If you work in or adjacent to the Jewish nonprofit world, you know that the release of a study on Jewish identity can launch a thousand op-ed pieces, even if the findings themselves are not entirely surprising. The arrival of such a study can elicit excitement or flat-out panic, and reactions swirl together violently into an intellectual and emotional froth. As passionate consumers - educators, academics, rabbis, Jewish communal workers, pundits and theorists - assess this information, each draws out the information that serves - or threatens - them most, taking to their computers to provide analysis about how the findings indicate Jews must alter our priorities in order to thrive, or - more frequently - to merely survive.Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study about Jewish identity. (Not only is this study not on their homepage, a search for "Jewish identity" brought up "Faith Online," and for "Jewish" yielded "Wired Churches, Wired Temples.") According to a summary on eJewishPhilanthropy, "The survey suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion. This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public, whose share of religious 'nones' is similar (20%)." It also included the statistic that 34 percent of those surveyed said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah. (That was a surprising one, actually.)
If statistics like these fill your brain with a froth of new ideas about how this survey is good or bad for the Jews, here are some guidelines designed to help you in writing your response, whether it's an academic article, a sermon or a Facebook post. These are tried and true methods that will enable your treatise to resonate - but don't use them all in one place. Pick and choose wisely, for greatest impact.
2. Identify a central premise that's controversial. This premise must be strong enough to generate conversations both pro and con, and should include one of the following elements:
- A question that's largely rhetorical, because to answer it would render the conversation dead. ("Will America know what 'Jews' are in the year 2035?")
- A prediction that's wildly unprovable in your lifetime. ("By 2050, there will be no Jewish religious denominations - only people lighting an eight-branched candelabrum without any idea why.")
- A statement that supports the work you do every day (and even promotes it), regardless of what the report says. ("As a Jewish educator who trains adult bar and bat mitzvah students in Minneapolis through my nonprofit organization/speakeasy, Mitzvah Bar, I know the value of Hebrew. But trends indicate that future generations will not.")
- The invocation of technical or innovative terms and buzzwords. ("In the digital age, innovation in the expression of contemporary global Jewish peoplehood and identity is often erroneously ascribed to the NextGen demographic.")
- Use of language designed to activate Jewish panic sensors. Pepper your piece with words like "grim," "sobering," "dwindling," "disconnected," and "unaffiliated," and other language designed to emotionally manipulate your reader into depression, or anger leading to some sort of commitment to action. But if you're really serious and want your readers' attention, there's only one historical oppression to invoke. ("[singular extrapolated fact from the survey] indicates that assimilation is on the rise, a sobering statistic painting today's disconnected and unafilliated Jews as, de facto, resulting in a cultural Holocaust that unintentionally slopes toward finishing what Hitler started. Education and outreach are the only liberating armies that will free US Jewry from its downward spiral.")
4. Use language that always keeps them guessing as to the purity of your motives. Too confident, and they'll hate you. Too self-deprecating, and no one will care. Best practice: alternate over-confident language that establishes your credibility/platform ("in my decades of experience in Jewish education") with seemingly self-deprecating, yet secretly elevating language ("of course, I'm only one underpaid Jewish nonprofit worker who publishes occasional commentaries because I care passionately about Jewish life...") that makes people believe you're the right person to be writing it, and also feel like you're doing it as an act of conscience.
5. Be sure to point out how many of the "findings" are flawed and why. Is geography not considered a factor? What about age and marital status? How many of those responding "unaffiliated" or "no denomination" were working with or volunteering at a Jewish organization but didn't actually pay membership dues at a synagogue? What is affiliation, anyway? What is the essential nature of each denomination in a world that's increasingly non- or post-denominational? Why do people switch paths between denominations? How much impact does nature have on decisions regarding relationship to religion?
With the release of every set of statistics, every survey that yields findings, those of us who engage in this world find ourselves in an essential bind. We desperately crave information to support us in our work; findings that validate our actions keep us moving apace, but findings that diverge from our understandings or assumptions rarely push the pause button on actions already in motion. It is challenging to alter our course of action based on survey findings. We understand - and sometimes use it as an excuse to stay the course - that while the community as a whole may reflect the reported trends, localized trends may be different, or even opposite.
As my friend and colleague Jonathan Woocher (tip #6 - namedropping and quoting experts, sometimes without their permission!) wrote in the JEDLAB Facebook group, "surveys inherently leave many questions unanswered [...]The really rich understanding of what is going on with real people can never come from a survey like this alone[...] This is one input into our efforts to understand what is happening in American Jewish life today. It is by no means the whole story. Hopefully, as the data set gets analyzed more fully, some of the picture will get filled in further, but surveys are simply limited in what they can tell us."
As more people read the (full) report and parse the data, new observations may arise. But in the interim, the one thing we do know is that many of these numbers may sound more shocking than they are. We should not treat new information (or technology or ideas) with panic, but with great and hospitable interest, absorbing it, letting it infuse us with new energy, and enabling us to view the daily grind with perspective that is fresh and inspiring.