Recently, much of the conversation in North American Jewish circles has been dominated by the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews released at the beginning of October.
Jewish federations throughout North America, including the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, and many other Jewish organizations, from local synagogues to the largest international bodies, have discussed the implications of the study and what to do about the trends it reports.
Indeed, the Pew study has been the No. 1 topic of late in much of the Jewish media.
It’s a primary focus of our report on page 3 about the Federation’s panel discussion about the Pew report, of Rabbi Howard Finkelstein’s From the Pulpit column on page 6, of a JTA report from the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on page 17, of a JTA report of how Conservative synagogues are wrestling with an effect of growing rates of intermarriage on page 26; and is also mentioned in the article about the challenges faced by Ottawa’s synagogues on page 1, and in Ilana Belfer’s Emerging Gen column on page 3, Andrea Freedman’s publisher’s column on page 8 and Bram Bregman’s guest column on page 18.
Although the Pew report statistics apply specifically to U.S. Jews, there is much for Canadian Jews to learn from the trends. The conventional wisdom used to be that Canadian Jews were a generation behind our American cousins in societal trends. I’ve seen some Canadian commentators who agree with that, others who think we’ve already caught up.
Perhaps the Pew report statistic that has caused the greatest anxiety in Jewish circles is the one about Jews who identify as being Jewish, but as “Jews of no religion.”
The Pew report shows that the younger one is, the more likely they are to be a Jew of no religion. Overall, 22 per cent of adult U.S. Jews identify as such. Broken down by generation, we see that it ranges from just seven per cent of the greatest generation – the generation that fought in the Second World War – to 32 per cent of the millenials, those born after 1980. My own cohort, baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, is at 19 per cent.
A bit of perspective: According to 2010 polling data, 42 per cent of Jewish Israelis identify themselves as “secular,” that is to say “Jews of no religion.” That’s almost double the findings for American Jews in the Pew report. Another 25 per cent of Jewish Israelis in the 2010 poll identified as “not very religious.”
There are many reasons for the growing trend of Jews claiming no religion and a lot of them go back to the development of liberal thought and modernity and to how we now live in North America as citizens who fully participate in all aspects of our wider society. Perhaps that’s subject fodder for future columns.
In many ways, the Pew report statistics tie in to conversations that have dominated Jewish circles for a long time on how to engage young adults – the emerging generation in their 20s and 30s – in Jewish life. It has been one of the primary focus areas of the Federation in recent years and certainly in the pages of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. Putting the Bulletin fully online – which we’re doing for the first time with this issue – is a major component of our strategy to engage the emerging generation, most of whom have abandoned printed newspapers in favour of the digital world.
Aspects of these conversations always remind me of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Montreal in the 1970s and ’80s, when I was a member of the emerging generation, I took part in similar discussions. And mine was hardly the first generation to have those discussions.
The same can be said about the changes we’re seeing in synagogue life in Ottawa. The models that worked a century ago had been abandoned or changed by the 1950s and ’60s. The solutions we find now will be different than they were then; and, years from now, new solutions will have to be found when today’s emerging generation is wondering how to engage their grandchildren in Jewish life.