Tucson panel examines Pew portrait of U.S. Jews

Statistics can be overwhelming and the results can be taken out of context. Tucson rabbis and academics sought to put the recent Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” into perspective during a panel discussion at Congregation Anshei Israel on Nov. 3.

“Before we jump to woe is us” about a declining Jewish “religious” population, suggested Gila Silverman, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona, let’s look more closely. How big was the sample? What methodology did the survey use? Silverman pointed out that 3,475 respondents were given a fixed set of questions and a fixed set of answers to choose from.

The survey reports that 44 percent of U.S. Jews are intermarried, 79 percent of those who consider themselves secular Jews are intermarried, compared with 36 percent who quantify themselves as Jews by religion. Thirty-one percent of Jewish adults are synagogue members. Twenty percent of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse said they are raising their children in the Jewish religion, and 25 percent are raising their children partly in the Jewish religion.

“Where do I fit?” asked Silverman. “I study Talmud with a Reform teacher and go to a Conservative synagogue. My son studies Torah with an Orthodox rabbi at a pluralistic day school. [The survey asks], are you raising your child Jewish? I don’t know what they mean.”

If we asked open-ended questions, would we learn something different? “A phone survey only captures one moment in time,” she said. “In my research in the Jewish community we have long, rambling conversations. I’m finding complexity and contradiction.”

In fact, 20 percent of all Americans say they have no religion, which is about the same as in the Jewish population. Maybe this percentage, noted Silverman, “says something larger about Jews, as part of the larger American society.”

“I’m the son of an accountant,” said Rabbi Robert Eisen of Congregation Anshei Israel, “but what do these numbers mean?”

Rabbi Sanford Seltzer wondered how honest survey respondents were: What if you answer the way you think the interviewer wants you to? What about the questions that weren’t asked?

For Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, one of the most interesting statistics from the survey was that the American Jewish population stands at 6.6 million. “We should say ‘hallelujah.’ Our community has grown by more than one million Jews,” said Cohon, comparing the Pew poll to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. “There aren’t fewer Jews than in 2000. We’re growing slightly.”

People focus on statistics that interest them, said David Graizbord, UA associate professor of Judaic studies. He focused his talk on Jewish identity, as represented by the Pew survey, which was conducted from February to June 2013. A whopping 94 percent of the sample said they’re proud of being Jewish — including 97 percent of Jews by religion and 83 percent of Jews of no religion. Twenty-two percent of self-identified Jews say they have no religion. In fact, only 15 percent of Jews say being Jewish is about religion, while 62 percent nod to ancestry and culture.

“Whether religious or not, Jews have become very well-accepted here,” said Cohon. “Anti-Semitism is not going to drive the future of being Jewish in the United States. Not so many Jews were as proud 30 or 60 years ago.”

If you ask the rabbis on the panel what it means to be Jewish, they would probably agree that Jewish is as Jewish does and that it’s about the actions people take in their lives. But they don’t agree on which actions.

“The Pew research says something very important,” said Eisen. “We’re being less of a people religiously, that which we give the ultimate value. We knew all this. We have a lot of Jews in this country. They’re just not Jewish.”

“We don’t want to glorify the Jewish [religious] past,” said Seltzer. “Many went to shul in Eastern Europe because they had to. The first thing some of them did on the boat was throw their tefillin sacks overboard.”

Children in the United States used to attend shul with their parents. Now they attend soccer games, said Eisen. “They’re not interested in furthering Jewish peoplehood. What brings us together now is cell phone towers and WiFi connections. Do we want them to play soccer the rest of their lives or be Jewish?”

The four rabbis and two academics on the panel, along with Rabbi Ben Herman, assistant rabbi at Anshei Israel who served as the moderator, agreed that Jewish education is important. “Ninety percent of Jewish kids in Mexico City attend Jewish day school,” said Graizbord. “The rate of Mexican Jewish intermarriage is very low.”

Referring to the two academics on the panel, Seltzer said that their work “symbolizes the proliferation of Jewish studies for Jews and non-Jews, the scholarly Jewish publications and books being published. It’s happening all over the country.”

Of all the denominations, the Conservative movement has suffered the most, he said. Thirty percent of those polled don’t identify with any denomination but identify as Jewish, particularly the younger generation ages 18 to 49, said Seltzer. “They are far more liberal in every conceivable category. More are up on a two-state solution, and even felt the Palestinians were more sincere [in negotiating] than the Israeli government.”

The Pew study “correctly suggests the diversity of the American Jewish community,” he said. “There’s never been a time in Jewish history when we didn’t lose people to the majority. We are a mixed, multicultural [community] with many different perspectives, ages and demographics.”

Consider this, said Seltzer. “The Holocaust is not specifically a Jewish tragedy anymore because it’s been universalized to make sure it doesn’t happen again to anybody.”

The survey, however, indicates that 73 percent of U.S. Jews say remembering the Holocaust is essential to their Judaism. “How were Jews Jewish before the Holocaust?” asked Cohon.

How do individuals qualify for Jewish peoplehood? Eisen said, “It’s matrilineal descent. Jews born to Jewish mothers are Jews. Being Jewish is different.” Seltzer believes that the “kids of Jewish men are Jewish.’ He added that the Talmud says that a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man is part of the Jewish community.

In the United States, said Seltzer, “there was a time when Jews changed their names because they didn’t want to be Jewish. They tried to pass. Nobody does that any longer.” Plus, he noted, “marrying a Jew is no longer unacceptable to masses of non-Jews” in American life.

“Judaism is about religion, ethnicity and peoplehood,” said Silverman. “They all signify Judaism. It’s not like Christianity.”

“Judaism is a complex system,” affirmed Graizbord. “Ben-Gurion was an atheist and I’d say he did a lot for the Jewish people.” In America today, said Cohon, “we have the richest and most successful Jewish community in history. We’ve made a commitment to medical institutions, universities and symphonies but we haven’t made a comparable commitment to synagogues in America. That won’t show up in a survey, but that’s a fact.”