I have one big answer to the depressing findings of the Pew poll, but you’re not going to like it.
The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews came out last week, and the American Jewish community reacted about the way Sandra Bullock does when her tether snaps in “Gravity.” Except our “Oy vey!” probably could have been heard in space.
The bottom line of the study: Jews are becoming less … and less … and less Jewish. We are drifting away from religion like, well, Bullock from that space station.
The long-awaited Pew study, initiated with admirable foresight by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, found that only 32 percent of these Jews say their Jewishness is a matter of religion. Fifty years ago, that number was close to 70 percent.
“That is a big and significant number,” said Greg Smith, the Pew’s director of U.S. religion surveys, in a statement accompanying the report. “The generational pattern suggests that it’s growing, and that’s very important, because the data show that Jews of no religion are much less connected to the Jewish community, are much less engaged and involved in Jewish organizations and are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish as compared to Jews who describe themselves as Jews by religion.”
We all know many Jews who are bagels-and-lox, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” types — what you might call Brunch Davidians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Jewish law and practice is the scaffold on which Jewish culture and identity are built. Without Judaism, Jewishness disappears.
To add to the worries, the Pew study found that 71 percent of younger, [non-Orthodox Jews] are marrying out. Before 1970, the number of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse was only 17 percent. Intermarried Jews, Pew found, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.
So, does this mean there won’t be any Judaism in the future? The short answer is: That’s up to us.
There are three things we can, and must, do to stop the handwringing and reverse these trends.
First, we need to be very clear in our hearts why this matters. Each one of us who expresses concern has to be able to answer, clearly, this question: “So what?”
Now don’t skip ahead. Stay with that question. Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish, and if trends continue, their children and grandchildren will be even less so, or not at all? What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing? Funny how none of the discussions of the Pew study start with that question — because its answer is key to the solution.
Second, we must improve the experience of liberal Judaism. Not all synagogue services are boring, obscure and infantilizing, but too many are. Congregations that have innovated in their use of liturgy and music have been more successful in drawing people in than those that have not. This year, jewishjournal.com livecast the Kol Nidre service of Nashuva, the outreach congregation founded by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy. At least 60,000 people around the world watched all or part of the service, and judging by their comments, the experience was anything but boring. When you rebuild it, they will come.
That leads me to my one, big suggestion: conversion.
When I made this argument in the past, people looked at me like I was saying we should establish a Jewish state in Uganda. True, we have not been, for historical reasons, a proselytizing faith, but it’s time to rise above our history.
According to the Pew poll, 2 percent of Jews said they had formally converted to Judaism, 1 percent claimed to have informally. That’s 100,000 people. Say we double it. Triple it — or even add a zero.
Of course. We have the money and expertise to fund a creative and consistent marketing campaign aimed at conversion. Web sites and social media offer a low barrier to entry. Virtual engagement would be reinforced by actual outreach and education on the local level.
This isn’t brain surgery — it’s branding, marketing and education. These are three things Jews happen to excel at. Jewish marketing ingenuity brought the world Polo, GAP and Levi’s. Jews turned pomegranates and hummus from foods to phenomena. Hey, three Jews — Plouffe, Axelrod and Emanuel — even sold America on electing a black president. We can sell the world anything. Why not Judaism?
If we don’t invite the rest of the world to experience the beauty, meaning and connectedness of Jewish life, we will never truly flourish.
“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis once told me. “Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time.”
The stories told by Jews-by-Choice reaffirm the opportunity to reach more like them.
“Judaism,” one once told me, “is the best-kept secret in the world.”
Meaning, connectedness, community and beauty — these are the essence of Jewish life, and they are what so many people long for.
My suggestion: Put Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lynda Resnick, Axelrod, et al. in a room and have them come up with a marketing plan for the world’s best-kept secret. Put Judaism out there, and just watch people gravitate toward it.