Religion Is Only One Way To Identify As A Jew


For the past three decades, there have been many surveys looking at the notion of Jewish identity, Jews’ identification as Jews and their attachment to Judaism. Each one has resulted in depressing news. In characterizing these studies over the years, writers have used words such as “devastating,” “dismal” and “disturbing,” while others wrote some variation of “I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion.” But when it comes to the data in the new Pew Research Center study, the picture is more nuanced.

The study states that its central aim is to explore Jewish identity. It found that remembering the Holocaust and leading a moral and ethical life are central to Jewish identification. 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 community and individuals see themselves as Jews in a variety of ways, religion being only one such way.

In the 1930s and ’40s, 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 ones. 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, which has become a home for many Jews who see their identity emanating from leading an ethical and moral life. Attending a march for a living-wage campaign that is sponsored by Jews United for Justice is seen 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. JCCs 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 Washington Jewish Week article, “Explaining the Millennials,” Rachel Giattino addresses the Jewish identity of her contemporaries 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 Washington, D.C., 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 a Jewish identity that is new and their own, and not have it imposed by an external institution.

What does it say for the 1,200 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 mean coming from a family that is of Jewish ancestry; it can mean a range of other things, from 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 religious 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.

Indeed, some Pew commentators have noted that the intermarriage rate has stayed pretty much steady since 1990, at around 60 percent, and that about that number 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 percent said they would raise their children as Jews. When models of engagement are readily available, we can affect the outcomes.

When I look at the Pew study, I, like others, sense that it illustrates 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 in which we express our Judaism, we’ll be looking through blinders.

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