The recent results of the Pew Study of American Jewish Community shared the astounding conclusion that the number of, “Nones,” those Jews who claim no religious affiliation or identity, is increasing in number, particularly among the younger demographic slice of our Jewish communities.
We have two immediate options: to ignore this emerging trend, responding solely with minimal resources; or to realize this as an imminent threat to both Jewish survival and the current and future strength of Jewish continuity, whether locally, nationally, or worldwide.
I opt for the latter choice. I’m afraid we are doing too little to give priority towards meeting this challenge. Whether we like it or not, the next generation of Jews are largely disengaged from the active and unwavering support of Israel; their family life is comprised largely of interfaith marriages and dual faith marriages; there are more Jews of color, and more blended households in terms of culture, ethnicity, race as well as religion.
What we do, now, to actively challenge ourselves to embrace this reality, and these real-life, new models and patterns of Jewish family dynamics, will have profound impacts on our Jewish communal life in the immediate and long term future. Are we doing enough? The simple answer is “no”…not yet. There is still an opportunity to engage these Jews, to embrace them, and to envelope them within the tent of our Jewish community. Their inclusion should be among our highest priorities.
How best to do so? It will require a huge shift in Jewish organizational and funding priorities. Does the courage exist within existing Jewish communal institutions to make that bold adjustment?
A brief, yet related, story:
When I was in college, I went on a UJA college-age mission to Israel. I remember hearing a lecture delivered by Dr. Eliezer Jaffe, then professor of Social Welfare at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This was about forty years ago, yet what he said then, still has resonance now. In short, he articulated the belief that if American Jewry sincerely wishes to sustain a safe and secure Jewish future for the State of Israel, the most valuable funding priority it has, is the need to find and fund ways to support, sustain, and strengthen Jewish life in America. All in the attempt to create a vigorous and vibrant future for American Jewry.
Our Federation does a tremendous amount to support Jewish Day School, Middle School, and an emerging Jewish High School. It is a wonderful commitment, yet one which reaches only a small segment of our Jewish community, including or youngest families and their children.
It is good, but is it good enough?
What if we offered free or reduced Religious School tuition to every family that sought a Jewish supplementary school education for their children?
What if we offered to cover a certain portion of synagogue dues for the first year or two of a young person’s or young family’s membership?
What if we offered to cover the compensation costs of our Religious School teachers?What if we were willing, just to try it, for a brief initial trial period?
Please understand: All these actions would take boldness and courage. They would require a significant diversion of funds from our commitment to human services in Israel. Yet in return, they have the chance of making the Jewish community put its money where its mouth is, demonstrating its commitment to the next generation in significant, tangible ways, with immediate impact. That, in turn, would make the case for communal giving ever more relevant, and meaningful, especially to those parents of the next generation, as well as their grandparents. It might even raise the intake of the Federation’s annual campaign.
The “Nones” are not Nothing.
In terms of the Jewish future…They. Are. Everything.
Rabbi Mark Schiftan is the Senior Rabbi of the Temple