The Pew Research Center’s recent “Portrait of Jewish Americans” found a sharp line dividing “Jews by religion” and those who relate to Judaism through culture, family, and no religion at all. Although both groups showed great pride in their Jewishness, Jews by religion (across the denominations) scored higher in key indicators of “continuity,” like marrying other Jews, raising their children Jewish, and giving to Jewish charities.
The Pew study is, by plan or coincidence, the backdrop to a provocative proposal by two respected communal figures (see op-ed). Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky propose, as an option for those who eschew a religious conversion, a process of “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.” It would enable them to engage in “a course of study and socialization that would lead to public recognition of their having joined the Jewish people.” In essence, they propose a way to help non-Jews become cultural Jews or “Jews of no religion.”
Critics say their proposal devalues the religious essence of Judaism, would leave its target population in an identity limbo, and reduces Jewishness to a series of shallow cultural gestures. “Herring is not a religion,” writes one detractor.
But whatever the proposal’s merits, its authors’ intentions are sound. They remember when Jews, religious or not, shared neighborhoods, history, a language, and, yes, even a common menu. While they cherish Judaism as a religion, they also know that it isn’t for everybody, including perhaps a majority of born Jews.
Putting aside the topic of conversion, the authors present a challenge to all of us: How can we find different pathways for Jews to live their Judaism and create a common sense of purpose and destiny amidst our diversity? As Pew sinks in, addressing this question will be essential in every Jewish community.