By ZACK BABINS
Let’s reframe the question.
You hear it, always a problem, all the time. The 2013 Pew study (titled “A Portrait of American Jews” – though it’s become so widely cited in this discussion that I could just call it “the Pew study” and would be generally understood) confirmed what some have suspected for a long time – young Jews, to the naked eye, just aren’t interested in Judaism anymore.
We’ve survived pogroms and persecution, oppression and genocide, discrimination and terror. We’ve survived the Romans and the Babylonians, the Nazis and the Soviets, and everyone else who tried to wipe us out. But Facebook and smartphones are going to destroy Judaism.
Shul attendance among Gen Y and Z is in decline. Day school enrollment is declining. Intermarriage – the boogeyman of Jewish assimilation – is up.
Put simply, we’re losing what being Jewish is all about. So they tell us.
A few quick points about those issues, before we reframe.
I think if we wish to keep these institutions alive – as the handwringing seems to indicate – we need to examine why they are in decline.
The Jewish middle class, along with the rest of the middle class, is being financially squeezed like never before. Wages are stagnating while the cost of living rises. Synagogue membership is expensive, and Jewish day school tuition is, generally speaking, costlier than a university degree. If we want these institutions to stay alive, we need to make them affordable to the people who are increasingly unable to afford it.
Another quick point: we need to address how we discuss Judaism in our own homes. You cannot lament the collapse of synagogues then attend 3 days a year, for less than 2 hours. If you, in front of your children, justify your Judaism with the language of obligation, don’t act surprised when your children don’t feel joyful about Judaism.
But, like I said, I wanted to reframe the question.
Because Judaism, and the Jewish people, are not going away. What we are seeing is a slow and gradual redefining of what Jewishness is and means.
It’s happened before. The definition of Jewishness has been in a state of near-constant evolution throughout our history.
Until the Temple was destroyed, Judaism took the form of (largely) animal sacrifices and burnt offerings. Rabbinic Judaism, the kind we practice in the West, developed as a panicked, last ditch effort to save Judaism altogether.
The Hasidic movement only arose around 300 years ago. The nationalistic Zionism that led to the creation of the physical state of Israel only began in earnest in the late 19th Century.
These massive synagogues with thousands of members, and these days schools, would be virtually unrecognizable to the majority of our ancestors. They are a product of 20th century Judaism and if they fade and fall, they will be replaced by something else.
The question of what being a Jew means is in flux, and it always has been.
Today, Jewish identity among young people takes many forms. Some of us “find religion” and join a Hasidic movement and some of us resentfully accompany their parents to shul, participating as minimally as possible “until we’ve been here long enough to go home.”
Some young Jews take up a community spirit and join Jewish fraternities or sororities, leadership in a campus Hillel, or any of the other alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. Some avoid organizations entirely.
Some young Jews take the values inherent in Judaism and turn it into activism. Some of us fight against anti-Semitism, some of us fight against racism, some of us fight for economic equality. Some of us fight for Israel, some of us try and hold Israel accountable, and yes, some of us fight against Israel. All rooted in a deep Jewish identity.
And yes, some of us just like bagels and smoked meat, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Spaceballs and summer camp. Some of us are culturally Jewish.
The question, in truth, is one for you, dear reader. The question is not “will Judaism survive the millennials?” and it never has been. The question for you is “what do I want Judaism look like in 500 years, and how will I do my part to make that happen?”
We will survive, we always do. It’s up to us to decide how.
Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.