by Beth Cohen, Executive Director, the Center for Jewish Life

The Op-Ed pages of not only Jewish newspapers but the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post have been abuzz discussing the results of the Pew Research Center’s survey, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, released in early October. Quotes with language including “a grim portrait,” “very stark,” “a wake-up call,” and “devastating,” paint a dismal picture of the vitality and sustainability of the American Jewish community.

Who better to comment on the health of our Jewish community than our rabbinic leadership?  The Center for Jewish Life will present a Rabbinic Panel to discuss the Pew survey on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. at Temple Israel, 13111 Sterling Ridge Drive. The panel will include Rabbis Steven Abraham, Aryeh Azriel, Josh Brown, Jonathan Gross and Mendel Katzman, and will be moderated by Joel Alperson with additional insights by Mike Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Omaha.

Bonnie Bloch, president of the Center for Jewish Life, expressed her excitement in organizing the panel discussion. “American Jewry is clearly facing big issues that need to be addressed. I’m so proud to be in Omaha where we are coming together to seek solutions in a forum uniting the entire Jewish community.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the survey was conducted February 20 through June 13, 2013. This is the most comprehensive national survey of the Jewish population since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. More than 70,000 screening interviews were conducted to identify Jewish respondents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Longer interviews were completed with 3,475 Jews, and those results are presented as “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”

“As in one’s physical health, getting a good diagnosis is the first step to healing an ailment. So, too, for matters of the spirit,” explains Rabbi Mendel Katzman. He continued, “Whether this research is totally accurate or somewhat skewed, it has definitely made the Jewish community think. This ruffling of feathers takes us out of our complacency and forces us to take a good, hard look at what we are doing well and the areas that need improvement. I look forward to exciting, lively and productive dialogue in our community!”

For the many rabbis and community leaders around the country who are evaluating the survey results, the changing nature of Jewish identity, as noted by generation, stands out sharply. Fully 93% of Jews in the Greatest Generation (born between 1914 and 1927) identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, 68% of Jewish Millennials (those born after 1980) identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion yet identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

According to the survey, more “Jews of religion” identify as “no denomination” than as Conservative and Orthodox combined. Cited as one of the more startling statistics of the survey, many question how American Jewry can survive if the second largest affiliation grouping of Jews, after Reform, is “none.”

Of this statistic, Rabbi Josh Brown commented, “One researcher from the study shared in a conference call for Reform rabbis that secular Israelis often tell us that the synagogue they don’t go to is an Orthodox synagogue.” The Pew study, he reported, is a sign that for secular American Jews, the synagogue they don’t go to is Reform. Rabbi Brown continued, “For me, both are signs that secular Jews probably have a stronger Jewish identity than they are willing to admit.”

“The Pew study is a status report for the North American Jewish community,” says Rabbi Steven Abraham. He continues, “I was struck by how many people consider themselves to be religious yet are not affiliated with a denomination. It shows there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The intermarriage rate has risen from 17% before 1970 to 58% in 2013, with the 2013 intermarriage rate topping over 70% when those who identify as Orthodox are statistically removed. Jewish adults ages 40-59 report having had an average of 1.9 children, compared with an average of 2.2 children per adult in the same age cohort of the general public. Beyond the astonishingly high intermarriage rate and the lower-than-American-average birth rate, only 20 percent of children of intermarriages are being raised exclusively as Jewish.

With statistics like this, it begs the question what the American Jewish population will look like ten or twenty years from now.

“In the 1960’s, Look magazine predicted there would be no more Jews in America by the year 2000,” says Rabbi Jonathan Gross. “Y2K has come and gone. We are still here and there is no more Look magazine. The Pew study was shocking, but if Jewish communities use it as a catalyst for improvement we can turn the situation around.”

On the brighter side, according to the study, American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish (94%) and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (75%). Six in ten say they have a special responsibility to care for Jews in need around the world.

The moderator for the panel discussion will be Joel Alperson. Joel, an Omaha native, is involved not only in our local Jewish community but has taken on national leadership roles including chairing the United Jewish Communities National Campaign in 2007, serving on the Young Leadership Cabinet as both a member and as co-chair, and currently serving on the Jewish Federations of North America Board of Trustees. Joel’s exposure to local and national trends in the Jewish community gives him a unique perspective for moderating the discussion.

He commented, “The issue for me is not as much about the numbers of the Pew study as the kind of action we choose to take in response to those numbers. We have a remarkable community filled with incredibly committed and generous individuals. But even in Omaha, we are not immune to the trends which were reported. I’m not only looking forward to having a meaningful discussion on Nov. 5 about the study, but also to having a conversation about how we build and maintain the best Jewish community possible for the coming generations.”

Mike Silverman, CEO of Omaha’s Jewish Federation, said he was honored to be asked to participate in the panel discussion. “With the recent changes at the Jewish Federation of Omaha to include the One Campus/One Community Initiative, we have made a concerted effort to engage Jews of all denominations to be active members of our community,” he added. “Though we offer many programs and services, participation is key. There is and will always be work to be done to engage people Jewishly.”

Community members may submit questions in advance for consideration to be included in the discussion. Send via email to bcohen@jewishomaha.org by Monday, Nov. 4. The Rabbinic Panel is organized by the Center for Jewish Life, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Omaha, as part of the mission to maximize involvement of Omaha’s Jewish community in imaginative, compelling and meaningful Jewish experiences.

The summary document and the full results of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans can be found at www.pewresearch.org and click on the “religion” tab.