Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish

Last week, the Pew Center for Research released a new study of American Jews that is still reverberating throughout the Jewish world and beyond. But so much of the analysis has been locked into binary categories: Who won and who lost? Is the glass half full or half empty? Are Jews a religion or a culture? Are most Jewish Americans pro-Israel or critics of Israel? Thinking in polarities obscures the most important issues facing us.

That is clear in the conversation about the growing disparity between those who anchor their Judaism in religion and those whose anchor lies in culture. There seems to be a rush to “write off” what the Pew survey terms “Jews of no religion.” But before the organized Jewish community does just that, let’s dig a little deeper.

After the percentage that identifies as Reform Jews, the next number of respondents — 30 percent — claim “none of the above” as their religious identification. These ”Nones” consider themselves Jewish, without embracing any of the traditional denominational labels. Rather, they are searching for their own portal into Jewish identity, which may or may not include religious practice. We know that young Jews, especially, are searching for new and creative ways to feel connected. Jews who don’t feel bound by the commands of Orthodox Judaism must embrace their Jewish religion and identity as a choice, not as a given. Reaching out to the ”Nones” is challenging, complicated and will require significant resources. But we cannot afford not to do so.

These “Nones” are part of a growing trend in American life, in which people identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) and one that reaches across religions. Almost 20% of people under 40 now describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, up from 10% in 1998. Without a doubt, there are plenty of Jewish “Nones” who would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Last October, Pew released a study called “Nones on the Rise,” which explored the nuances in describing the inner lives of “Nones.” That study revealed that many “Nones” believe in God, seek spirituality and even pray regularly, but do not relate to the world of organized religion.

Seventy percent of “Nones” in the earlier survey said that religious institutions are too focused on money and power, and too mixed up in politics. The prominent social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have called this intersection of politics and religion the “God gap.” Until the 1970s, progressive Democrats filled church pews while conservative Republicans, for the most part, did not. But after 1980, both progressives and secular conservatives became increasingly rare in church pews. Although Putnam and Campbell followed the trend only in Christianity, it likely has a Jewish equivalent. For a growing circle of Americans, claiming to be “religious” too often implies a link to conservative social policies that they may not share.

Too many Jewish leaders are concluding that an alarming slice of young Jews don’t know and don’t care about being Jewish; but it’s not that simple. Some don’t care much at all, but others do care, even deeply, about their Jewish identity and spirituality. What they have in common is this: They have not found — we have not shown them — compelling, vital Jewish institutions that are relevant to their lives.

Young people, especially, are hungry for meaning and purpose, and for the nourishment the Jewish tradition can offer them. They just are not finding it in conventional institutional structures.

Where can they find it? One example: When the Pew study asked respondents what it means to be Jewish, 56% answered that their Jewish identity is entwined with their work for social justice. For millennia, Judaism has commanded that we become God’s partners in shaping a better and more just world. As God commands in Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for the Eternal your God is holy.” And how does God tell us can we strive to be like God? How can we manifest that holiness? God’s answer speaks as directly to us as it did to the Children of Israel in the wilderness: By feeding the hungry, removing stumbling blocks before the blind, speaking out against injustice, and paying the laborer a fair and timely wage. We best emulate God when we create courts and marketplaces that are fair, just and honest.

Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self, introducing us to a world of meaning and purpose. Tikkun olam is the gateway for most young Jews to live a life of Jewish commitment. Rather than judging tikkun olam as an inadequate path to deeper, lifelong Jewish commitments, we must engage young Jews where they are — all the while strengthening the Jewish underpinning of their idealism. We must employ that gateway to bring them back to Jewish communal life and to Jewish ritual and study.

Another portion of the study that deserves more intense discussion is the section regarding attitudes on Israel.

The Pew study should put to rest the suggestion that Jews today feel increasingly distant from Israel. About seven-in-10 Jews surveyed say they feel either “very attached” (30%) or “somewhat attached” (39%) to Israel. Over 40% of those surveyed have visited Israel, a significant number. There’s no doubt that programs such as Birthright have made a tremendous difference in engaging American Jews with Israel.

