Some of us knew this was coming.
Many in the organized Jewish world are shocked by the latest survey of the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project showing 22% of self-identified Jews saying they have “no religion,” including almost 1/3 of Jewish millenials (born since 1980). More than 60% say “being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry/culture” rather than religion or a mixture of both. Nearly a quarter of all Jews don’t believe in a god, compared to 7% of the general US population. Even the Forward’s own Jane Eisner, who commendably encouraged Pew to conduct its study and be open to such results, said, “I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion.”
Fifty years ago, a Reform-trained rabbi and a small number of families in suburban Detroit began an experiment in Jewish community. They wanted their Judaism to focus on Jewish culture and peoplehood rather than religious belief or ritual. They believed in human power and responsibility rather than divine commandment or providence. They built on the legacy of secular Jewish communities (mostly Yiddishist and socialist) from the first half of the 20th century to appeal to Jews from every denominational and cultural background.
As they developed a fifth alternative in Jewish life, Secular Humanistic Judaism, they were ahead of their time, as this survey confirms:
– Welcoming intermarried families, including rabbinic officiation and co-officiation at weddings to provide positive Jewish celebrations in hopes of encouraging Jewish choices in the future. How many intermarried families in this survey not raising children with any Jewish identity were prenuptially rejected, creating another barrier to a Jewish future? Why would you take your family back to people and a tradition that rejected it? 20 years of hyperventilating opposition to intermarriage has had absolutely zero effect on the willingness of Jews to marry for love wherever it leads.
– Jewish self-identification, which encouraged anyone of Jewish background or who chose to be part of the Jewish family to claim their birthright. We count them in surveys, but are they really welcome in our communities?
– Alternative Jewish communities, led by lay people as well as professional leaders, that offered everything from Jewish youth education and holiday celebrations to cultural programming, philosophical exploration, and mutual support. From that one congregation, most major metropolitan areas today feature a community affiliated with either the Society for Humanistic Judaism or the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations.
– Adapting Jewish culture to fit their secular beliefs. Maybe the reason increasing numbers refuse the established Orthodox-Conservative-Reform choices is neither the quality of the music nor the enthusiasm of the rabbi. Maybe it is the content of the Judaism. For college-educated professionals in the twenty-first century, a Judaism built on contemporary science and philosophy that clearly distinguishes myth and history, and whose liturgy clearly celebrates what humanity can do for itself in this world and this life, may resonate better than “not by might, not by power, but by My spirit.” (Zeh. 4:6).
It’s time for the Jewish world to support Jewish options that speak directly and honestly to these secular Jews. Trying to convince them they really should believe what they do not believe will not work. Neither will telling them to recite traditional words with whose values and content they do not agree. A creative and dynamic Reform Rabbi who still insists on active belief in a personal God in services, Sunday School and sermons will not meet their needs; they will choose “none of the above,” as many already have.
Give secular, cultural and Humanistic Jews the right to be who we are – we are good for the Jewish people. To the more religiously inclined, a Judaism for secular Jews may seem paradoxical. But not to the philosophically secular Jews themselves: “off-the-derech” ex-Orthodox, secular Israelis, Russians, the intermarried and adult children of intermarriage, and anyone who believes in both being Jewish and the power and responsibility of people to life their lives independent of supernatural authority.
A successful American Judaism must widen the tent to include “Jewish by culture.” Supporting communities for this growing Jewish population strengthens the American Jewish community. Secular Humanistic Judaism, or other varieties of cultural Jewish identity, might not be for you, but they are crucial for US.