By Leon Cohen, Jewish Chronicle
“I am an out-and-out atheist. There’s no doubt about that,” said Madisonian Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, during an interview with The Chronicle this past autumn.
Nevertheless, he also said, his family belonged for many years to Madison’s Reform synagogue, Temple Beth El; and his three children received a Jewish education and had b’nai mitzvah ceremonies there.
This situation seems to be contradictory or paradoxical; but many other American Jews apparently live in similar ways.
Or so contends a recent publication of the Florence G. Heller-JCC Association Research Center that is being disseminated by the Mandell L. Berman Institute North American Jewish Data Bank of the University of Connecticut.
The study is titled “Belonging Without Believing: Jews and their Distinctive Patterns of Religiosity — and Secularity.” (The full text of the report can be seen online at www.jewishdatabank.org.)
Its authors — Prof. Steven M. Cohen and Lauren Blitzer — compiled data assembled by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
During the past year, the Pew Forum issued parts of its “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” This was based on data from “an unusually large national sample of 35,000 respondents, including a representative sample of 682 Jews nationwide,” according to the JCCA report.
That means, according to the report, “the Pew study represents the first time … that we can compare the religious beliefs and behavior of a large national sample of Jews with thousands of respondents from other religious groups. Most critically, all the respondents were asked the same wide array of questions in the same way at the same time.”
This study found that “Jews uniformly score lower” than U.S. Christians “on all available measures of religious belief… In fact, in all ways, Jews’ belief patterns approach those of the religiously unaffiliated.”
Moreover, “Jews also trail Christians in terms of their religious behavior” which this study says includes “attending services, praying privately, reading the Bible, meditating and praying with one’s children.”
However, “In one major domain of religious identity, Jews actually resemble their Christian counterparts and consistently differ from the religiously unaffiliated: religious belonging,” says the study.
“Jews may not believe all that much, but they do belong to congregations … and to a wide variety of other institutions,” the report states. Moreover, “the extent to which Jews provide religious schooling — be it full time or part-time — for their children equals, if not surpasses, that of their Christian counterparts.”
In short, a large percentage U.S. Jews seem to resemble Rothschild. They “may believe like the religiously unaffiliated, but they belong like religiously committed Christians,” the study says.
The report is careful to list several “inferences” about this data. It notes that “some Jews are religious”; and that “strict apples-to-apples comparisons between Jews and Christians are a conceptual and methodological impossibility” given Judaism’s and Christianity’s different understandings of religious concepts.
Nevertheless, the report contends that this data has implications for the policies of Jewish community institutions.
“Given the implied well of motivation for Jewish belonging that lies outside of religiosity … organized Jewry has an obvious policy interest in maintaining pluralism,” the report states.
“We refer not to just religious pluralism, but to ethnic pluralism, cultural pluralism, ideological pluralism and institutional pluralism as well.”
The Chronicle contacted five Wisconsin Jewish community leaders for their reactions to this study. Most of them did not seem surprised by the findings.
“Jews like to belong. Jews are joiners,” said Richard H. Meyer, executive vice president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “In terms of how beliefs inform practice and religiosity, my experience is that religiosity is not a driver of Jewish identification.”
Mark Shapiro, acting executive director of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, agrees.
“I find the data consistent with what I would expect to have found,” he said. “Jews affiliate for more than just religious reasons.”
And Rabbi Jacob Herber, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale and president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, added, “I come across people all the time who say, ‘Rabbi, I’m not religious, I’m a cultural Jew or an ethnic Jew.’”
Moreover, these three agreed that Jewish outreach efforts must take these findings into account.
“The implications are that all organizations that aspire to reach out and engage with Jews need to be broad in their approach,” said Meyer. “They need to look at the Jewish community not as one broad market, but comprised of many separate and disparate segments. ‘One size fits all’ is not true in the Jewish community.”
Meyer acknowledged that, “in a time of economic challenge, being more open-ended in efforts to reach out may be more difficult because of other calls on community resources.”
Nevertheless, he said, “there are a number of important boutique kinds of Jewish programs and services that don’t find it necessary or shouldn’t find it necessary to have to have to expand their offerings to link to Jews in those specific areas.”
Shapiro pointed out that JCCs across the country have been changing to meet this demand. “If you look back at the landscape of JCCs even as short as 10 years ago,” he said, “the position of ‘outreach worker’ was a programmer.”
The thought, he said, was that simply working on a JCC’s programming should be enough to attract Jews to it. But now, JCCs have hired specialized people dedicated to efforts “to create the lowest barrier to opportunity for Jewish people to affiliate,” he said. That is why Milwaukee’s JCC has a partnership with the Jewish Outreach Institute, he added.