But the one-dimensional definitions of “pro-Israel” should also be put to rest. American Jews, just like many Israelis, have a complicated relationship with Israel. For the majority, a peace process that results in a Palestinian state next to a secure Israel is of preeminent concern. Just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security, while 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests. And only 38% believe the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians.

Indeed, “pro-Israel” includes those who are “very attached” and “somewhat attached” to Israel, even when they disagree about specific government policies. Rather than “write off” those who criticize Israeli policies — from peace to pluralism — as outside the pro-Israel camp, we would be wise to count them well within in our ranks.

As we continue to debate the best communal responses to the Pew study, I believe we must not give up on those Jewish Americans who do not fit into the organized Jewish world’s neat binary categories: affiliated/unaffiliated, religious/cultural, committed/uncommitted, lovers of Israel/critics of Israel. The truth is more complex and the Jewish future will be brighter when we learn to broaden and deepen the Jewish tent.

This piece was originally published at

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

11 Responses to “Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish”

  1. avatar

    As a none who found her way into organized synagogue life in her early 20’s and has since left, I can tell you that one of the biggest obstacles to engagement for nones like me remains the high cost of participation.

    I became a none a few years ago when I could no longer afford synagogue dues and couldn’t stand the vibe from synagogue leadership at being someone who somehow wasn’t paying their “fair” share. When every event came with an admission fee and the prices kept getting higher and higher, I walked. I have yet to find a synagogue in my town where I can afford to breathe the raeified air, and have since created a small havurah with a few other friends in the same boat. We celebrate holidays, observe Shabbat and enjoy Jewish lvies together, all without the help of a synagogue.
    Unless something changes, I doubt I’ll go back.

  2. avatar

    Great article. Also, thanks to Batiya for sharing her story.

  3. avatar

    I second Batiya’s comment above about the high cost of synagogue membership being an obstacle, and being seen as not contributing one’s “fair” share if you can’t afford it. This is one of my two main reasons for not belonging to a synagogue.

    My second reason picks up on Rabbi Jacobs’ comments about the obstacles of too much focus in synagogues on money, power, and politics. These focuses translate into whether or not someone feels that they fit in at the synagogue.

    I am a 58 year old woman, and converted to Judaism over 10 years ago. I have only been a synagogue member for 3 of those years. Like the young people Rabbi Jacobs speaks about, I too am hungry for meaning and purpose, and I always had found those things within the context of my Christian faith–specifically the theologically “liberal” stream that focused on social justice as an expression of faith. There I was taught that we are obligated to work to make the world a better place, and our faith demanded it. I believed in this so much that as a 20-something I even went to seminary intending to become a Christian minister and do that very kind of work in the world. The seminary I chose was firmly rooted in social justice. The big surprise was that once I learned more about Christianity and Judaism in seminary, I realized that in my heart and soul I am and have always been a Jew, and converted.

    I was surprised to find that among the Reform congregations I tried to find a place in, the reasons for my conversion and my faith-based commitment to making the work a better place were not enough to secure me a legitimate place. I encountered significant resentment of converts even though converts were keeping the place running, and the internal workings of the synagogue were hamstrung by politics and cronyism.

    Being Jewish is in my core, and I am personally committed to living a Jewish life. But I have given up on synagogue membership, as much as I would like to be able to (1) afford it without being made to feel like an underachiever who is expected to be moving along each year toward full dues; (2) find a synagogue where I can find a point of connection.

    Kudos to Rabbi Jacobs for calling out these important issues.

  4. avatar

    I am very involved in a reform temple for most of my life, had been attending services very often. I have found in the last number of years that the reform movement has drifted even further to the left, views which I most certainly do not share. In this article politics are mentioned as an obstacle to some people, as it is to me. Recently I have started attending services at a conservative shul instead, where I feel there is more traditional Judaism vs just a social action club that I have found in the temple.I pay dues in both places. My faith is very important to me.

