The Pew survey: Avoiding a Jewish identity crisis in Israel

America should not comment on or criticize Israeli policy, Israeli rabbis should not necessarily comment on or impose policy upon American Jewish community.

American Jews partcipate in the annual Israel Day Parade 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jews partcipate in the annual Israel Day Parade 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I don’t think rabbis in America should comment on or criticize Israeli policy. While I understand their affinity to Israel as Jews, they are not citizens of the state and therefore in my opinion they should not attempt to dictate policy; they are best served keeping their opinions to themselves.
In turn, the same should apply vice versa as well. Israeli rabbis should not necessarily comment on or impose policy upon the American Jewish community; the exception being when the matter at hand could have direct influence upon preserving and protecting the Israeli community, as is the case regarding the message behind the findings of the recent survey of US Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center.
The survey suggests that Jewish identity is changing and declining in America, where one in five Jews (22 percent) now describe themselves as having no religion. The number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion appears to be rising.
62% of US Jews say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion.
These statistics are frightening both from a Jewish and a religious viewpoint, but it is the following finding of the study which is most insightful regarding the Jewish community in Israel. Compared with Jews by religion, secular Jews in America are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.
More than 90% of Jews by religion who are currently raising minor children in their home say they are raising those children Jewish or partially Jewish. In stark contrast, the survey finds that two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.
This finding demonstrates a correlation between religious affiliation and preserving the Jewishness of children in the US; it is extremely important to recognize however that this is not, and more importantly, does not have to be the case regarding Israel’s Jewish secular population, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Israelis have a head start over their Jewish American counterparts.
They are regularly presented with opportunities (whether they welcome them or not) to strengthen their Jewish identity, at the very least from an ideological perspective, as they settle the Jewish homeland and serve in the Israeli army, becoming effectively responsible for preserving an entire nation.
I gather that this is not enough on its own; the Jewish identity crisis is alive and well in Israel. As a rabbi and educator for the Jewish identity branch of the IDF I am consistently shocked by the ignorance displayed by our youngsters and soldiers with regard to elemental tenets of Judaism and the Jewish faith. However, the very fact that they are confronted with situations which encourage them to explore and understand them can constitute a strong premise with which to begin.
Secondly and more positively, as much as there is a decrease in desire for secular Jews in America to identify with their religious roots, the opposite seems to be true in Israel.
There are study groups and seminars dispersed throughout the country consisting of secular Israelis who are interested in identifying with their roots by discussing the texts of the Torah.
Many of these forums are referred to as cultural encounters and they distance themselves from being associated with anything which could be called religious, but they represent a resurgence of learning and a renaissance in connecting with one’s Jewish roots.
As a religious Jew I would like everyone to become religiously devout. I also do not believe that being “culturally Jewish” is enough to perpetuate Jewish identity, however, I am cognizant of the current positive dynamics exhibited by Israeli secular society and I view them as an invitation to examine Judaism in non-coercive and expansive forum.
It is important to be confident enough in our religion to realize that it can speak to people in different ways, sometimes sporadically, but right now we should be concentrating on making Judaism accessible to the masses regardless of their affiliation or lack thereof, by introducing innovative and effective programs on the foundations of Judaism.
This will help promote an understanding that all people in Israel share the privilege of shaping the future of Jewish history, a constructive paradigm which can help assure that the Pew survey’s findings regarding the issues American Jewry is dealing with will not reach Israel’s shores.
The writer serves as a lecturer on Jewish identity and ideology for the IDF Education Branch and Machane Meshutaf of the IDF Rabbinate. He is as an educator for the Menachem Begin Israel Government Fellows in Jerusalem and a guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora including the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia.