THE BLOG
10/07/2013 12:22 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

The Pew Survey of U.S. Jews: Ramifications and Recommendations

The Pew study entitled "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" confirms what we have known about the American Jewish community for some time: except for the Orthodox, every segment of the American Jewish community is imploding. These trends are accelerating every day.

There are less Jews (except for the Orthodox). There are less Jews marrying Jews. There are less Jewish children. There are less Jews who affiliate with the Jewish community. There is less Jewish intensity.

These are the facts. We have been in denial for a long time.

Is there anything we can do?

One: We should realize that the challenges we face are the result of the blessings of modernity in general, and the full acceptance of Jews, specifically. Past generations of Jews could never have imagined the respect and opportunities Jews have in this country. We do not want to go back to darker times. In many ways, these are the best of times for Jews. There are few Jews who are persecuted worldwide. There is a Jewish state that is vibrant, exciting and capable of defending itself. Jews are fully accepted in Western societies. It is inevitable that under these conditions of political freedom and social acceptance, some Jews will drift away.

Two: We should focus intently on the many opportunities that our era presents. We need to build up the programs and institutions that actually create and sustain Jewish identity and that produce a generation that wants to perpetuate Judaism.

The central force of Jewish life today is what it always was: the home and the family. While these have changed shape, definition and character over the past fifty years, the home remains the place where Jewish life is born and where that family's Jewish future is forged.

Regarding the Jewish community, there are hundreds of Jewish organizations and initiatives, and I am prepared to acknowledge that most of them serve good and useful purposes. However, from the perspective of Jewish continuity, there are three American institutions that form the very core of our community and that most impact upon, and enrich, the family: Jewish schools, Jewish summer camps and synagogues.

These are the institutions that best create and sustain Jewish identity. Communal institutions that are exclusively dedicated to cultural and secular values, perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust, or issue-specific causes -- are not enough. Such agencies often serve important and useful purposes -- but from the perspective of Jewish continuity, they are not enough.

Three: Of the three central communal institutions, synagogues are the most important. They have proven to be the most enduring. The synagogue is the primary institution that caters to the family. It is the synagogue that best accompanies the family in its many life cycle moments of both joy and sorrow. The synagogue is the only institution that defines its mission as lifelong -- cradle-to-grave. Synagogues are the only place where American Jews can express their Jewish identity at all phases in their lives and for the gamut of values that American Jews say are important to them. Synagogues are the anchoring institution of American Jewry.

Four: Synagogues, therefore, have to do a better job. They have to change. They should see themselves, first and foremost, as the central gathering place of the Jewish community; the primary place where Jews can express Judaism's central value: Jewish peoplehood. Their programs and overall orientation should reflect this value accordingly.

I agree with the sentiments expressed by a majority of American Jews who believe that it is not necessary to be religious or to believe in God to be Jewish. We have never defined ourselves as exclusively a religion; we are a civilization. We are a people.

Most American Jews intuit this central component of Jewish life. According to the Pew Study, ninety-four percent (!) say they are proud to be Jewish and three quarters say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The problem for American Jews, however, is that a Jewish identity which is exclusively driven by Jewish ancestry and culture is not sufficient to sustain Jewish life for future generations.

The Pew Study concluded that two thirds of the Jews whom we commonly call "secular or cultural Jews" do not raise Jewish children. To put it another way: Practically none of the American Jews who say that their Jewish identity consists entirely of secular values will have Jewish descendants by the third generation. Centuries, perhaps millennia, of Jewish life in those families will end within the next generation or two, no matter how strongly these Jews profess their Jewish identity, or sincerely want Jewish grandchildren.

None of the other values that the Pew study identified as being important to American Jews, such as: remembering the Holocaust, leading ethical lives, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious, having a sense of humor -- none of these is, in and of itself, and all together -- enough to promote Jewish continuity in those households that express no religious beliefs or affiliations.

Therefore, synagogues should expand their self-identity to include, welcome and absorb secular and cultural Jews as well. If they are not brought into our synagogues the prospects of their eventual assimilation increase dramatically.

At the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue we have never seen ourselves as exclusively "religious." The religion of the Jewish people is a central component of Jewish civilization, but it is not the only component. We have launched initiatives intended to embrace as many Jews as we can. Anyone who wants to express Jewish identity in religious or non-religious ways is sought-after and welcomed. And even the "religious" part of our activities -- worship, for example -- is constructed in ways to allow for the broadest possible emotional identification with the Jewish people.

Israel should play a central role in the life of American synagogues. Israel is the most eloquent expression of Jewish peoplehood in our days. Missions to Israel should be encouraged, not only because Israel, itself, is a marvel and a miracle, but Israel makes American Jews better Jews: Israel awakens long dormant components of their Jewish identity.

Our synagogue has also launched a concerted effort to attract the estimated 150,000 Israelis residing in the Greater New York area. Once they settle in America, Israelis are subjected to the same pressures that American Jews experience. Furthermore, we believe that their very presence will strengthen American synagogues.

Five: The Jewish community must allocate resources in different ways. The most obvious and disappointing fact that Jewish professionals and lay leaders raise all the time is how little money is actually invested in Jewish institutions, relative to the capacities of American Jews. Broadly speaking, American Jewish donors, including major philanthropists, consider Jewish institutions to be the poor cousins of their giving. Their donations do not reflect a vital commitment to the urgent challenges facing American Jewry.

It is expensive to sustain Jewish life. Many American Jews are priced out of Jewish affiliation. Unlike in Israel and some European countries, where Jewish life is sustained by public taxes, in the United States, our guiding constitutional principle is to keep the government out of religion. Everything we do must be done by ourselves. If we continue to starve Jewish institutions of the funds to do good work, we will continue to lose the struggle for Jewish continuity.

And further: those institutions that are most responsible for creating and sustaining Jewish identity -- schools, camps and synagogues -- should be receiving a much higher portion of Jewish funds.

We can still prosper. Jews are survivors. We have always found creative and innovative ways to overcome urgent challenges to our existence. There are still millions of American Jews who want to be Jewish and want their children raised with a strong Jewish identity. I see these Jews every day.

But if we do not start at the beginning, at the point where Jewish identity is created, a generation from now there will be far fewer Jews to sustain all the other important activities of American Jewish life.