Needed: a Jewish agenda for the ‘nones’

Needed: a Jewish agenda for the ‘nones’

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The recently released Pew Research Center study raised very serious questions concerning the nature of the Jewish community in America. Even if the headlines — about the rise in those who are not religious, are marrying outside the faith, and not raising their children Jewish — are wrong or misleading (as the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg suggests in an acute and much more optimistic critique of the study), these issues ought to be of extreme concern to Jewish leaders, rabbis, and Jewish institutions.

One problem is that, in considering solutions to the problems it describes, people are not radical enough or willing to think outside the box in order to solve them.

For example, it is abundantly clear that, outside of Orthodoxy, the traditional synagogue model is no longer acceptable to many in the community, especially to young people and young families. (Even in Modern Orthodox communities the large synagogue model is being eschewed for smaller, more varied minyanim, even when housed within the same building.)

Many of those remaining involved religiously no longer are opting for the offerings of the mainstream denominations. Meanwhile, a significant number of American Jews are opting for alternatives or identifying themselves as “nones.” Other important trends include the continuing high rate of intermarriage, the growth of Orthodoxy, and the statistical decline of the Conservative movement.

There is a further impression that some Jews are now expressing their desire to “belong” by becoming more active in non-religion based Jewish organizations. They become pro-Israel advocates in AIPAC or activists in Jewish “defense” organizations like the ADL or the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This period of declining synagogue affiliation coincided with the growth in membership and prestige of AIPAC, even among young people. Although there is certainly wide overlap among synagogue-goers and the activist class, it is worth asking whether advocacy for Israel or concerns about anti-Semitism are sufficient alternatives to the religious model of Jewish affiliation.

The Pew Study might also bring American Jews to their senses concerning Jewish education. The decline or closing of some Schechter schools and the stagnation of the day school movement outside of Orthodoxy only confirms the fact that high costs are killing day schools. The soaring costs of tuition have forced more and more Jews in non-Orthodox communities — and even among some in the non-haredi Orthodox community — to send their children to public schools and “hope for the best” with home education and religious afternoon or Sunday schools. The creation of Hebrew charter schools — even with the best of intentions and instruction — hardly fills the gap. In order to qualify as public schools, these charters must not teach Jewish religious values, religious texts, or prayer.

The worrisome statistics on the Jewish community suggest we resurrect an idea famously floated by former Israeli government minister Yossi Beilin in the 1990s: Instead of sending so large a proportion of communal philanthropy to Israel, we should keep more of it at home to spend on Jewish education and identity-building. The social service, non-defense related purposes for which Diaspora money is used by Israel needs to be shouldered by the government of Israel. Israel is not a struggling banana republic, but a highly sophisticated, modern society. Clearly, it still has enormous military needs, but the quasi-governmental activities of Diaspora-supported institutions are vestiges of a by-gone era.

The usual objection to this proposal is that American Jews will not give as generously for Jewish education and other “domestic” agenda items as they will for Israel-based causes. But perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining why support for Jewish education is good for Israel: Without the programs that build Jewish identity in North America, there will be fewer Jews in the next generation willing to support Israel. Birthright Israel — a partnership between Israel and Diaspora philanthropists — is based on this premise. 

There is much more that is both fascinating and challenging in the Pew Report. Its observations need to be addressed with creativity and imagination, even if it ruffles feathers in many quarters.

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