One in Five Jews Say They Have No Religion: Applying Pew’s Lessons to the Future of Rodeph Shalom

Add your voice to the discussion: “Pew’s Findings on Jews in America: Hearing the Voices of Our Community” on Wed., Feb. 26 @ 7:00 pm at RS, with a panel featuring Pew Study director Alan Cooperman.

How does Jacob find meaning?  How do you find meaning in our Jewish community?  And how about the person who is connected to no Jewish organization, but might be on a quest for meaning?   How do we listen to what it is that person seeks?

Consider Jacob.  After stealing the blessing from Esau, Jacob flees from his angry brother.  In his travels, one night he dreams of angels climbing a ladder to heaven.  Shaken, he declares, “God is in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Now, consider the interviewer from the recent Pew Research Study of the American Jewish population.  Imagine the interviewer were to phone our patriarch, Jacob.

She asks him: Is your belief in God, or in a universal spirit a) absolutely certain; b) less than certain; c) no-belief; or d) don’t know.  What do you propose Jacob would answer?  According to the stories of Genesis, I would guess that his response would change over the course of his life’s journey, depending on the experiences he encounters.

We aren’t much different than Jacob.  No wonder readers of the Pew study, and of past such studies, often see the number of Jewish believers as lower than they might expect.  The problem is not that the question, asks about your belief in God.  The problem is the answer.  In Judaism, it’s not a simple, multiple choice, or Yes/No reply.

The Pew Survey reports:  Large numbers of Jews say that leading an ethical life, working for justice, and being intellectually curious are essential to what being Jewish means to them.  But these are all spiritual questions.

For Jews, a direct question about belief in God, is not the only spiritual indicator.  The everyday, or in Jacob’s case, the every-place, is rich with potential for deeper meaning.  God is in every place: in ethical choices, justice, intellectual search.

As the survey director acknowledges, Jews defy easy categorization.  How I would love to talk with the Pew study respondents to learn, not about the level of certainty in their faith, but the nature of their faith!  Or to at least have an essay question so that we could learn about people’s search for meaning!  (I guess that’s why I am a rabbi and not a sociologist.)

What would we ask respondents if we had the chance to have a face to face conversation…  In what place do you find God?  (Or if you prefer, replace “God” with “meaning”).  In what experience do you doubt God?  Are you interested in delving deeper into your spiritual journey?   What do you have faith in?  If those respondents were anything like the congregants here, we would discover a rich, diverse well of spiritual struggle, doubt and faith.

Spirituality is only one of many areas of study in the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Portrait of Jewish Americans.  The study includes Jewish identity, population, intermarriage, religious belief and practice, connection with Israel, social and political views, and people of Jewish background and affinity.  As the Pew report says, Jews defy easy categorization.  In order to better understand the conclusions in the Pew report and to hear the voices and needs of today’s Jewish community, our Congregation will join together for a conversation of the issues Pew raises.

Many of you have already studied the Pew report, heard presentations and read interpretations.  At RS, we will have the opportunity to take a different approach.  Through the lens of profound connections and the strategy of audacious welcoming, we will explore the potential our particular congregation has to make an impact.   Our upcoming panel discussion with our featured guest Alan Cooperman,  Ross Berkowitz, David Fischer, Catherine Fischer and our clergy, leadership and members, will empower us to think deeply and challenge ourselves to more and more become a congregation relevant to the next generation of Jews, potential Jews, and all who may seek a Jewish path.

Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research at the Pew Research Center, who oversaw the Portrait of Jewish Americans study and served as lead editor, will present and interpret the data, providing common language and understanding.

Ross Berkowitz, Founding Director of Tribe 12, will share his experiences working with young adults in Philadelphia, and engaging the next generation of Jews.

David Fischer, RS member, will share his experiences and challenges from an LGBT and an interfaith relationship perspective.

Catherine Fischer, director of Membership and Program here at RS will illustrate what she has learned by listening to the needs and journeys of members and prospective members of our congregation.

Participants will explore with our response to the Pew study, wrestle with bold ideas for our sacred work, imagine the potential of 21st century Judaism that truly reaches out with audacious welcome to all generations and deepen our passion for the future of the Jewish people.

Join us to explore how Congregation Rodeph Shalom can hear, respond to and empower the next generation of the Jewish community.

Whet your appetite by reading the Pew Report!

Questions: please contact Rabbi Jill Maderer