Congratulations to the Arizona Jewish Post for its excellent coverage of the panel that discussed the recent Pew Research Center’s study titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” The study, as you might expect, found an increasing number of Jews who claim they are “atheists,” “agnostics” or of “no religion” as well as a rising intermarriage rate. However, as the Post’s review indicated, the bulk of the panel’s attention was devoted to a criticism of the study, its methodology, the size of its sample and its interviewing techniques rather than coming to grips with the study’s pertinent conclusions, namely that there is a persistent drift away from traditional Jewish customs and beliefs by Jews in America.
Unfortunately, the panel — consisting of an anthropologist, an historian and a bevy of wise rabbis — was unfamiliar with the rigorous methods employed by the Pew organization in designing its questionnaires and the sophisticated statistical methods it utilizes to validate them. As a result, the panelists, in denying the study’s conclusions, were striking out at a straw man.
In fact, Tucson’s Jewish community could serve as a model for a similar Pew study. Our intermarriage rate is high — almost 50 percent — our attendance rate at most synagogues is slowly dwindling, our fundraising efforts are meeting greater challenges and for many of our young people our close affiliation with Israel is lessening in its intensity.
What is taking place and why? And is it reversible?
The American Jewish community has been drifting away from shtetl orthodoxy ever since we set foot at Castle Garden. We no longer suffer the tight bonds that held us together when we lived isolated lives in proscribed villages in Eastern Europe. We no longer dress differently, eat differently, speak a separate language (Yiddish), and suffer from periodic pogroms. We no longer live close to the poverty line; in fact we are among the more prosperous of American ethnic groups.
We no longer suffer the discrimination we faced a couple of generations ago. We are no longer on a quota at America’s elite universities; we no longer suffer discrimination in housing, employment and political office. Our affection and loyalty for Israel remains strong but it is blurred by the fact that Israel is no longer the frail threatened democracy on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean but the strongest military force in the Near East. In addition, the present generation of Jewish university students seldom thinks of Israel as a lifeboat to which they can resort in case things turn bad at home.
The Holocaust that galvanized a post-war generation of Jews is fading in memory despite the conscientious efforts of its survivors and the organized Jewish community. More and more it is becoming an historical fact rather than a deeply felt tragedy.
In summary, the institutions that once welded us together, language barrier, isolation, anti-Semitism, discrimination, love for Israel and the Holocaust have lost much of their potency. We’ve made it in America and in the eyes of many we are paying a price for security, prosperity and freedom. Ironically, this is a situation the Jewish community has seldom faced.
We obviously cannot depend on love of Torah to bring our young people back. Instead, it will require new thinking and new programs that are yet to be designed, paid for and implemented. It would have been much more relevant if the panel on the Pew report had addressed these events and situations instead of attempting to cast doubt on the report’s methodology and conclusions.
See the AJP’s Nov. 22 article at http://az jewishpost.com/2013/tucson-panel-examines-pew-portrait-of-u-s-jews/.
Sol Littman is a sociologist turned journalist and community activist. His professional career includes 14 years with the Anti-Defamation League, followed by five years as the editor of the Canadian Jewish News. He was a member of the Toronto Star’s editorial board and community affairs specialist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Littman spent 15 years as Canadian director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His publications include, “War Criminal on Trial” and “Pure Soldiers or Sinister Legion.” Littman is a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona’s Judaic Studies Center.