Parashat Chaye Sarah reminds us of two primary Jewish concerns: land and continuity. Land: It isn’t enough for Abraham to have access to land for burying his beloved Sara, he must own the land, a piece of real estate to which his sons and generations following can return. Indeed, the sons do return before the end of this parashah. They return to this spot to bury their father.
Continuity: After Sarah’s burial, Abraham’s prime concern before he dies becomes finding a suitable wife for Isaac so that God’s promise of progeny can be fulfilled. And the blessing her family offers as a send off: May you grow into thousands of myriads; may your offspring seize the gates of their foes.”
אין חדש תחת השמים
There is nothing new under the heavens. Land and continuity consumed the biblical consciousness. They remain chief concerns among Jews today; hence, the heated fervor over media reports of the latest Pew Forum on Jewish life in America. Our continuity, we are told, is at stake:
"… Outside of the Orthodox, Jewish life is vanishing, one in five Jews says he or she has 'no religion,' nearly three in five are now marrying outside the group, and [these] non-religious are more distanced from Israel. Only a portion of the intermarried are raising their children Jewish." Couple this with decreased interest and attendance at what were, at one time, very well-attended worship services and synagogue programs, and we have reason to feel dismayed.
Despite all of the media attention, the results of this recent survey should not surprise us. Like Americans generally, Jews are showing weaker ties to faith and community than they did in the past. Recall that the Pew Forum put out results of a survey on Americans and religion in July (the one to which I referred on Rosh Hashanah) that reported the same result for all Americans that is now being documented specifically for American Jews. Did we think we were exempt?
What isn’t being reported, or perhaps even gleaned from the raw data, is that there is something to be celebrated in this most recent report. We are fully, for better and worse, Americans. The challenges reported highlight that we have, indeed, fully integrated into American society. We have opportunities that generations past could not even have imagined: citizenship rights, separation of church and state which guarantee religious freedom, social acceptance, opportunity for and access to economic success. The liberties we experience today, and expect today, here and abroad, however, have consequences, namely the freedom to opt in or out of involvement with the Jewish community.
We must face this challenge, yes; but we also must recognize the success behind it. In my opinion, the best way for the American Jewish community to face today’s challenges is to focus, not on what appears to be going wrong based on past expectations of what it means to be a Jew, but on positive outcomes that are present in this survey.
The Pew Forum report opens by stating that,
American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. 94% of respondents said they were proud to be Jewish! Extraordinary! In my young adulthood, being Jewish elicited feelings of burden, sometimes embarrassment. Being Jewish could be a cause of problems. Pride? Not so much.
Seventy-five percent reported to have a strong sense of “belonging” to the Jewish people. Yes, Jews today – particularly young ones - are saying they have “no religion,” but they still say they are Jewish. They are still seeking to connect to something they understand as Judaism. Clearly, we’ve done something right as a Jewish community.
The other vital piece of information this survey provides is that the manner in which Jews are expressing this pride in their Jewish identity is changing, not necessarily disappearing -- changing. We are quick to assume that this change is inherently bad because “their” expression of Jewish may not look like what we know to be Jewish. More and more Jews today aren’t interested in expressing their Judaism the way ‘we’ did or ‘we’ want them to; but, is that necessarily a bad thing worthy of piling on the possibility of the dissolution of the Jewish people on their backs? I don’t think so.
According to J.J. Goldberg of The Forward, the Pew Forum made some critical errors in their interpretation of the data. He argues that while we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore trends, the statistics are far less threatening than Pew's researchers claim. For example, he points to studies that show intermarriage rates leveling off in the 1990’s and remaining stable over the last 15 years. He also notes that while in 1990, the National Jewish Population Study predicted only 28% of children raised in interfaith homes would remain Jewish into adulthood, this 2013 Pew Study indicates that 43% actually did.
Who are we to believe? Is the end of liberal Judaism as we know it upon us, or is there hope and possibility for a vibrant progressive, non-Orthodox Judaism in the future? The bottom line is that the results point to a complicated picture of Jewish life in America. Our affiliation rates and levels of observance fall victim to the same trends that every organized religious group faces in America. In that regard, we are not at all unique among the nations. However, at the same time, Jews still want to identify and be Jewish. What the Pew Forum has successfully proven is that being “religious” has never been the sole criteria, or perhaps even a primary criteria, of Jewish identity.
Instead of our harping on dire predictions regarding the fall of religion in America (including our beloved Reform Judaism), it seems to me that we should be focusing on how the synagogue can meet that remaining and passionate desire to be proudly Jewish that according to the Pew, still exists. How do we do so? I don’t have any fast or easy answers, but our energy should be poured into looking at how we connect with that Jewish pride, bring it in to our community, and welcome it. Those of us who still find fulfillment in what the synagogue has traditionally offered and want it to remain a central Jewish institution second only to the family, have a vital role. We have to take the first steps in envisioning the future by being open to change and the possibility that the synagogue can continue to thrive even if it looks different than it did in the past or looks different than it does now.
Our Torah portion recounts the years of Sara and Abraham. It ends with the generations of Ishmael and leaves us ready to review the generations of Isaac. Sara and Abraham were, by virtue of that covenant of promised land, blessing, and progeny, the first Jews. Generations later, we sit here in a synagogue experiencing worship in a very different manner than they could have ever imagined; and yet we do so as an expression of that same Jewish connection and identity, viewing ourselves in the line of their progeny. Imagine -- what if they weren’t open to change?