Being Jewish is all about being in the pews — in some way

Being Jewish is all about being in the pews — in some way

My view of Pew is that it is time for Jews to inhabit pews.

Be it a pew in a synagogue, an independent minyan, a seat in a Jewish study group or service on a community board or a synagogue committee, my Jewish identity is grounded in being welcomed by and being able to participate in the Jewish community.

So the most astonishing statistic in the recently released Pew Foundation study for me was that only 28 percent of respondents felt that being part of a Jewish community is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them.

Maybe I should have a sense of humor about this; after all, 42 percent of the respondents ranked having a sense of humor as more essential to their Jewish identity than being part of the Jewish community.  

The Pew report also revealed, “By several conventional measures, Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole. Compared with the overall population, for example, Jews are less likely to say they attend religious services weekly or that they believe in God with absolute certainty. And just 26 percent of U.S. Jews say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent of the general public.”

These are alarming statistics and certainly nothing to wave our proverbial Terrible Towels about.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, our community scholar, cautioned us not to overreact to the findings and offered some very constructive advice about how to interpret the Pew study. Rabbi Aaron noted that studies are a snapshot in time and that national data should not automatically drive local assumptions. Pew is a highly reputable source and has surveyed and studied religion and family life for many years. I would offer, that we take care not to dismiss this report or use the data to justify being right about what is the best way to be Jewish. The results are an opportunity for us to ask great questions about how we develop Jewish identity and how we will pass the gift of Judaism to future generations.  

Locally, our community leaders are developing a community scorecard to evaluate the Pittsburgh Jewish community. The Jewish Chronicle reported that nine areas will be measured and key elements include Jewish identity and peoplehood and affiliation and participation. Measuring peoplehood and affiliation will be difficult, yet it will help our community to think about how we value being Jewish.

The Pew survey revealed that 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture while 15 percent say it is mainly a matter of religion. What will we discover locally about the value of affiliation? What drives our sense of peoplehood and what measures will inspire increased participation? The report card is meant to enable us to make the best use of our resources in creating a healthy Jewish Pittsburgh. It is inspiring to me that our community leaders are asking these important questions.

Lieba Rudolph, in her View on Pew concerning the Jewish future, pointed out that “some non-Orthodox Jews care because of our cherished history and uncertain future.” And “they will try almost anything to keep their fellow Jews in the tribe — free camps, free synagogue membership, free trips to Israel, free books from the Jewish library, even accepting intermarriage itself — but it apparently isn’t working too well.”

A first look at the Pew data supports her important conclusions. Free rarely creates value. By emphasizing no-cost solutions and quick opportunities to plug in occasionally, are we sending a message that undermines time spent learning and connecting with each other through our Judaism?

Avi Baran Munro states, “I will say categorically that the story of Jewish survival and Jewish renewal begins and ends with you.” I agree and would add it ends with me in relation to you and our desire to build community. As an educator, she encourages us to have important conversations with our children that let them know we are not free to abandon the inspiring heritage and legacy of the Jewish people.

My opinions are informed by my perspective as a religious Reform Jew (35 percent of Pew respondents identify as Reform). Some say the liberal interpretation of Judaism has led to troubling findings in the Pew report. Others offer that by adapting our faith to changing times we have helped Jews take an important role in shaping America. The Pew data indicates that 94 percent of U.S. Jews (including 97 percent of Jews by religion and 83 percent who say they are Jews of no religion) are proud to be Jewish.

Now is the time to act to ensure a strong Jewish future. My desire is that our work together will create Jews whose identity is defined by being an active part of the Jewish community.

(Karen Hochberg is executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish