It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Pew Study and Talented Tenth Judaism

By now, if you are reading this, you undoubtedly have been inundated with punditry about the meaning of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Many scholars and institutional players immediately bemoaned the results as confirmation of the decline or degradation of American Jewry. Others have dismissed the data as either flawed (based on its use of comparison with the widely discredited 2000 NJPS survey) as drawing causal conclusions where mere correlations are suggested, or as too macro to represent the specifics of an individual Jewish community. Still others have seen positives in the data, whether due to the opportunity to reach out to Jews who reject denominational affiliations, the surprisingly large percentage of Jews who express faith in God, or because of the incredible 94% of Jews who express pride in being Jewish.

This latter point truly is revolutionary. Growing up as a Gen-Xer in a largely non-Jewish environment in San Diego, being Jewish was something that my friends and I largely kept to ourselves. My Day School background made me feel knowledgeable in my Jewishness, but I don’t think “pride” would be the way I, or most of my friends, described how we felt about being Jewish.  I think this is why the Adam Sandler Chanukah Song, when it came out, was such a big deal–it gave us permission to be proud of our Jewishness and the accomplishments of our fellow Jews. So we should celebrate how much has changed for the better in the relatively few years since then.

But there is one key realization from the Pew Study that I think has received less attention than it deserves. While the data confirms that all our outreach, resources, and energy have been successful in making Jews feel good about being Jewish,these efforts have been unsuccessful in broadening the base of practitioners of Judaism (PJs, for short). It is the juxtaposition of these two findings, both of which are pretty unequivocal in the data, that we should focus on. We arguably have never felt as comfortable being Jewish in our people’s history, yet this comfort and opportunity has not resulted in expanding the ranks of PJs. Why not? With barriers to the observance of Judaism at an all-time low in America, why haven’t more people who identify as “Jewish” engaged in the religious practice of Judaism?

Posted on October 15, 2013

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