The PEW Study and What It Should Mean to Us

The PEW Research Center published a study this month, A Portrait of Jewish America.  And like most Jews, I was fascinated, alarmed and proud by what it said.

When I first made the decision to formally convert to Judaism, one issue that I really worried about was how to convert; Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.  One of the deciding factors behind my decision was that I was raising Jewish children and technically, according to Jewish law as interpreted by my Conservative rabbi, they weren’t Jewish.

We had “synagogue shopped,” like a lot of young families, and the one that we loved the most, the one that we felt was the best fit for our specific family was the one where my husband had grown up, the one his family attended.  I know that Reform Jews would say that my children were Jewish already, they had a Jewish dad and were growing up in a Jewish home.  But we weren’t Reform.  And I never wanted their identity to be questioned – I didn’t want anyone telling them that they weren’t Jewish because of me.    For me, for us, my husband’s impact on our children was as valuable as mine, and they inherited Judaism because he’s Jewish.  I took the added steps of going through a formal conversion with a Conservative beit din, not just for myself, but also so that their Judaism would be just as valid.

Even with all of that, my kids are still somewhat different from most Jewish kids.  We still celebrate Christmas and Easter, and half of their extended family isn’t Jewish.  Their ancestry and culture is Jewish, sure, but not just Jewish.  I was surprised and somewhat disconcerted to see that more than sixty percent of all respondents think that Judaism is mainly of ancestry and culture.  Respondents of the survey were able to decide if they were a “Jew by religion” or a “Jew of no religion.”  There was no discussion of matrilineal descent, if you self identified as Jewish, it was good enough.  But there was that qualification, either you were Jewish by religion or Jewish with no religion, just a cultural/ancestral association with Judaism.

For me, this raises some really interesting questions about the future of Judaism.  If the majority of Jews believe that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, then how is it possible to welcome a convert to the religion?  How does a child, growing up in a home where half their ancestry and culture is NOT Jewish, feel welcomed and a part of that religion?  When the intermarriage rate for Jews is still holding steady at roughly 58% (in marriages performed since 2000), how do we, as a religious community, support and encourage young Jewish families to feel a part of the culture, a part of the community?

In many ways, according to the study, my family is an anomaly.  I’m a convert to Judaism, and my husband was raised in a mostly secular Jewish family.  Our children are growing up in an interfaith household, in a lot of ways.  And yet – we’re most definitely a Jew by religion family.  In many ways, and not in spite of, but because we started as an interfaith family, being Jewish is a choice we make every day.  We’re very deliberate about it, everything from the foods we eat, to where we send our children to school, to the after school activities they participate in – our Jewish identity is a part of all of that.  And like 94% of all respondents, we’re proud of our Jewish identity.

I don’t have any answers.  I only know what works for us.  I believe that we must do more, as a community, to welcome interfaith families.  To encourage conversion but not pressure those non-Jewish parents who are willing and eager to learn more about raising Jewish children.  We should make our synagogues more child centered and more family oriented.  Let’s try harder to get to know each other, reach out to new and potential members and encourage those who are not affiliated with a synagogue to join us.  Because that’s what works – Jews who are religiously connected are more likely to raise Jewish children.  Judaism is more than just gefilte fish and Jewish comedians.  If we want our children to be active and involved members of the Jewish community, we have to be that ourselves.  We have to continue to learn and question and think and discover, if we want our children to do it as well.

I’m grateful every day for the opportunities I’ve had, for the spiritual and religious community that I’ve found as a mother, as a wife, as a woman.  Being Jewish is a part of who I am, and it’s a part of who my children are.  And like all Jewish parents, I want my children to grow up knowing that they are a part of a much larger community, with the responsibilities and privileges that go along with that.  I want my children to be pushed and encouraged and taught to think, to be intellectually curious, and spiritually connected.

The Pew study has been analyzed and debated and discussed in a lot of different forums.  But the take away from it, for me, is for the vast majority of Jews love Judaism.  The majority of Jews feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  I’m proud to be a member of that 94%, proud of Judaism; what it has represented in the past, and what it is today and what it’ll be in the future.

(a version of this post will appear in the Jewish Voice www.jewishcentralvoice.com)

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