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Humanist leader finds solace in Pew Study data
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Humanist leader finds solace in Pew Study data

Miriam Jerris believes her movement reflects a prevailing trend

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Miriam Jerris says many things that have long been part of the Jewish religion do not speak to American Jews today.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris says many things that have long been part of the Jewish religion do not speak to American Jews today.

The Pew Study has been poked and prodded and cited and quoted by Jews across the spectrum, mostly accompanied by plenty of hand-wringing and, on occasion, proposed solutions for the high rates of assimilation, intermarriage, and general lack of engagement they believe the study reveals. 

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, who leads the Society for Humanistic Judaism, has a different take. Her perspective stems partly from her position at the edge of the Jewish community in a little embraced and less understood denomination.

“More and more Jews see Judaism as something other than or in addition to religion, such as ancestry or culture,” said Jerris. “There are plenty of people who identify as Jews and don’t feel connected through religion.”

That’s where Humanistic Judaism comes in. “That’s exactly how we define Judaism: the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people,” she said. “The Jewish community has been struggling with that for a long time, but we have long embraced it.”

On Friday, Nov. 21, Kahal Chaverim, the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Morris County, will host Jerris, who will offer her take on the Pew’s 2013 “Portrait of American Jews” at the Randolph Community Center. 

In advance of that talk, NJJN had the opportunity to speak with Jerris about her views on the study, and on humanistic Judaism more generally.

Those views draw on her undergraduate training in social psychology and her first job working in survey research, as well as her master’s and doctoral work in Jewish studies, all of which required skills in statistical analysis. 

According to Pew, 62 percent of the Jews it surveyed said being Jewish is “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture,” while just 15 percent said it is mainly “a matter of religion.” What distressed many Jewish community leaders and planners, however, were numerous indications that “Jews of no religion” (as Pew described secular or cultural Jews) are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.

Jerris acknowledges that the rising numbers of those identifying as secular Jews doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in those identifying with denominations like Humanistic Judaism. “That’s because when you look at the data, a large percentage of those people who do not identify with religion still identify with a denomination, including 1 percent of Orthodox Jews,” she said. 

Reviewing the common conclusion drawn from the study that Jews are more secular than they ever have been, Jerris said, “Anytime anyone does a religious identity study, Jews are always more secular than anyone. It’s a trend. But this is really a big jump. And we need to understand it on a really deep level.” 

She takes issue with the way “Jewish” was defined for the purposes of the study. “Consider that 34 percent of those interviewed say you could believe Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The qualifying questions for this study are the most open I’ve ever seen,” she said. 

At the same time, she said, she believes that if Jews really are becoming more secular, they ought to be more attracted to Humanistic Judaism. 

“In Humanistic Judaism, we affirm Jewish cultural identity, but there are no prayers or petitions to a higher power,” she explained. “We’ll say ‘Baruch ha’or ha’olam,’ ‘Blessed is the light of the world.’ We say what we believe and we believe what we say. We don’t feel we have to reconstruct what words mean.” 

Jerris is careful to distinguish Humanistic Judaism from Reconstructionism, a liberal Jewish denomination that still professes a belief in God.

“Many of the things that have been part of the Jewish religion for a long time, like kashrut, Shabbat, and liturgy, do not necessarily speak to American Jews today. If those are the only things that are important about being Jewish, we’re in trouble,” she said. 

Jerris attributes this secularization, this focus on all aspects of Jewish culture — from humor to literature to food — which do speak to modern Jews, as an outcome of living in an open society. 

“We’re not ghettoized anymore. We’re part of a larger community. Would we really want it differently? I don’t think so.” 

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