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Religion Is Only One Way To Identify As A Jew
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Marion L. Usher
Marion L. Usher

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.

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The problem with the position of
Marion Usher is the question of the
quality of Jewish identity that she
is suggesting. A secular Jewish
identity without G-d will wither
on the vine and die. Jewish
identity has to be more than
just music, art, literature, or
food appreciation. It must
be within a religious context.

Alan Levin

Ethical Culture is about Ethics; every decent group does that. Ethical Monotheism started with Judaism. We observe SHABBAT to note that GOD rested on the seventh day after creation and at MT Sinai gave us the LAWS OF LIVING HAPPILY WITH OURSELVES AND WITH OTHERS and we are all created equal in the sight of GOD.
WE are all Brothers (and Sisters) and more precious than animals because we have a soul with GODS Characteristics of love, caring, respect. When we do good we get closer to the unseen creator of the Universe, harmony not chaos.
Judaism is a legal system based on Laws given by GOD....Man is born with an inclination to do evil...only free choice, not fear of GOD, governs our actions.

I once heard Rabbi Schwadron, the Maggid of Jerusalem, explain the high rate of heart disease among Reform Jews this way: An Orthodox Jew, he said, walks to Shul with his feet, prays with his mouth, puts Tefillin on his hand and head, uses his eyes to study Torah and his hands to give charity, and so on. A non-Observant Jew, asked to participate in a Jewish activity, always responds, “I’m a Jew at heart”. Since for him all the Mitzvot are put on that single organ, of course it fails under the pressure!

There are many statements in Marion Usher’s opinion piece on the Pew survey (Religion Is Only One Way To Identify As A Jew, 10/30/2013 ) that I agree with. Her conclusions, though, appear to me to be totally at odds with the facts, even as she presents them. Blaming “nuance” for the fact that reality doesn’t meet her fantasy is nothing more than denial.

Yes, remembering the Holocaust and leading a moral and ethical life are central to Jewish identification. Yes, members of the Workmen’s Circle movement often didn’t belong to a synagogue but still identified as Jews. Yes, young people are expressing their Jewish identity with social justice activism. Yes, Jewish film festivals are a part of the growing movement to engage Jews. Yes, young people say that Jewish identity means to them Jewish ancestry, honoring those who perished in the Holocaust, or having a strong belief system, social justice effort, or having an attachment to Jewish culture.

But follow those thoughts through: How many grandchildren of Workman’s Circle members are practicing Jews today, by any definition? The same for those descended from the I.L. Peretz center members, Yiddishe Farband, Yiddish-theatre-goers, and virtually all Jews that were only culturally attached. Over the last few centuries, Jews have attached themselves to “isms” of all types, but in the process have for the most part lost their descendants to Judaism unless they remained at least somewhat Observant.

I don’t attempt to make the claim that every Jew must be Orthodox. But If you dilute the religion to simply having feelings about something Jewish, you doom the future of Judaism. Yes, social justice is important and a Jewish value, but it is not distinctively Jewish. (All people, young or not, should have this sensitivity, and many non-Jews also do- don’t kid yourself.) Making this the primary ticket to Judaism removes the distinction of Jews as a separate group. Following the logic in her article would lead to the extinction of Judaism altogether within two generations or so- How many second or third- generation Reform Jews do you know of?

So no, if a couple goes to a Tot Shabbat program, it doesn’t by itself count as raising a Jewish child. No, If a group gets together only for a Chanukah party, they aren’t religious. No, eating Deli or bagels-and-lox isn’t enough. No, just feeling Jewish inside isn’t enough.

While there is much to be debated in properly understanding the Pew study, using it to spin the idea of reducing Judaism to solely a social- action/ Holocaust memorial/ film festival movement is not only absurd, it has already been tried, and has failed.
Judaism is a religion, like it or not, and religion is about faith and about God. Observe or not, that is your choice, but trying to take observance away from it or making it obsolete cannot work, because in the end, it’s all about truth, tradition, and being or at least feeling specialness.

Yossi Ginzberg
New York City

Excellent article. We should remember that there is no word for 'religion' in the Tanakh - or for conversion...