussions, if not also, alas, in our consciences, the fundamental questions of how we shall determine our future as Jews.

Windmueller wrote, “The Pew Study in many ways confirmed the findings of the 2012 New York Jewish Community Study. The signs of erosion of American Jewish identity from within are too strong to ignore. “They translate to less connection to Jewish practice and observance among younger Jews; less attachment to synagogues, and establishment Jewish organizations, including federations; and more tolerance and acceptance for marrying outside the faith.”

He also noted that the findings in relation to religious affiliation patterns and intermarriage rates were not a surprise to Jewish leaders but “nonetheless pose significant challenges to the primary institutions of the community, namely synagogues and federations.”

But Prof. Windmueller he did not restrict his observations to this brief, rather pessimistic, thumbnail summary. He also offered some positive nuggets from the Pew study: “belonging to the Jewish people” (75%) and the “deep emotional attachment to Israel” (69%).”

How might the Jewish community build off of these “positives” in order to galvanize communal involvement? Prof. Windmueller asked.

Three specific outcomes of the Pew study held special significance for Prof. Windmueller:

  1. The Study noted a particular concern over prejudice and hate.
  2. 56% of the respondents identified their Jewish identity as being connected to their commitment to “social justice.”
  3. The significant “pride” that American Jews express in connection with “being Jewish,” with some 94% embracing this notion.

He ties these positive findings into what he calls “the growing presence of non-traditional forms of Jewish engagement” and observes with, perhaps, a sense of resignation in his voice, that increasingly “the very adjective “Jewish” is open to debate.”

Of course, the Pew Study of five years ago concerned only the Jewish community in the United States. Its findings, however, are only a short stretch that we can all make toward the community in Canada.

Over and over again, GAJE notes that the studies, the commissions, the reports and the findings from all of the inquiries from all academic and other quarters into the state of the Jewish community in North America (i.e., apart from the Orthodox and Haredi communities), offered a variation on the same conclusion, namely that there are “significant challenges to the primary institutions of the community.” And now, in light of the evolving Jewish landscape, we quite reasonably also read the very adjective “Jewish” is open to debate.

There is truly only one long-term antidote to the various descriptions of the failing or evolving Jewish nature of our community: Investment in Jewish education.

In light of the acknowledged significant challenges the Pew Study implies to our synagogues and federations, it would be interesting to know in how many synagogues during the recently concluded High Holidays the subject of the need for Jewish education was discussed from the pulpit, in the pews, or in the hallways and Kiddush clubs.

If the answer is “not too many, if any at all” then it is no wonder that (non-Orthodox) synagogues face clouded, uncertain futures.


Shabbat Shalom.


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