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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

Identity construction processes both in Israel and in the U.S. are in states of flux. These changes run in parallel and have several points of tangency but are nonetheless distinct and in some cases following different trajectories.

The 2013 Pew report6 portrayed a majority of American Jewish adults as possessing a sense of Jewish belonging and solidarity. It also showed an emerging (and younger) group for whom Jewishness is ethnicity in the descriptive sense but not a cornerstone of identity. For the former group, Jewishness constitutes a “civil religion”7 which is symbolized by, but not identical to, a more traditional conception of religious identity. The latter group (now about 20% of Jewish adults), however, has no connection with these norms of Jewish solidarity and commitment. As one descends among age cohorts the percentage of this group of ‘Jews of no religion’ grows.

This transition in identity ideation also has implications for the future of identity-based public and political engagement on the part of the Jewish community, and for the character of the community itself. This trend would be damaging to Jewish communal life in the U.S. as it exists today and in the most recent past. The policy choices confronting the Jewish community would be to engage in measures to enhance and broaden the capacity and attractiveness of existing forms of Jewish identification, to work out new mechanisms for accommodating communal life with changing conceptions of Jewish identity, or to witness the phenomenon of a large or even growing number of self-identified U.S. Jews accompanied by a shrinking “committed” Jewish “community.”

Jewish identity is clearly important in Israel, but its forms differ from those of the Diaspora. There, Jewish identity is primarily national-political and ensures full inclusion in Israel’s socio-economic-political collectivity. Developments this year touched upon this identity construct as well. The Knesset saw legislative initiatives designed to strengthen the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. Other initiatives: Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett initiated construction of a prayer area adjacent to the southern part of the Western Wall in which egalitarian and non-Orthodox services may take place (an initiative that is similar to the Sharansky compromise). And in a historic first, as of Jan. 1, 2014, four Reform rabbis began receiving salaries from the state. Jewish identity in Israel is also changing as a result of a movement of Jewish renewal among those at the more secular end of the spectrum. This was highlighted when MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) used her maiden parliamentary speech to teach a passage of Talmud.

Respondents to the JPPI survey, on the whole, interpreted the Pew study findings themselves to be neither unduly troubling nor satisfactory. On a five-point scale, no respondent selected either extreme (“unambiguously negative” or “unambiguously positive”) as their reaction to the study. The majority (60%) of those replying to the question, however, felt the message was negative, albeit with some reason for hope. Of the remainder, most (24%) found the findings to be neutral and 16% viewed them as positive. When asked for their personal assessment in light of several recent studies, the pattern reversed itself: 58% professed themselves to be positive about the future of American Jewry with some reason for caution. Thirty-one percent had generally negative views but with reason for hope. Again, no one selected the unambiguously negative or positive characterization.

Additional questions provided illumination regarding what lies behind these responses. Forty-four percent viewed intermarriage as an unambiguous source of weakness with a further 30% finding it negative but with some positive aspects. The fact that others found this force to be either neutral or positive to a degree is less surprising because even some of those who viewed this as a negative argued that many children of intermarriage continue to identify as Jews and that the net effect is to enhance the pool of those who find an identification with the Jewish people.

A pair of questions asked to what degree the Pew category of “Jews of no religion” should receive greater attention than the rest of the Jewish community, and whether this category as well as children of intermarriage should be beneficiaries of special educational outreach efforts. No respondent felt that nothing should be done, and the bulk of them advocated active engagement efforts by synagogues (21%), through non-religious channels (56%), or both (18%). The majority of respondents (56%) felt that entirely new means for doing so were both required and necessary while a lesser number (30%) had confidence in existing educational and outreach channels.

Those who felt special measures were warranted and necessary tended to emphasize Jewish ‘literacy’ (in this case meaning identification with heritage and culture) and pointed to the Pew findings as providing corroboration. The consistent emphasis on education and literacy through more significant, collective effort was striking among the responses that elaborated on the underlying reasoning behind the replies. The shared belief was that current networks are insufficient for a population that needed to be reached in ways that “resonate and can be of help in building a Jewish identity while becoming literate Jew.”8
No respondent considered the growth of Orthodoxy in the U.S. as an entirely negative trend. Indeed, the bulk of respondents viewed this trend as either unambiguously positive (19%) or positive with some negative aspects (37%). Most of the negative aspects pointed to were indirect, with one-third of respondents indicating that this reflected a hollowing of the center and growth of the two ends of the affiliation spectrum. More than one-quarter of those surveyed felt that Orthodoxy was not in a position to engage fully with the challenges confronting American Jewish life or were troubled that the growth of Orthodoxy was in large part a reflection of the growth among the Ultra-Orthodox (19%).

The aggregate net assessment provided by respondents to the survey is that the trends and forces of the past year have had a generally negative effect on the dimension of Jewish identity (55%). Less than a quarter saw any degree of positive trend. This is a surprising departure from what might be expected of the conventional wisdom and highlights the effect that some of the prominent disputes over the validity of different streams of Judaism in Israel might be having, at least in the perception of interested observers. However, according to the reasoning provided by respondents, a more troubling concern would be the rates of assimilation outside of Israel and the status of intermarried couples and their children. This latter concern may shed light on why the status issues of the different streams of Judaism within Israel are held to be of such significance by communities that are themselves worried about their own continuity.

Although the renewal movement in Israel is potentially a harbinger of a wider transformation of Jewish identity there, ongoing Diaspora trends – so far unaccompanied by reliable forces to ensure their challenge will be met – lead us to register a slightly negative change this year on this dimension’s gauge.

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