A Reconstructionist Response to the Pew Study

Reflections on the Pew Study, its implications for the Jewish world and the unique contributions the Reconstructionist movement can bring.

Much ink has been spilled over the recent Pew Research Center’s study Portrait of Jewish Americans. I offer now both reflections on the study itself and the reactions to it, and a Reconstructionist response. In brief, I believe the Reconstructionist movement is well-poised to act on the tremendous positive Jewish identification reported by the study through continuing conceptual work and incubation of engaging ideas and practices.

Findings and Reactions

The study begins with an overarching claim that 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be part of the Jewish people, and 46 percent are very proud. In this era of majority society’s expansive embrace of American Jews and abundant choices in identities and commitments (including the choice to be “nothing,” to pass without judgment or difficulty as “American”), almost every Jew asked asserts pride in his or her Jewishness.

This could easily be cause for celebration. Yet the initial reactions to the survey results were gloomy, even dire, because of other findings. The survey reports a marked decline in the religiosity of American Jews, especially compared to the “greatest generation,” those Jews who fought in World War II in the European and Asian theaters, as well as on the home front, and who, after the war’s end, built most of the institutions of postwar American Judaism. Where 93 percent of Jews in the greatest generation said their Jewish identity was based on religion, only 68 percent of millennials—the youngest generation of Jewish adults—identify their Jewishness with the religion of Judaism, while the remainder identify as Jews on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

However, the presumption of a decline and the interpretations of its significance are not as obvious as many believe. The study’s authors struggled with the difficulty of capturing Jewish identity. In their chapter “Religious Beliefs and Practices,” they observe:

“Though many Jews say religion is not a very important part of their lives, participation in Jewish traditions [Passover seder, Yom Kippur fast] remains quite common. … The data also make clear that American Jews have a broad view of their identities; being Jewish is as much about ethnicity and culture as it is about religious belief and practice. And many Jews defy easy categorization. Some Jews by religion are non-believers, while some Jews of no religion are ritually observant. Though Jewish identity is correlated with religious observance (Jews by religion are substantially more observant than Jews of no religion), the correspondence is not perfect.”

The Pew study also failed to provide appropriate historical context. The greatest generation says they identify as Jews by religion. Of course, they do. To a historian of 20th-century history, it is entirely predictable that they identify this way because of the historical context in which they were shaped.  

Understanding Historical Context and How It Shapes Responses

The greatest generation was born in the prewar period—the years between the first and second world wars, precisely the period when Mordecai Kaplan formulated most of his thinking about Reconstructionism. During that time, there was first the slowing and then finally the complete stopping of the massive waves of immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. All kinds of Jews had emigrated in the years between 1881 and 1924: religious, Zionist, socialist, Communist, Bundist. When Jewish immigration was halted entirely in 1924 due to nativist sentiment in America, the ideas behind various ideologies and approaches continued to cross the Atlantic—in Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers, in theater productions and art and music. But the people themselves—the folks who were born into the thick European welter of possible Jewish identities, all of them steeped in centuries of European anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism—ceased joining the ranks of American Jews.

For this reason, by the beginning of World War II, there had already begun a narrowing of Jewish identity and a reshaping of Jewish life in America that looked radically different than that of the preceding 50 to 75 years. In the course of and following the World War II, other changes happened. American Jews became integrated into American society to an unparalleled degree. The Roosevelt administration enforced a unity campaign among American citizens and soldiers in the face of two empires bent on world domination who sought to destroy “the American way of life.” Think of the image of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima or the war movies of those years. There was a white, Protestant lieutenant who commanded corpsmen of Irish, Italian and Jewish descent. After years of exclusion and anti-Semitism, Jews were suddenly on the “inside.” (This was in marked contrast to African-Americans, who have always been the primary “other” in America.) The war itself, especially the fight against the Nazis, aligned American interests with Jewish interests in an unprecedented way: American forces fought against a fascist, anti-Semitic regime in defense of democracy and the protection of the rights of all individuals, including Jews.