“I think the future of Jewish affiliation will be in listening to the community and hearing the ways in which they feel passionate, whether on the programming or the religious level, and supporting those needs,” said Shapiro.
When it comes to synagogues, Herber cautioned, “I don’t believe that congregations should drastically and radically depart from their values and principles to bring people in.” No synagogue, for example, should or is going to “jettison belief in God” so an atheist will feel comfortable there.
Nevertheless, “I believe that congregations and their leadership, spiritual and lay, should do whatever they can in their means to be welcoming and do outreach to unaffiliated members of the Jewish community, while maintaining the values and principles that each respective congregation looks to as their guiding framework,” he said.
Do not fit
However, two local leaders dissented in different ways from the study and its findings or the assumptions on which it is based.
Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, leader of Wisconsin’s Chabad Lubavitch organization for the past 40 years, said that Lubavitch’s outreach approach stems from a belief that “there is no such thing as a secular Jew.”
“At the very core of Lubavitch activity is the belief that every Jew possesses a G-dly soul,” and that “in every Jew’s DNA is a deep connection to G-d, Torah, Judaism and every other Jew,” he said.
So fundamentally, “everyone belongs and everyone believes,” Shmotkin said. “It’s just a question of bringing it to the fore” and “presenting it in the right way.”
“We’re not blind, we’re not oblivious to the fact that people say they do not believe,” he continued. “Why should they with the misinformation they received” from their “upbringing and environment and lack of education in Jewish matters”?
“When you approach another Jew with a conviction that Judaism is not an added thing to their lives, but is what they are, your message comes across differently and people receive it differently,” Shmotkin said.
On the other hand, Steven H. Morrison, executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, finds the whole JCCA study dubious.
“I feel skeptical about survey research of any kind,” he said. “I’ve been at the receiving end of enough polls [and] when I try to engage in a telephone conversation with a surveyor, they end the call quickly because I don’t fit.”
“I am not willing to say yes or no or [to rank views] on a scale of one to five,” he continued. “And a lot of Jews I’ve interacted with are the same kind of person. Critical thinking is one of the hallmarks of lots of American Jews. We don’t lend ourselves well to simple survey research.”
On this subject in particular, “When I read reports that the American Jewish community is secular and not religious, I don’t know what that means,” Morrison said.
“It is very easy for people to label themselves atheists,” he said. However, “when I’ve engaged in serious discussion with them,” it turns out they really don’t believe in the simplistic ways many Americans define or describe God. “It’s not so simple,” he said.
Therefore, “I see no problem with being an atheist and being a committed and involved part of the Jewish community,” Morrison said. “There may be a lot of people like that. I welcome them. I really like to engage in discussion about ‘What do you mean [by God or atheism]?’”
And besides, after “40 years of participant observation,” he added, “I have a lot more respect for and more confidence in the knowledge base and behavior base of the American Jewish community than some research says I should.”
Who believes and belongs?
• 41 percent of Jews and 36 percent of the general religiously unaffiliated population say they are “absolutely certain” about the existence of God or a “universal spirit,” compared to 90 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 73 percent of Mainline Protestants and 72 percent of Catholics.
• 25 percent of Jews and 28 percent of the unaffiliated say people can have “a personal relationship” with God, compared to 79 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 62 percent of Mainline Protestants and 60 percent of Catholics.
• 37 percent of Jews and 25 percent of the unaffiliated regard the Bible as the “word of God,” compared to 89 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 61 percent of Mainline Protestants and 62 percent of Catholics.
• 16 percent of Jews and 21 percent of the unaffiliated believe with “absolute certainty” in life after death, compared to 71 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 49 percent of Mainline Protestants and 45 percent of Catholics.
• 31 percent of Jews and 16 percent of the unaffiliated say religion is “very important” to their lives, compared to 79 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 52 percent of Mainline Protestants and 56 percent of Catholics.
• 16 percent of Jews and 5 percent of the unaffiliated attend religious services at least once a week, compared to 58 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 34 percent of Mainline Protestants and 42 percent of Catholics.
• 10 percent of Jews and 6 percent of the unaffiliated “look to religious teachings for guidance on questions of right and wrong,” compared to 52 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 24 percent of Mainline Protestants and 22 percent of Catholics.
• 55 percent of Jews belong to a “house of worship,” compared to 74 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 64 percent of Mainline Protestants, 67 percent of Catholics and 22 percent of the unaffiliated.
• 27 percent of Jews send their children to a religious day school, compared to 18 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 10 percent of Mainline Protestants, 20 percent of Catholics and 7 percent of the unaffiliated.
• 56 percent of Jews send their children to a Sunday school or other religious education, compared to 79 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 62 percent of Mainline Protestants, 51 percent of Catholics and 35 percent of the unaffiliated.
Source: “Belonging Without Believing” report