This week the LA Jewish Journal published a piece written by its Israel correspondent Shmuel Rosner entitled “What type of Jew are you?” (link – #1 below)
Rosner reflected on a new study of the Boston Jewish community, but the trends revealed reflect what I sense is true across the country. The study’s findings show how complex is Jewish engagement among American Jews today.
Rosner distinguished five distinct groups: the Minimally Involved (17%) who do almost nothing specifically Jewish; the Familial (24%) who engage mostly in home-based and family Jewish events and celebrations; Affiliated Jews (26%) who are engaged with their families and in some Jewish communal organizations; Cultural Jews (18%) who in addition to family events, listen to Jewish and/or Israeli music, go Israeli folk-dancing, read Jewish books, see films and attend theater on Jewish themes; and the Immersed (15%) who engage in all areas.
In Boston, two-thirds of the Jewish community has been to Israel at least once, and a third has visited many times, a rate higher I suspect than in Los Angeles. A national trend that was also revealed in the last Pew study of the American Jewish community in 2013 (link – #2 below) showed that increasing numbers of Jews don’t identify any longer with denominations. Of the roughly 6 million American Jews at least 50% (maybe higher) regard themselves as secular and cultural Jews or just plain Jewish.
The Boston and Pew studies each showed that people identify increasingly less with Jewish religion and increasingly more with Jewish peoplehood. And so the question of the hour is this that Rosner asks – “What type of Jew are you?”
This is how he characterizes the five groups (see a longer study – #3 below).
Half of the “Immersed Jews” keep kosher at home, light Shabbat candles and attend Shabbat services regularly. They celebrate Pesach, light Chanukah candles, attend High Holiday services, donate to Jewish causes, and identify as Jews “by religion.” Almost all are affiliated.
Most “Cultural Jews” don’t do religious ritual at all, nor do they attend religious services unless invited to a special event such as a bar or bat mitzvah, and they don’t keep Kosher. But 80% of them are highly engaged with Israel, seek news from Israel often and attend Jewish programs. Though not religious, they do attend Seders, light candles on Chanukah, and attend High Holiday services.
“Affiliated Jews” practice the big Jewish holidays, affiliate with synagogues, donate to Jewish causes, but aren’t engaged religiously. They listen to Jewish music a little, attend services occasionally, and may partake in kosher food on occasion at an event. Affiliated Jews tend to be between the ages of 35 and 64 years and most have children who they want to “educate,” provide a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or give them a taste of Judaism.
“Familial Jews” attend family Seders and light Chanukah candles, but they don’t do much else ritually or religiously, though a third attend a Jewish program or donate to Jewish causes. They generally keep in touch with Jewish life and don’t consciously distance themselves from the community. Their deeper Jewish engagement does not extend into the community beyond the home. Many of these “familial Jews” are intermarried and unaffiliated.
A third of the “Minimally Involved” light Chanukah candles, have attended a Jewish program in the last year, but have little engagement with anything Jewish. In Boston, and I suspect here in Los Angeles, many minimally involved are Russian Jews. Most are unaffiliated and intermarried.
So – what kind of Jew are you? Immersed – Cultural – Affiliated – Familial – or Minimally Involved?
More questions: What is your Jewish narrative that has brought you to the Jewish identification that you have? Are you satisfied and at peace with this kind of identification? Are you fully fulfilled as you might wish to be in your life as a Jew?
These are questions all of us ought to be asking ourselves.
I wasn’t surprised by the survey’s findings, except for one thing – that the connection American Jews feel with the state of Israel is the strongest element in all of these five groups. The survey suggests that there is a strong connection between a Jew’s engagement with Israel and his/her engagement with Jewish life. Distancing from Israel co-relates with a distancing from Judaism and Jewish life just as the more engaged with Jewish life we are the more we tend to be engaged with Israel.
Put another way, a Jew’s relationship to Israel is a barometer of his/her relationship to Judaism.
I’ve drawn five additional conclusions from the study:
- It’s a mistake for us to judge anyone else’s engagement as a Jew, however much or little that is, especially in an era in which the community is changing so rapidly;
- There needs to be a multitude of opportunities for engagement and inspiration – through education – religion – family – culture – the arts – social justice work – and Israel;
- We are not an ever-dying people – we’re an ever-changing people;
- The depth and breadth of our relationships with other Jews is the best prognosticator of our depth and breadth of engagement in Jewish life;
- The more meaningful the Jewish education and learning is, the more welcoming are our communities, the more visionary is our Jewish agenda, so too will more of us be inspired to engage in ways that move our people forward creatively and meaningfully.
May we each find our way.
- “Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity” – The Jewish People Policy Institute – http://jppi.org.il/uploads/Exploring_the_Jewish_Spectrum_in_a_Time_of_Fluid_Identity-JPPI.pdf