The Cold War period is perhaps most critical in understanding the response of members of the greatest generation. Almost immediately after the conclusion of a “hot” war, America entered into a “cold” war promoting democracy in the face of Soviet-backed communism, that “Godless ideology.” Jews for the first time had been fully embraced by the majority population as Americans. In the 1950s, to be American was to be non-Communist, which meant, in part, to be religious. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously stated: “[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” During his presidency, the words “In God We Trust” were added to the U.S. seal and to paper currency, and “one nation under God” to the pledge of allegiance. (And, not coincidentally, Jewish Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason.) So, of course, the greatest generation identifies as religious:  that’s what everyone, including their president, was telling them to do.

On top of the narrowed and altered landscape of Jewish identification, there began in the years following World War II the massive suburbanization of the Jews, the move from dense ethnic enclaves in the city—density that had often been reinforced by housing covenants and other restrictions—to the suburbs. There, the primary expression of Jewishness became the synagogue: grass-filled campuses with large parking lots and big buildings that most Jews joined, but didn’t necessarily attend. There’s a remarkably poignant scene from the movie “Garden State” in which Zach Braff, the movie’s writer, director and star, is explaining suburban synagogues to Natalie Portman, who is famously Jewish but is playing a non-Jew in the film. He says, “I don’t know any Jews who go to temple. The Jews I know, they go on one day, on Yom Kippur, the day of repentance. Did you know that most temples are built with moveable walls so that on the one day of the year when everyone comes to repent they can actually make the room big enough to hold everyone?” This is the religion that many (admittedly, not all) members of the greatest generation are talking about, where they belonged but did not regularly attend.

The correspondence between Jewish identity and religious observance has never been particularly accurate or clear. Even as Jews in the years following World War II were quick to affirm that they were religious, “religion” never precisely signified particular religious practices, spiritual outlook or a belief in God that most people assume by the term “religious.”

A Reconstructionist Interpretation

I resist interpretations of the Pew study that point to decline and that exclaim worriedly about the Jewish future. From a Reconstructionist perspective, defining Judaism as religion has never been adequate, especially in America. We have much to contribute about how we talk about being Jewish, and how we use language and other tools to inspire Jews and carve out a vital future.

Reconstructionism was founded out of the recognition that how we talk about being Jewish is critically important. Mordecai Kaplan burst onto the national scene in the 1930s with a rhetorical innovation, through the publication of a book titled Judaism as a Civilization. Kaplan proposed a metaphor—and by means of this metaphor an approach to Jewish living and Jewish communal organization. When Judaism as a Civilization was published, some Jews reported reading it and saying, “Aha!  This is what I have always believed!” These supporters urged the establishment of the Reconstructionist as a forum to explore the implications and applications of Reconstructionist thought. However, the argument to understand Judaism as a “civilization” was not immediately embraced, and the Reconstructionist approach engendered significant controversy. Most of these attacks insisted that Judaism should be understood exclusively as a religion, even as their proponents differed on what religion was. In their efforts to explain and expand the significance of the Reconstructionist approach, Kaplan and his disciples coined another word that picked up on all of the aspirations of “civilization.” This term, “peoplehood,” was immediately widely embraced and quickly leapt into the American lexicon. “Civilization”—understanding Judaism as a religion, yes, and also a culture, a set of languages, diverse practices and mores, with multiple entry points—has over the years come to dominate both the American and the Israeli landscape. “Peoplehood” communicates binding ties that cut across practice and national boundaries, that point to a shared history and, we presume and hope, a shared future.

Writing in the years between the world wars, Kaplan was convinced of a need for an ideology—for an all-encompassing approach that would capture the American Jewish imagination. He noted how many progressive Jews of his day were drawn to such universalizing ideologies as communism and socialism. He was also deeply moved by how powerfully Zionism had served to unite the Jewish people in the 1930s, and especially in the 1940s. He saw that an ideology that didn’t exist until 1897 was succeeding at bringing together many Jews across political and religious beliefs in a shared vision. Kaplan sought to unify and inspire Jewish life in the modern era through the creation of an ideology around the concept of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.

However, we no longer live in the age of ideologies. We live in the age of pastiche, when individuals are free to pick and choose from among a rich banquet of interests and spiritual expressions, where boundaries and identities are fluid.

