Photo Credit: unsplash

Back in 2013, when the Pew Research Center released its landmark study entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Jewish Action asked me among other contributors to offer observations and recommendations. With the release of Pew’s latest report some months ago, they again asked to analyze the newest findings while reflecting back on their suggestions from eight years ago. This article appeared in the Winter 2021(5782) Jewish Action.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center published a thorough demographic study titled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” I suggested at the time that the report yielded two clear conclusions and mandates for our Orthodox community. Firstly, to stem the precipitous and catastrophic rise of assimilation and intermarriage, we would have to recruit a greater swath of our community to meaningfully engage in outreach and not rely on outreach professionals alone. Our Orthodox communities would need to become more welcoming and friendly, more accommodating and sensitive to those without an observant background, and our communal budgets would need to prioritize funding outreach efforts, programs and personnel.


Secondly, I suggested that the Pew report’s findings regarding our Orthodox community should move us to immediately evaluate our assumptions regarding the commitment of our Orthodox youth and their experiences both in our homes and in our schools.

A few months ago, Pew released its latest report with updated findings and an opportunity to measure how well we have done. Tragically, intermarriage outside of the Orthodox community continues to be sky-high at over 70 percent, effectively threatening the very future and continuity of a significant segment of the American Jewish community. Among other findings, the report found that “twice as many Jewish Americans say they derive a great deal of meaning and fulfillment from spending time with pets as say the same about their religion.”

Correctly, we are all outraged by and concerned with growing anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, as disturbing as those horrific incidents and troubling trends are, when it comes to Jewish continuity, the statistical threat of anti-Semitism pales in comparison to the damage we are doing to ourselves and our own contribution to the disappearance of our people.

It is evident we have not succeeded in moving the needle on assimilation and intermarriage. The question is, have we really even tried?

There is so much to unpack and analyze from the latest report, but one contrast, in particular, jumps out at me and, I believe, offers a mandate and charge going forward. Sadly, the report found that members of different denominations of American Judaism generally don’t feel they have “a lot” in common with one another. About half of Orthodox Jews say they have “not much” (23 percent) or “nothing at all” (26 percent) in common with Reform Jews. Similarly, most Reform Jews say they have “not much” (39 percent) or “nothing at all” (21 percent) in common with the Orthodox.

Despite our common history and shared destiny, notwithstanding our overlapping culture, calendar, and commitment to Israel, Jews of different streams not only do not feel connected, but they also don’t even feel they have commonality. This likely results from the increased general American trend towards polarization from, and negative associations with, those who are different than us.

There is a significant and startling exception to the rule. Pew reported a denominational shift, particularly among the younger demographic. Chabad, analyzed for the first time as its own denomination and not an Orthodox subgroup, is now the same size as the Reform and Conservative denominations. Thirty-eight percent of all American Jews have engaged in some way with Chabad programs. Forty percent of those are active on a regular or semi-regular basis. Seventy-five of those who are involved with Chabad do not self-identify as Orthodox.

Reform and Conservative are losing members. While certainly, some are walking away altogether, it turns out a significant amount still want to feel connected to their Judaism, and Chabad is where they feel most at home. If we want the next Pew study to report improvements in the statistics regarding intermarriage and assimilation as well as disaffection among the Orthodox, we must take a page out of Chabad’s playbook.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, successfully inculcated a feeling of duty and responsibility into generations, including a growing number who were born after he had already left this world. As fundamental as any other part of their identity, those associated with Chabad feel a powerful sense of shelichus, that they are on a mission and have the mandate to connect and feel commonality with all Jews, to bring them closer to a relationship with Hashem, and for Judaism to inform and inspire their lives. Their approach is non-judgmental, warm and welcoming, they make Torah and Judaism accessible, relevant and contemporary. And they do it all without compromising on a strict commitment to Torah, halachah and Lubavitch practices and minhagim.

The success, as demonstrated in the latest data, is the result of not relying on rabbis and rebbetzins alone, but the force and focus of an entire movement. Those touched and inspired by Chabad are not the only beneficiaries of Chabad’s approach. Rather than feel lost, invisible or inconsequential, young people in Chabad feel they have a purpose, they are here for a reason, and that the world is waiting for a difference only they could make.

My intent here is not to glorify or romanticize Chabad as perfect or for everyone, but rather to use their success as a springboard for us to learn from the combination of these two data points in the Pew report. We can both make a measurable impact on stemming the tide of assimilation, as well as inspire our children to be ambassadors of Torah and Yiddishkeit if we embrace taking responsibility for Jewish continuity as a core value of our movement and our lives. Let’s learn and utilize the language of shelichus, being on a mission in our schools, at shuls, and around the Shabbos table. Let’s develop and teach a curriculum of responsibility for the Jewish future and how practically we can better reach out, invite, engage and relate with Jews who don’t have our background or level of observance.

After the last Pew report I suggested we need to work on combating intermarriage and inspiring our Orthodox youth in parallel, side by side. Perhaps a major takeaway of this latest study is that we can impact both groups with one campaign and focus.

Nobody is better positioned to make Judaism alive, attractive and relatable than those who are both uncompromising on halachah while simultaneously engaged in society and participating in the greater world. We have the best platform and are poised to have the greatest success, we just need to care enough to try.

In response to the 2013 Pew report, I shared that our shul, Boca Raton Synagogue, has a dedicated outreach rabbi, Rabbi Josh Broide, on our rabbinic team. Given the catastrophic threat of assimilation and intermarriage, we consider his position and efforts a necessity, not a luxury and that is why we prioritize it in our budget. His tireless efforts have yielded significant success measured by the quantity of otherwise unaffiliated people who have participated in his programs, classes and services and by the meaningful changes many have made to their lives.

Until now, we have considered the outreach role and efforts as complementary to our shul and supplemental to our community. The most recent report has driven us to reconsider that perspective and the focus from exclusively directed at the unaffiliated to working with and inspiring our members to create a movement, to feel they are part of a mission. We will only move the needle on the formidable threat of assimilation if we recruit those who are already committed to not only participate in outreach efforts, but to lead them.

A movement requires strategic thinking, intentional programming and mindful messaging from the pulpit, in shul literature, through the youth department and adult education. Themes of taking achrayus, personal responsibility, mesirus nefesh, community, Klal Yisrael and continuity should be emphasized again and again. Tools and training should be provided to help overcome inhibition and to provide skills in engaging the unaffiliated meaningfully. These ideas, ideals and efforts must be shared with and stressed to teens and youth. We must involve them, empower them and enable them to see themselves as instrumental to our movement, not only in their youth but throughout their lives.

Let us pray that with our renewed efforts coupled with siyata d’Shmaya, Divine assistance, the next Pew survey will report an inspired, flourishing Jewish people steeped in Jewish values and Torah and feeling a tremendous connection and commonality with one another.

{Reposted from Rabbi Goldberg’s site}


Previous articleRed Sox Dump Minor Leaguer for Racist Attacks on their Jewish Chief Baseball Officer
Next articleRepublican Jews Condemn Marjorie Taylor Greene
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS), a rapidly-growing congregation of over 950 families and over 1,000 children in Boca Raton, Florida. BRS is the largest Orthodox Synagogue in the Southeast United States. Rabbi Goldberg’s warm and welcoming personality has helped attract people of diverse backgrounds and ages to feel part of the BRS community, reinforcing the BRS credo of “Valuing Diversity and Celebrating Unity.”