Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How do you read a survey about the Jews? Re-framing Pew

This piece is based on a sermon given at Congregation B'nai Shalom last Shabbat.

Last week the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life released their study on Jewish American life.  In the days since its release, I have read dozens of articles and blog pieces commenting on their results. I’ve even written one myself that got a lot of attention at which I shared on our facebook page over the weekend.

Jewish professionals are poring over the details and offering their own spins on the data. But the rest of us are just getting on with living our lives; lives that incorporate and reflect our Jewish identities and values, and many other facets of our identities all at the same time.  Many Jewish professionals are hand-wringing and angst-dwelling. Most Jews are just doing what they were doing last week and the week before – living their lives.

So, perhaps it is useful to share some of the statistics that, while probably not surprising, are worth presenting, just so you know what all the fuss is all about.  Here are just a few of the stats that have been quoted in many reviews of the report - selectively citing these kinds of figures, without deeper analysis or framing, is why we are hearing a lot of angst this week about the results.

For example, 88% of those surveyed identified themselves as Jewish both in terms of religious and cultural identity. But 22% identified themselves as culturally or ethnically Jewish, but not religiously identified that way.  And when you break down the numbers by age, 32% of those born after 1980 identify as Jewish but with no religion. Whereas 90% of those who identify their religion as Jewish are raising their children as Jews, 2/3rds of those who identify as Jews of no religion are not raising their children with any kind of Jewish identity, religious or cultural. The rate of intermarriage has risen, and this is more prevalent (considerably more so) among Jews of no religion.

In terms of Jewish denomination, we do see Reform being the largest group in the US, but the Reform numbers reported in the survey are enlarged by those who don’t belong to any kind of community but use the label ‘Reform’ to identify themselves.  Looking at those who have switched denomination during their lifetimes, the Reform movement has also been the largest recipient of those who grew up Conservative and even Orthodox.  However, we also see many figures that demonstrate that Reform Jews are less Jewishly engaged than those who identify as Conservative or Orthodox on a wide range of measures. At this point in time, only about 1/3rd of Jews who identify as Reform belong to Reform synagogues (stats from other studies in the recent past suggest that, over their lifetime, as many as 70 or 80% might below to a synagogue for a while). Reform Jews are more likely to have non-Jewish friends and spend less time in Jewish communal activities.

There are a ton more detailed stats available in this extensive report, and I highly recommend going to the Pew Forum website to review the information for yourself. Tonight I don’t want to overload you with figures. Instead I want to suggest a framing for the data that we can all read if we choose to.

In my earlier blog article I highlighted two key ideas that must be held in mind whenever we look at statistics. For those who don’t know, my PhD was in sociology with a specialist focus in research methods, so I know one or two things about this subject. The first is that correlation and causation are not the same thing. I had a phone call from a gentleman in Worcester the day that the survey came out. I thought it might be a journalist looking for a rabbi’s response, but it turned out to be a concerned citizen who wanted to express his concern for the damage that interfaith marriage was doing to the Jewish community.  Here’s the thing. It is one thing to note that individuals who hold certain kinds of views, and who believe certain kinds of things are more likely to marry a non-Jew. That’s a correlation and the stats bear that out. But it is quite another thing to state that interfaith marriage causes someone to be less engaged with the Jewish community. Ask about 35% of our congregation if that is true. Their own lives, choices, and families who we are blessed to count among our active, dedicated Jewish community will tell a different story. What is absolutely wonderful is how many interfaith couples are choosing to raise Jewish children - many more than earlier surveys and assumptions would have predicted.  We change the reality every day by the choices we make and the way we, as a community, respond.

Likewise, it is not choosing to identify as Reform that makes one less involved in Jewish learning, activity, and community. There are many of us – many of you here – who believe in and care about Jewish community and Jewish traditions, and they enrich your lives and you enrich your Jewish community. But there are also many Jews who claim the label ‘Reform’ as code for their relative lack of engagement in Jewish life and practice. How should we regard this information? We could moan about the challenge of creating an intensely connected community when a substantial group who choose to travel with us for some period of time seem to be comfortable remaining on the periphery. Or we could recognize the incredible blessing of the open tent, inclusive nature of a Reform congregation that makes it easier for more people to step through the door, feel welcomed, and the opportunity we have each time one more family does so to share what is beautiful and meaningful about Jewish spiritual life with them.  We might celebrate the fact that we have a 'brand' that is appealing and inclusive enough that so many people feel comfortable claiming it as part of their identity! Of course we don’t find those Jews in Orthodox communities – they’ve already been excluded, or assumed they would be excluded and, often, written off.