In a Reconstructionist approach to Jewish life, language is key, and the Reconstructionist contribution to Jewish self-understanding has been significant. The founding generation of Reconstructionists believed that the language we use to describe our Judaism needed to match contemporary reality and build toward the future. They made courageous choices around modifying our liturgy and discussing issues in contemporary Jewish life that connected to the Jewish past, yet upheld their commitment to intellectual integrity. “Peoplehood” and especially “civilization” were once radical and have become widely accepted. These terms continue to have resonance, but they do not necessarily point toward a visionary future. We must ask ourselves, what next? We need not set aside the empowering and sustaining insights that our long-standing conceptualizations give us, but we should not believe that they are sufficient to the 21st century.

The Reconstructionist Challenge

Most interpretations of the Pew study do not focus on the tremendous positive Jewish identification and its potential, but are filled with anxiety about Jewish continuity, significantly around expressions of religion. The Reconstructionist challenge is two-fold. We must offer a compelling response articulating our rationale, and do the theoretical and the communications work on the next iteration of language that may be inspiring and useful at the beginning of the 21st century. At the same time, we must continue to serve as an incubator for ideas and practices that can serve and inspire Jews and the people who make their lives with us.

“Peoplehood,” which permeates the Pew study, must be reframed. Peoplehood is widely seen—by individuals and organizations alike—as an end in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. Jewish leaders and institutions need to make it clear that belonging to the Jewish people means being deeply human. We need to say and demonstrate that the point of being Jewish is that we are here on earth to live lives of meaning and connection to each other, Jews and non-Jews like. For liberal religious Jews, this interconnectivity includes and is inspired by the divine; nevertheless, a belief in God, however one defines God, is not a prerequisite to and should not be a barrier from joining one’s lot in with the Jewish people. We need to show that Judaism is not a barrier, but in fact facilitative—an aid to being an ethical human being, living in partnership and building with others a just and ethical world.

The next step, I believe, is to promote an activist approach to Judaism. Kaplan sought to infuse democratic principles and practices throughout Jewish life, empowering Jews through education and engagement. His Copernican revolution was that Judaism existed for the Jewish people, not the Jewish people for Judaism. In this era of social media and grassroots organizing, we need to move beyond democratization—equal access to information, and collective rather than authoritarian decision-making—to activism. Jews need not accept as passive recipients the Judaism they receive: We can (and must) create the Jewish life we want to inhabit. Jews need not exit; we need to organize!

There is much work to be done to empower Jews to feel entitled to and responsible for their Judaism. A critical part of this work is encouraging Jewish leaders, communal and rabbinic, to accept and celebrate diverse expressions of Jewishness rather than policing them. If we embrace a non-Orthodox approach to Jewish life, then it is our responsibility to be excited about—or, at a minimum, be interested in—expressions of Judaism bubbling up from the people. There are always concerns about quality or distortion or syncretism. But I firmly believe that at this moment in time, boundary maintenance about who belongs to the Jewish people on what criteria is not generative. The boundaries on which we need to concentrate are about the distinctions between sacred and profane. For example:

In a workaholic society, how do we cultivate a separation between work and renewal? Shabbat is a powerful model, though traditional observance is not likely speak to every person.

In a consumer-driven society, how do we promote practices that orient away from consumption and toward generativity? Spiritual practices—expressly Jewish or drawn from other traditions with a Jewish framing—may help.

In a world trending toward environmental degradation, how do we promote responsible stewardship? The Jewish green movement has much to offer, and all progressive Jewish organizations need to study their insights and infuse them into their work as much as possible.

Next Steps

I share these thoughts with the hope that you will join me in exploring and articulating a new vision for the future of Reconstructionist Judaism. I propose to establish an ad hoc task force that will work on the dual front of refining Reconstructionist thought so that it is both compelling and persuasive in the current moment, and that will gather ideas from around the Reconstructionist movement for potential incubation. The composition, timing and precise mandate of the task force has not yet been determined. In terms of content, I propose that it be convened with the following goals in mind:

Our teacher Mordecai Kaplan taught that every generation has an obligation to reconstruct Judaism. With humility and deep gratitude, I say to you, partners and thinkers and leaders, we have much work to do.  

  • Language: Generate a set of papers, talking points and communications pieces articulating Reconstructionist language.  
  • Incubator: Propose a variety of ways to receive proposals and provide support innovation projects that advance the Reconstructionist vision.

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