Being Religious Is Only One Way To Identify As A Jew


A few weeks ago, my husband passed me the New York Times and said, “You should definitely read this article on page 11.” I saw the headline, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews,” and my heart sank. I knew which direction it was going. Down. That was my first reaction, before I read everyone’s responses to the study; the reactions fell into the “mea culpa” camp.

For the past three decades, there have been studies done on Jews their identification as Jews, and their attachment to Judaism. Each survey has resulted in more depressing news. Some writers used such words as “devastating,” “dismal,” and disturbing,” and others reflected, “I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion.” Given their disappointment and these depressing articles, I wanted to look at the data for myself.

The study states that its key aim is to explore Jewish identity. It identifies remembering the Holocaust and leading a moral and ethical life as central to Jewish identification. The survey, in the report that I read, does not go much further than that. Deconstructing this concept of Jewish identity, beyond traditional religious participation, is key to understanding what our Jewish community looks like today. We have a diverse Jewish community and individuals see themselves as Jews in a variety of ways, religion being only one.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, men and women who were members of the Workmen’s Circle movement but didn’t belonged to a synagogue, identified as secular Jews, but not as religious. As I recall, their identity as being Jewish was never questioned.

Today, young people are expressing their Jewish identity by participating in the contemporary social justice movement. It has become a home for many Jews who see their identity emanating from leading an ethical and moral life. When the men and women are attending a march for a living wage campaign sponsored by Jews United for Justice, they see this activity as core to their Jewish values and their Jewish identity. For them, this is how they express being Jewish.

The increase in Jewish Film Festivals, Jewish theater, and funds available for Jewish themed films, are all a part of the growing movement to engage Jews in different ways. JCC’s are attracting young people through sports, arts, theatre, food, and tzedakah projects. When young families send their children to early childhood education and day-care in a Jewish Community Center, they see themselves as expressing their Jewish identity. The new title could be “Come be Jewish under a Jewish umbrella!”

In her article, “Explaining the Millennials,” Rachel Giattino addresses the issue of her age group by saying that they are finding their connection to Judaism in new and innovative ways that reflect the world around them. She informs us that there are 10 plus independent minyanim in the DC area; composed of young professionals and all these groups function outside of a traditional synagogue structure. They may never join a synagogue and may chose to educate their children independently. They are creating new ways of being Jewish. They are looking to create their own and new Jewish religious identity, and not have it imposed by an external institution.

What does it say for the 1200 people who gathered on the steps outside Adas Israel congregation on Yom Kippur eve to recite Kol Nidre? They did not need a ticket to participate and they were not asked if they were members. They came to be part of a prayer service, part of a Jewish communal experience that was different from what they had grown up with.

I have listened to hundreds of young people talk about what Jewish identity means to them. It can be as simple as being a part of a family that is of Jewish ancestry, to honoring grandparents who perished in the Holocaust, to having a strong belief system, to being a part of a social justice effort under a Jewish flag, to having an attachment to Jewish culture, to leading an ethical life as described in Jewish thought. Accepting different ways of identifying as a Jew opens up many possibilities.

But why is this not reflected in the survey? If a young couple goes to a “Tot Shabbat” program at a JCC does this count as raising a Jewish child? Does it count if a group of parents get together for a Chanukah party? Do they count as religious, even though they are not in a conventional structure? Do they count as having a Jewish identity since they are choosing to celebrate the holidays in an innovative way? I sure hope so.

In her article, “And Now Some Good News about the Pew Survey,” Bethamie Horowitz, offers us a different way of examining the data. It turns out that the American Jewish population has increased to 6.8 million, up from 6 million. She also states that the rate of intermarriage has pretty much stayed steady since 1990. She goes on to say that 61% of intermarried couples are raising their children as “Jewish or partly Jewish.” What happens if there is an effort to engage these couples prior to having children? In my experience, attending a workshop to discuss the issues of intermarriage can have a profound effect. In my last survey of 40 couples that took my “Love and Religion” workshop, 81% said they would raise their children as Jews. When models of engagement are readily available, we can affect the outcomes.

Everyday I see another response to this study. I have tried to read as many of the articles as possible. I follow in the steps of people like J.J. Goldberg, Carla Naumburg, and Bethanie Horowitz, who have tried to illustrate a more complex and more hopeful picture of our Jewish community. The study and the results do not match my experience. Identifying as a Jew has a different meaning for everyone. If we fail to recognize the many ways we express our Judaism, we will be looking through blinders.

Marion L. Usher, Ph.D., is the creator of “Love and Religion: A Workshop for Jews and Their Partners.” She is a clinical professor, at George Washington University’s School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.