As Jewish American Heritage Month comes to a close I find myself reflecting on the many wonderful people I met while filming our first episode of “America Undiscovered” and pondering the question of what is it that defines the Jewish American experience?
A recent Pew survey showed in hard numbers that the face of Judaism is changing. Let me share with you a sampling of their findings:
Jews make up approximately 2% of America’s population.
The intermarriage rate has reached an all time high of 58% (in 1970 only 17% married outside the faith).
Two-thirds of those polled said they do not belong to a synagogue.
One out of five Jews describe themselves as having no religion at all.
34% said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot different from what I recall as a Jewish youth - and it’s a world apart from what my parents experienced. In fact, the study did a breakdown by generation and found that 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion. Contrast this with the Millennials - 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project supported the findings when he acknowledged, “Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews by no religion.”
I’m not going to say that I find these numbers comforting, but I can tell you that there is one statistic that will get us through. And that has to do with the sense of belonging. 75% of U.S. Jews say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” And more encouraging, 94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish.
I saw that sense of belonging and that sense of pride while I was on the road. I saw it in the face of Anne Gerache, the 86 year-old matriarch of one of the oldest temples Mississippi as she lit the Shabbat candle for her dwindling congregation. It was there on the face of the much younger, recently married and new father Ziggy Gruber, as he spoke Yiddish to his deli customers in a strip-mall in Houston. We all need to belong. Or else we’re just adrift. Our faith, our traditions and our heritage anchor us. And what a lovely anchor it is.