The faith crisis of American Jewry

Perhaps it is the existential insecurity of life in Israel that makes faith the natural, default position.

September 11, 2018 22:43
4 minute read.
American Jews partcipate in the annual Israel Day Parade in New York.

American Jews partcipate in the annual Israel Day Parade 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The venerable Pew Research Center, whose previous studies of American Jewry broke the unsurprising bad news about the devastating rate of intermarriage, has just released a new study taking the religious pulse of all Americans.

Once again, the news is not good for us. The group with the highest percentage of respondents falling into the category of “Solidly Secular” – the bottom of the totem pole of the seven religious typologies classified by the study – are Jews. Among respondents who identified themselves as Jewish, 28% fall into that category, compared with 5% of Christians. Jews have a healthy percentage of respondents – 21% – who qualify as so-called “Sunday Stalwarts” (sub in “Saturday” for a more apt but still pithy moniker). But after that, the numbers drop off, then peak again at the other end of the spectrum. In other words, count out the Orthodox, whose ranks are thriving, and you are left with a withering faith group.

At first glance, I was not surprised by these findings. Upon closer examination, however, a more shocking picture came to light.
It’s no secret that most American Jews are far from religious. At best, their observance revolves around some sort of Passover eve gathering passing as a Seder, perhaps a visit to synagogue on Yom Kippur, maybe even a menorah on the mantle come Hanukkah. But here’s the rub: The Pew study defines “Solidly Secular” not merely as unaffiliated or non-observant. No, these “relatively affluent, highly educated” folks “reject… belief in the God of the Bible or any higher power at all.” In other words, they not only lead a secular lifestyle – they don’t even believe in God.

The third largest group among Jewish respondents, “Religion Resisters” (coming in at 17%), “largely do believe in some higher power or spiritual force (but not the God of the Bible)… At the same time, members of this group express strongly negative views of organized religion, saying that… overall, religion does more harm than good.” (Predictably, both the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular are “generally liberal and Democratic in their political views.”)

For multitudes of Jews to have not only eschewed their heritage but completely shucked off any shred of faith, any relationship, however fraught, with their Divine Creator, gives new meaning to the term “lost souls.” Lost – but as we affirm again and again throughout these High Holy Days, never too far or too late to return to God.

Why such spiritually hostile individuals still choose to identify themselves as Jewish would make for an interesting examination in its own right. No matter the reasons, the apparent drift toward godlessness among American Jewry should set off alarm bells for Jewish leaders and major organizations.

The sobering situation in the US stands in fascinating contrast to the faith culture in Israel, where I now live. The disposition of even many secular Israeli Jews to hold fast to Judaism’s most fundamental tenets has been not only oft-noted but also confirmed by research. A study two years ago by the very same Pew Research Center found that half of Jewish Israelis believe in God with certainty, and another 27% also believe in God but with less certainty. This, although 49% (that is, a nearly equal quotient) describe themselves as “hiloni” (secular). Meanwhile, in a separate poll conducted back in 2012 by the Avi Chai Foundation, a whopping 80% of Israeli Jews expressed belief in God. (In contrast to American Jews, Israelis’ political attachments are far less predictable based on religious profile alone.)

Thus, the stereotype of the God-fearing secular Israeli is well-founded. The taxi drivers who wish you a “Shanah Tova,” the Sabbath-breaking neighbors who say “Shabbat Shalom,” the health fund workers who bless you with a “Refuah Shelaimah,” and the many fellow Jewish citizens who might not observe most of the mitzvot – all recognize to whom they owe their existence and will one day have to answer. In moments of crisis, they exclaim, “Hashem ya’azor.” When something good happens, they proclaim, “Baruch Hashem.”

Perhaps it is the existential insecurity of life in Israel that makes faith the natural, default position. Perhaps because God’s presence in the Holy Land is so manifest, so transcendent, it takes a special effort to deny. Perhaps the surrounding culture, the history on the ground in front of our eyes, acts as a lodestar.

None of which obtains to help awaken the souls of Jews in the US.

Let’s hope that Jewish leadership in the Diaspora’s largest outpost will be alarmed enough by the latest findings to take meaningful action, as they have failed to do since the Pew Center’s previous revelations about the declining demographic health of American Jewry due to intermarriage. The fading of G-d from the lives of American Jews calls out for spiritual life support.

Ziona Greenwald is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a J.D. from Fordham Law School and has worked as a court attorney and a magazine editor. A former New Yorker, she now lives with her family in Jerusalem.

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