  5. avatar

    The high cost of participation is directly tied into the high cost of salaries that are paid. I certainly understand the problem, higher salaries attract more qualified rabbis, cantors and educators, but at the same time, this drives up the dues. Compared to spiritual leaders of other denominations, our clergy are at the top of the pay scale. Is it a calling or a profession? Perhaps the answer to that question will determine the future of the Reform movement

  6. avatar
    Gregory Gronbacher Reply October 14, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Why do some religious communities thrive while others fade? My contribution.

  7. avatar

    Its a thorny subject, is it not? My former synagogue charged a hefty fee for membership (not including building fund, religious school tuition and Bar/Bat Mitzvah fee). The annual budget included a $30,000 annual dues payment to URJ. Rabbi Jacobs: the writing is on the wall. The fact that the families that left the synagoguehave opted for Chabad and their less expensive model shows that they haven’t turned their back on Judaism.

  8. avatar

    While well meaning, Rabbi Jacobs’ essay and the URJ offer precious little insight into our relationship with G-d and the obligations to directly help others implicit to our covenant. Being a Jew means getting digging in and helping prepare meals for the homeless and driving your fellow housebound congregants to services. Repairing the world is a noble sentiment, but unless we are willing to get our hands dirty and tidy up our little corner of the world, Tikkun Olam is nothing but a well-intended shibboleth.

    Rabbi Jacobs’ essay correctly notes that ‘social justice’ is at the core of modern Reform Judaism. Unfortunately, the URJ’s definition of ‘social justice’ could be cut and pasted directly from the Organizing for Obama Website. Ironically, this completely inverts the original meaning of ‘social justice’; which recognized that humans are inherently social and local voluntary organizations like the synagogue buffer the individual from the state. If the core of your existence can be summarized in the DNC party platform, why be a Reform Jew with all its attendant obligations?

    Reform Judaism (and mainline Christian churches) are dying because they don’t offer a compelling reason for their ongoing existence. By outsourcing their virtue and conceptualizing ‘social justice’ in terms of lobbying government to use its coercive power to transfer wealth from one segment of society to another, organized religion has willingly ceded its moral authority and its very reason for existence. And as our Catholic brethren have recently discovered, outsourcing social justice work to government does not prevent the state from acting contrary to core religious principles.

  9. avatar

    Mark Z
    Thanks so much for your comments, I agree with them 110%. To explain what I want from my temple is simple. I want to go there weekly, to enjoy the traditions of my faith, the music, the prayers, etc. I want the social action practiced to not be the main part of the temple, but something on the side. I want ALL social action projects to centre around help for the Jewish people, both at home, Israel and in other places where Jews are at risk – for whatever reasons. As I always explain, I have to support help for the Jews because nobody else will. I can’t afford to worry about the troubles elsewhere, I have enough to worry about the threat that our people are under – everywhere. I agree that the Reform Jews appear to be just a willing tool of the Obama machine, sucked into the belief that they are safe under his wing. I don’t agree. That’s all that I want – in one word – traditions. Polls in the US show that Jews are only interested in two subjects however – abortion rights and gay rights. Israel appears near the end of their thoughts.

  10. avatar

    So, this will be discussed to death at the Biennial. Now, the people at Biennial are the ones who spend their spare time and money on temple life and Jewish causes. Has anyone asked the Nones how to fix things? Our Federation sponsored a survey (for a little over 1 million dollars) a few years ago to address similar concerns. They contacted people thru temple membership rolls and Jewish sounding names in the phone book. Unfortunately, they never got the bulk of the unaffiliateds. A significant segment of the respondents said that cost and an atmosphere of business, was turning them away from temple life- not Judaism per se. Also, that there are too many “Jewish programming professionals” clogging up the works and adding to a bloated infrastructure. The conclusion the Federation came to: We need people to donate money to Federation for more programming to keep Jewish life going. Sigh.


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