Using Education to Rebrand Jewish Identity for Unaffiliated Jews
In recent years, studies of American Jewry – such as the landmark Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” – have painted a decidedly mixed picture. The overall population has remained stable at about 6.7 million, the largest Jewish population in the world. Jewish children in the New York Metropolitan area – the core of America’s Jewish population – have high rates of participation in Jewish education and cultural life.
The Generational Shift
Yet these facts obscure aspects that are vital to visualizing the bigger picture. According to the UJA-Federation of New York’s population study, the stable rates of participation in Jewish communal life in New York are due largely to the growth of the Orthodox population – and the lower birth rates among other streams of Judaism, has created a unpredicted a 61% Orthodox majority amongst Jewish children in the NYC metro area. Parallel to the growth of the Orthodox population has been the growing number of younger unaffiliated Jews. As of 2011, 26% of New York Metro Jews were unaffiliated from any denomination of Judaism – a greater percentage than Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. And that figure is only slightly higher than the national level of unaffiliated Jews – 22% as of 2013 according to Pew.
Most noteworthy, however, is the drop in affiliation levels amongst young American Jews. A remarkable 40% of Millennial Jews do not identify with any stream of Judaism, leaving an absolute majority of non-Orthodox youth shifting from signs that once defined the traditional communal structures. Statistically speaking they’re less likely to commit to traditional aspects of Jewish Community such attending religious services and donating to Jewish causes. Young Jews shy away from commitment to marry a Jewish spouse. Fewer Jews are educating children to self -identify as Jews, to care about the State of Israel, or to learn about Jewish culture.
Getting past the Statistics
For Jewish communal professionals and educators these disappointing statistics on American Jewish youth don’t signal a new trend. The decline in affiliation has been noted for decades. So what’s the cause of this disheartening drift away from Jewish identity? And more importantly, is there a solution?
In some ways, the challenge of maintaining the link to tradition is an ongoing and never ending process. Keeping Judaism relevant to the present while remaining rooted in its past is hardly a challenge unique to the modern era. It was this, Judaism’s eternal conundrum – stretching tradition to reach both past and present – that led Moses Maimonides to write his classic treatise of rationalist Jewish philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed, Israel Ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, to spread his Hasidic teachings emphasizing emotional worship and the popular appeal of inwardness and mysticism, and how Moses Mendelsohn attempted to reconcile Jewish otherness with the obligations of being a citizen in the diaspora.