Headlines about the new Pew Study on American Jews:
“Can liberal Judaism survive?”—Washington Post
“Study: American Jews losing their religion”—CNN Religion
The latest Jewish population study commissioned by the Pew Research Center found that 1 out of 5 Jews now describe themselves as having no religion, American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent and that most intermarried Jews are not raising their kids as Jews. In short, our numbers are shrinking.
This pretty dismal situation is mitigated somewhat that 94 percent are proud of being Jewish and 75 percent have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. But there are many sub-groups of non-Orthodox Jews who yearn to be part of the larger Jewish community, but are held back by multiple barriers of ignorance, stigma and a lack of empathy.
First of all, there’s all the lower-income people (around 20% of the Jewish population) who are struggling to make ends meet and are intimidated by the incredibly high costs of synagogue membership, day schools and overnight camps.
Forcing people to pay an annual membership is like making a restaurant patron order a three-course meal when all they want is an appetizer. It’s high time that a new business model was developed to take into account that many Jews aren’t wealthy. If the UCLA Hammer Museum can stop charging admission to its permanent collection to encourage deeper community engagement, why can’t synagogues?
Secondly, there’s the LGBT (another 4% of the population) community, who want to be assured that they (and their children) will be warmly welcomed and treated the same as any other congregant or participant. When we attended IKAR’s Erev Simchat Torah celebration the other week, it was great to see many same-sex couples with their young children, feeling comfortable in the diverse crowd.
And lastly, there’s people with special needs/disabilities (another 20% if we include the elderly). Too often, Jews with physical disabilities are only pictured on websites or in mailings if it’s a fundraising appeal, not a membership drive. I’ve met Jews who have hearing impairments who would like to be part of the Jewish community but too few organizations offer the needed accommodations. Families who have a child or teen with autism often encounter a very low tolerance for unusual or noisy behavior, and then the whole family drops away.
Given the contracting nature of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community, we can’t afford to lose any potential engaged persons or households. More than ever, every person counts.