The other thing that I highlighted in my earlier blog piece was the information shared by the Pew researchers that noted that the patterns of religious and non-religious identity, affiliation and non-affiliation, very closely aligned with research conducted last year about American society in general. In other words, the younger generation in the USA are likely to answer ‘none’ to the question of what religion they identify with in about the same proportions as Jews of the same age are likely to identify as being of no religion. And what that phrase actually means is incredibly complex and multi-faceted - the statistics won't enlighten us as to that meaning - that requires a different kind of inquiry and conversation.
So what are we to make of all of these statistics? Are we to be concerned that, based on these figures and projected trajectories, we are likely to be a less religiously identified and organizationally participating Jewish community in the coming years (thinking here only about current manifestations of Jewish organization; who knows what new entities will be created in coming years)? Well, there may be a reality to that which will see change in the number and nature of the Jewish institutions our community supports. But, whether that is true or not, what do these results really mean, and what should we, if anything, be doing, in response to them?

Here’s where the frame comes in.  First of all, the report concluded that there were a much larger number of Jewish in the USA than previous studies. Perhaps 1 million or more extra. One of the reasons for this is because the study allowed people answering the survey to self-define and self-identify their Jewishness. What this means is that a large number of those who called themselves Jews of no religion would most likely, in previous decades, not have been counted at all. Our own children, if you ask them, will tell you that they have school friends who identify as ‘half Jewish’ because they have one Jewish parent. Perhaps they go to family for a Passover meal. Maybe they light a menorah. Maybe they do absolutely nothing of a religious nature at all. Yet they are aware of their family background and choose to claim the part that is Jewish as their own. Think back to your childhoods – who would have, if they didn’t have to, choose to identify themselves with the Jewish people?  It wasn’t cool to be Jewish. Now it is. That’s as clear a sign as any that we’ve made it in American society. Yes, assimilation is also a fact of life when we’ve been so entirely absorbed and integrated into a host society (in a matter of 3 or 4 generations). But Jewish is now something that doesn’t only live in the private home or the synagogue – it lives everywhere. That is wonderful, and there is incredible opportunity in this if we take the time to understand what it means and respond to it.

So yes, that makes life for institutions like synagogues a bit more complicated. While there are still plenty of people who understand the way a congregation can provide a structure and vessel for their Jewish expression and experience, for those who don’t identify as of the Jewish religion, the synagogue, as usually conceived, doesn’t appear to have much to offer them as a vehicle for their Jewishness. So they go to film festivals, watch Jon Stewart, and take note of Jewish stories that come across their face book feed, but we don’t reach these Jews because we’re not hanging out in the same part of the cultural landscape that they are.  There’s a lot of debate as to whether synagogues need to reinvent themselves or stretch themselves to start showing up in different kinds of places and in different kinds of ways. Or whether we accept that a smaller % of Jews in America will continue to connect with synagogues, and we should let other projects and organizations specialize in working in those other spaces.

As you probably know, I’m more of a hybrid kind of gal. I believe in the mission and purpose of synagogue life, but I also believe in porous borders, in being a hub but providing enriching Jewish opportunities in the greater community, and shifting the overall balance and emphasis of what we do together as a congregational community so as to speak to the full diversity of Jewish families in our midst.  We’re only just beginning, but we’re already making changes in this direction at Congregation B'nai Shalom.  

There is so much more to be said about the rich data available from the Pew research. But a sermon slot doesn’t permit that kind of depth in one, short presentation. But I want to come back to the framing of the information we are absorbing. Just as we can understand the expansion of those who choose ‘Jewish’ as any part of their identification label as positive, even while it is challenging us, so we can choose how we label the shifting patterns of Jewish life that we see unfolding in the data. If we label some of the findings as ‘problems’ there is a suggestion that these are things to be solved. I don't know about you, but I personally am inclined to tune out if someone labels me just living my life as 'a problem.' When 'official' voices of the Jewish community say this about others who proudly identity as Jews, whatever that means to them, they risk simply making the organizations that they represent irrelevant to the very people that they seek to change.

I also don’t believe that we Jews, and our structures, organizations, and synagogues, that engage about 1/3rd of the 2% of the US population that is Jewish, have the power to change the tide of cultural shifts that shape 100% of American society, of which we are such a tiny component.  I believe our job is to know what those changing tides are, to do our best to understand them, to ask ourselves whether we have the ability to respond to them by changing what we do or how we do it. Sometimes the answer will be ‘yes’. Sometimes the answer will be ‘no’ and new organizations and ideas will surface from new places that meet needs that older institutions are unable to meet. That’s just the way it is.

What we can do, if we believe in the purpose and meaning of a rich and full congregational life, is do all we can to sustain and enliven it with our own selves. Through our investment of time and resources, through our commitment to creating an environment where we passionately share our love of Jewish life with our children, where we teach them how to make space for Jewish living in a world with so many competing demands, where we recognize that we are the carriers of ancient culture ever evolving in which we seek and find meaning, spirituality, social justice, and love for one another… These and more are the ways that we, if we care about these facts and figures, and want to do our part to make Jewish life in America vibrant, will continue to make it so by our own choices and our own deeds. It’s not about the Rabbis. It’s not about the synagogues. It’s not about the Federations. It’s not about the Jewish film festivals. These are the vessels – the places and the networks. But it’s about you, and you, and you, and me. Each of us doing Jewish and being Jewish in all of its multifaceted forms. Doing and being together. And it is rich, it is varied, and it is exciting.  So lets stop angsting and just get doing.

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