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

On Nov. 5, the Center for Jewish Life organized a panel to discuss the findings and implications of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Over 225 people attended the program which was held at Temple Israel.

The panel included Omaha’s rabbinic leadership: Steven Abraham of Beth El Synagogue, Aryeh Azriel and Josh Brown of Temple Israel, Jonathan Gross of Beth Israel Synagogue and Mendel Katzman of Chabad House. The panel was moderated by Joel Alperson. Mike Silverman, our Federation’s CEO, also participated in the panel. As Joel made the introductions, he explained that he asked Mike to be part of the panel “because I believe that the idea of connecting Jews with Judaism and their Jewish community is not only a synagogue enterprise, it is a Jewish community enterprise, and the Federation does a remarkable job of touching a lot of Jewish lives.”

In opening the discussion, Joel stated, “Communities across the country are struggling against demographic trends. As great as this community is – and it is great – especially in comparison to many other communities its size… it is not immune to the factors that we read about in the national study.”

He continued, “We have watched for weeks now as the Pew Research study has been debated and discussed and answered and questioned; and there are implications, I believe, for our community. It is appropriate that some of the top leaders who reach out to Jews in our community discuss not only with us but even among each other what the implications of these numbers are.”

Excerpted quotes from the first question are below. The full video of the two-hour program is posted at www.jewishomaha.org, and click on the tab for the Center for Jewish Life.

Nationally, 32% of Millennial Jews, ages 21-36, say they have no religion, according to the Pew study. Realize that if the Orthodox population is removed from these statistics, the percentage of Jews with no religion would be significantly higher. Even in Omaha, we are seeing slowly declining synagogue membership numbers, a Federation campaign which appears to have peaked in 2007, and a variety of other measures indicating declining trends. How do you  feel your synagogue or movement or organization has best addressed these issues and what mistakes might have been made, if any?

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel

            I am optimistic by nature, and I refuse to believe this is the demise of American Jews. I don’t think you need to believe in God to be a Jew. There are hundreds of ways to be Jewish.  We have not really tapped into the other ways to express being Jewish. We need to invest more time and thinking into what we can do. For example, all of us are so happy with Birthright, and we are constantly talking about the impact of Birthright on young people. I would like to suggest that every interfaith couple, after the wedding, goes to Israel. We need to raise the funds to bring every interfaith couple to Israel to try to instill Jewishness and identity in those couples. Maybe we don’t just worry about the kids. Maybe we worry about this generation that we are concerned about that will be raising children. I am very proud to be a liberal, progressive, Reform Jew. Do we have difficulties and challenges in the movement? Of course we have. We need to continue doing the work we do, and we need to pray that things will improve.

Rabbi Steven Abraham

            The truth of the matter is that the Conservative movement is behind in a lot of the trends. We didn’t pay attention to data for any number of years because we were able to rest on our laurels. There was a point in history when Conservative Judaism held somewhere around 45% of the Jewish population. So when it came to interfaith issues, topics of social justice, engaging in serious Jewish study, the movement fell behind because the numbers were there. We are beginning to address those issues. The issue of the Millennials and Jews of no religion, those numbers scare me.  To think there are numbers of something like two million people who walked away from Judaism. That’s a lot of people.  Forget about the people who went from Conservative to Orthodox or Conservative to Reform. They stayed within Judaism. That, to me, is not a problem. What is a problem is for you to walk away from Judaism. It means we didn’t do a good enough job with those families to build relationships with those people to keep them involved. And that is our fault. I think we have a lot of work to do, but I don’t think our best days are behind us. I think that what is reality of data only tells us where we are at the moment, and I think the best days, both for the Conservative movement and for all of us as Jews, still has much to be seen in the future.

Rabbi Mendel Katzman

            Representing the Jewish people, I think we are doing well. It is, however, very concerning when you see numbers that are pointing in a direction that is not very encouraging. The numbers are not surprising at all, not shocking, and that is probably what is most interesting about it. The fact that we are all here is a very strong statement to the community that we are willing and excited about the opportunity to do something. We had a challenge where Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people and we ended up with hamentashen. We had the Egyptians who wanted to crush us and we ended up with matzo balls. And all these events really remind us that when there are challenges in front of us, there is greater opportunity and so much we can do.

Rabbi Josh Brown

            Thinking specifically of Millennials, I am a huge fan of Birthright. It is proof against these numbers. With weddings being later in life and kids being later in life, a lot of us come to the synagogue with needs, and the Millennials don’t. They look at the world of wants. The piece I want to add to the discussion, my favorite statistic that I saw out of the survey, is the answer to “Do you believe there is significant anti-Semitism?” Forty-three % believe we face a lot of discrimination,  but only 15% say that in the past year they have personally been called offensive names. Think about the discrepancy. We have a false sense and we have put too much of our identity into trying to fight battles that we are currently not actually fighting. We need to be relevant.

Rabbi Jonathan Gross

            Orthodoxy is the smallest, the poorest, and the least funded denomination, plus the entry to get in is by far the highest with yeshiva tuition at $20,000 a kid and twice as many kids as Jews of other denominations. And yet we seem to be doing pretty well. 50% of those raised in Orthodox homes have subsequently left, and that is true, but you have to read the statistic further as it is an average of all age groups. Of people 65 and older, only 20% stayed and 80% left. That is a lot of the people I see in Omaha. They were raised at Beth Israel and 80% left. Of Millennials, only 17% who were raised in Orthodox homes left.

If the mainstream Jewish movements – Orthodoxy is not the mainstream American Jewish movement, Conservative and Reform are – if those movements would preach ideals like Shabbos the way that it was – no driving, no texting, no television, no Husker games. If the mainstream Jewish movements in America would do those things, in my opinion, it would be a game changer. Now, it is not going to happen outside of Omaha. Our community is capable of doing something that would be astounding and spectacular. I think we would be a beacon to the rest of American Jewry. I think that most people will take this as a joke, but I really hope that this is something that could actually be considered.

Mike Silverman

            First, it is pretty incredible that our community is able to bring all the rabbis together for a discussion, because I know there are many communities where you can’t even get all the Reform rabbis together for a discussion.

On the topic of Millennials, the Federation has made a concerted effort over the last five years to get the YJO group – Young Jewish Omaha – really involved, getting them out to socialize, not necessarily to worship but to celebrate their Judaism and to like each other and to want to be around each other regardless of denomination.  Each generation is getting less and less affiliated, and the Federation, to the best of our ability, is creating opportunities for young Jewish Omahans to be involved. I would also say that each time there are opportunities for the Federation and our agencies to bring young individuals onto boards or committees, there is a significant effort to do that, because we know that we need to cultivate our young Jews to be the next generation of leaders.