By David Bornstein
The Good Word 

The new Jew


In the important new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, American Jews overwhelmingly (by 94 percent) say they are proud to be Jewish. And yet, one of the most significant trends cited by the survey is the growing percentage (32 percent) of younger, “Millennial Generation”Jews, who identify themselves as Jews with no religion, considering themselves Jewish solely on the basis of ancestry, culture, or ethnicity. This stands in sharp contrast to my parents’ generation—the  “Greatest Generation”—who lived through World War II and the booming 50s. Fully 93 percent of that group consider themselves Jews because of their religion.

Other equally noteworthy trends are cited. Jews by religion are less religious than they once were. More Orthodox Jews are becoming Conservative, more Conservative Jews are changing to Reform, and more Reform Jews are disavowing religion (though not their Judaism) entirely. Jews with no religion are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to raise their children as Jews. Rates of intermarriage continue to soar. Sixty percent of Jews who married since 2000 have intermarried, and while it is not clear whether intermarried Jews become less religious or less religious Jews tend to intermarry more, there is a strong relationship between the two.

It’s easy to say that these trends are obvious.  Synagogues are struggling to attract young families. Intermarriage rates are clearly up, and have been rising for decades. Jewish organizations are struggling to connect to the next generation, and that’s been going on for a long time, too. But what we must look at, what we can’t ignore in the information provided by the Pew survey, is what synagogues, Jewish organizations, agencies and groups must do to reconnect with American Jews, to attract the young Jewish population that still maintains a strong Jewish identity but does not identify with a strong belief in God or religious practices. That synthesis of this information, and what we do with it, is critical if Judaism is to adapt and survive into the future.

As we digest this research, it becomes clear that, though Jewish identity is still strong and Jewish pride is unquestionable, commitment to Jewish religious laws (halakha) is wavering. It’s not that important to be kosher anymore to most Jews. If you work on the Sabbath you can still be Jewish. What is important? Remembering the lessons of the Holocaust. Leading an ethical, moral life.  Working for justice and equality.

So what’s the quick take? First, there isn’t an issue about Jewish identity. Jews like being Jews.  We’re proud of our history, our accomplishments, our values.  There is an issue about religious identity.  It is getting watered down all the time. To try and ram religious doctrine down the throats of next generations that don’t swallow it makes no sense at all.

There is still an important place for religious services and practices.  Let’s not overlook the fact that while the percentage of Jews who don’t consider themselves religious is growing, there is still a plurality of Jews who believe in God and consider themselves religious. We’re not talking about gutting the religious aspect of being Jewish, then; we’re talking about modernizing it.

And for our agencies and synagogues alike, that means worrying less about intermarriage and, rather, accepting it as a part of our contemporary culture. It means less programming about religious traditions and more hands-on activities and wide-ranging discussions that have to do with core Jewish values: protecting the earth, helping the poor, ensuring human dignity and equality for all. It means taking the lessons of the Holocaust and applying them to today, to standing up for the oppressed, to saying no, not just to anti-Semitism, but to prejudice and genocidal politics wherever they appear.

We don’t have to concern ourselves so much with promoting Jewish identity. From what we can see, we feel good about being Jewish, and so does the next generation. But the Millennials also like building, seeing, connecting directly. They want to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. They want to give macro-loans to fund fresh water wells in Africa, to promote eco-tourism in the Amazon basin, to provide seedlings to reforest land in Tibet. Organizations like the national and local Jewish federations need to take a long, hard look at themselves and understand the new Jewish focus.  It’s not the same old message anymore. It’s not about giving to the general community pot.  It’s not about obligation or guilt. It’s about value-centric change.

For Judaism to move into the new millennia, it must market and program for the new Millennials.  And that means a fundamental shift in the missions of our synagogues and agencies must take place. We have been a “light unto the nations” for thousands of years. It’s that brilliant, ethical light that will lead us into the future, if we’re willing to open our eyes.

And that’s the good word.

The opinions in this column are those of the writer and not the Heritage or any other individual, agency or organization. Send your thoughts, comments, and critiques to the Heritage or email


Reader Comments(1)

SexSociologist writes:

Based on what I have read you are very accurate in your assessment and recommendations. More research needs to be funded using qualitative methods (intense interviews). I do know you are going to get some people upset which shows you have hit a social nerve. It will be interesting to watch how this debate materializes and see if a paradigm change occurs in the Jewish community.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2021