Fresh from Europe, a Jew sees another Jew reading the Yiddish paper on a park bench, on the Sabbath, smoking a cigar. “America is wonderful,” he says. “Here even the gentiles can read Yiddish!”
For much of its history, Judaism’s religious and ethnic elements were indivisible. The joke above reflects a time when a religious Jewish immigrant to the United States could not imagine a Jewish identity divorced from religion. That was then — as observation suggests and studies confirm. In a new “Religious Landscape Study” by Pew, 35 percent of Jews say that religion is very important to them. Only 19 percent attend religious services weekly, and fewer than 20 percent say they read religious texts or participate in prayer groups.
In Pew’s 2013 survey of American Jews, six-in-10 said that being Jewish “is mainly a matter of culture or ancestry,” compared with 15 percent who say it is “mainly a matter of religion.” And yet, some 94 percent agreed they are “proud to be Jewish,” and three-quarters (75 percent) said they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
Jewish literacy, regular religious practice, and belonging to Jewish religious institutions all signal strong commitment to Jewish continuity. They create a Jewish identity that is deeper and more transmissible than merely telling a pollster of one’s Jewish pride. Knowing this, many community leaders have been committing more and more resources to religious schools and institutions.
Yet the expressions of Jewish belonging without religious practice should not be ignored. In another era, secular Jews lived in predominately Jewish neighborhoods and socialized mainly with other Jews. That era is gone. But there is still an opportunity to create programs and entry points into the community for the majority of Jews who do not (yet) embrace a religious practice. For example, 63 percent of Jews told Pew that they have a “special responsibility to care for Jews in need around the world.” That’s good news for the federation movement and other philanthropies that strive to meet our global responsibilities.
We need to keep our religious institutions strong. We must encourage Jewish literacy, since so much of our culture is transmitted through its texts and rituals. But in planning for the Jewish future, we can’t forget a Jewish majority that, while not religious, may be eager to connect in different ways.