The Jewish community-focused Pew Research Center study, Jewish Americans in 2020, published in May and the first since 2013, elucidated major trends in terms of religion, politics and Israel. The following is an edited conversation between Jason Moss, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, and Rabbi Daniel Levine, Senior Jewish Educator of Orange County Hillel, as they reflect on this study. A link to the Pew report appears at the end of this piece.
Daniel: The latest Pew survey was published during the recent flare up with Gaza, so much of the Jewish world’s attention was focused elsewhere. Now that things have calmed down, it has started receiving the attention it deserves. What was your initial reaction when you saw the data?
Jason: My first reaction was simply a resounding “Yes!” This is the trend I’ve been seeing in the Jewish community and the data matched up with my understanding of the contemporary Jewish community. Aside from the increase in the Orthodox community, the wider Jewish community is evolving in a way we haven’t seen in a long time and now we have the data that illustrates it.
People are engaging Jewishly however they want to and it is crucial for Jewish organizations to provide that we provide multiple entry points into the Jewish community. The goal should be to get people involved in Jewish life, in whatever ways they wish to engage.
Daniel: I think it’s interesting and worthwhile to focus on the increase in Orthodoxy (17% of American Jews ages 18-29 identify as Orthodox, compared to only 3% of American Jews 65 and older) and what the wider liberal Jewish community can learn.
There is obviously an array of factors including high birthrates, low assimilation rates, and financial investment in Orthodox outreach programs, but there is also a deep-rooted sentiment that Orthodoxy brings an authenticity that is often lacking from the wider liberal Jewish world. I think it’s an interesting challenge to liberal Jewish institutions in terms of how they might respond to this sentiment.
Jason: There is certainly a strong underpinning for traditional observance as it’s the bedrock of any religion. When people live Jewishly many may feel the need to do it in the most traditional way. This fact doesn’t make it right or wrong—it just is. I totally agree that we need to understand why some of these programs are so successful, and that’s where the learning opportunity comes in.
Daniel: I think a key takeaway is the passion and commitment that is seen from much of the Orthodox leadership and a need for liberal Jewish community leaders to show the same level of dedication. When it comes to, say, a Chabad Rabbi, everyone knows that they are fully committed to the mission and that their work isn’t simply a job where they “take off their hat” when they’re done for the day. That level of passion is contagious and attractive. In my personal work as a liberal Rabbi, I certainly try to work with the same wholeheartedness and dedication to the Jewish community.
Jason: I also find the “others” to be a fascinating category (32% of American Jews said they did not identify with a specific Jewish denomination and 27% identify as “Jews of no religion,” with higher numbers for younger categories). There is certainly more of a balancing act necessary when it comes to attracting them to the Jewish community.
Initiatives like Birthright Israel and PJ Library—programs that quite literally deliver Judaism to the people—are crucial moving forward. We can’t be passive. The Pew study is begging the question as to how the Jewish community stays relevant in the life of Jews, and unless we get a handle on what this means for individuals, we will have a serious problem.
Daniel: We need a way to instill a sense of Jewish responsibility for a new generation that might not have the same deep-rooted attachment or nostalgia for Jewish practice. This is certainly the work that I’m engaged in with Hillel.
We need to help young Jews understand the value of both the Jewish community and tradition in a quickly changing and evolving world. I also wanted to bring up that 75% of Jews think that antisemitism in America is more of a problem today than five years ago. How do you think this is playing out in the wider community?
Jason: I’ve certainly heard people questioning whether they should start hiding their Jewishness, or that they already have. But online platforms aside, we haven’t been outside for over a year and it will be interesting to see what happens when we return and re-gather in person. It is important to also keep in mind that in America there is also just more hatred in general towards many minority groups—the “other,” the proliferation of anti-Asian hate being just one example.
Daniel: The ubiquity of online antisemitism, often in the form of anti-Zionism, is troubling, especially for younger people as social media continues to be a large part of their day-to-day lives. We need Jewish professionals and leadership that can speak to these challenges and discuss Israel in an informed and nuanced way. I fear that many individuals in Jewish leadership don’t have a full grasp on the issue, and this will only become more important as time goes on.
Jason: Israel education definitely needs more effort. We need to teach the history while being open and honest about the complexity of the issue and multiplicity of narratives. I’m reminded of the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye tells two different people, arguing opposite things, that they are both right. A third person turns and says, “They can’t both be right,” and Tevye simply replies, “You’re right too!”
It also can be difficult for American Jews and society at large to understand Israel. Much of the internal nuance is certainly lost on communities and the public sphere in America.
Daniel: It’s certainly problematic for a variety of reasons when Americans try to project our political environment and debates on Israel. It’s an over simplistic and lazy way of thinking about the issue. I also find it interesting how the opposite is true as well. Israelis often have a tough time understanding and sympathizing with the American Jewish community.
First off, many Israelis simply see diasporic Jewish communities as being in a waiting room until they move to Israel, whereas the majority of American Jews feel at home in America. Furthermore, Israelis have a tough time understanding why diasporic Jews find populist/nationalist figures like Trump or Viktor Orban so troubling despite the fact that they are “pro-Israel.” The different sets of assumptions that the average American Jew and the average Israeli makes about international politics will only serve to drive a bigger wedge between the two communities, highlighting the need for more engagement and conversations with our Jewish brothers in Israel.
Jason: Bringing us back, the other significant take away for me from the Pew study is that we need our Jewish institutions to continue to embrace change. Just as in the last generation, when data of higher intermarriage rates shaped the next chapter of Jewish life, we need to be proactive and utilize the data to respond to newer trends. This has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing with any specific change, but how we respond as a community.
The question then becomes: How do we stay true to the mission while bending in a way that allows us to try and better address the wants and needs of those that aren’t currently being served by the traditional organized Jewish community?
Daniel: It certainly makes me feel better to know that we have a long history of Jewish tradition and discussion centered around that exact question!
Jason: Exactly! And, coming off of COVID, we saw a higher participation in virtual programming than before and we have truly learned how to innovate and bring Judaism to people in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to them. We have also learned a lot more about the experiences ethnically diverse Jews, and for that matter LGBTQ+ Jews, have had and the need to be more inclusive so that all Jews can feel at home.
At the end of the day when talking about the overall report, data is neutral—it’s what we do with data that’s important. If we decide to learn from it and take hold of the challenges, we will continue to evolve and meet the needs of the community in a way that is authentic and meaningful.
To read the Pew Research Center study visit https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine. He can be reached