Gathering with the Minyan of Thinkers this month radically shifted my perspective on the experience of engaging with this topic. This month, we met at the office of one of our members, where we stood in awe of the cappuccino machine and snacked on challah, hummus, and avocado. We discussed numerous articles responding to the data of the PEW study, which included opinions ranging from certainty that the situation is dire to those espousing that the data illustrates the room for growth of new Jewish stories. Being presented with such a diversity of opinions challenged each of us to truly engage with the perspectives outside of our realm of experience and belief. In fact, many of us felt deeply uncomfortable encountering the ways that certain pieces were framed--and there is no more effective marker in my mind of growth than discomfort within a safe exploratory space. The partnership of these amazing, thoughtful people allowed me to question my assumptions based on what I see of the Jewish community, and to delve safely into my feelings of discomfort with the premise that Jewish life's current transformation is necessarily one of loss.
We spent time considering what it actually means for the Jewish community that intermarriage is on the rise while birth rates decline, and affiliation with Jews and Jewish organization become less numerically prevalent. We discussed the fact that this must be viewed in the larger context of American religious affiliation in general, as well as American "melting pot" culture. We also acknowledged that our anecdotal evidence, while anecdotal, leads us to believe that the PEW study data at best overstates the problem, and at worst fails to grasp the complexity of modern Jewish identity. This led us towards discussion of what does constitute a modern and American Jewish identity. Perhaps, we posited, one element of the problem is that the metrics used by the PEW study are the structures in Jewish life that are no longer practical or resonant, so to measure them will show us that what we have lost is what we know is no longer working. How, then, do we construct metrics that measure for the quiet, internal, less institutional and traditional elements of Jewish identity--the personal but deeply important ways that people view their lives through a Jewish lens? And, perhaps more important than measuring, how do we create Jewish life that speaks to those pieces in new ways?
There exist structures--camp, day school, Hillel--that get it right, but how to we create those opportunities for people who are older and still in search of their Jewish identity? How do we continue to excite people in the way that those institutions do? How do we transform what does exist to meet these new needs, and expand the lens of Judaism's meaning outward into the modern, complex, busy lives of the modern day Jew?
It was a beautiful opportunity to engage these questions, and I look forward to working with these thoughtful, inquisitive minds as we move from problem-identifying towards problem solving.