Are We Still Treating Secular Jews Like We Treated Spinoza?
Secular Jews Want Secular And Cultural Outlets For Their Judaism That The Jewish Community Still Refuses To Provide
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
A poll of 1,000 American Jews reveals that almost one in six are trying to find a way to express themselves Jewishly outside of affiliation with a synagogue or religious programing.
The study, which was paid for by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and conducted by Ipsos Internet, reportedly debunks the myth that American Jews either identify culturally or religiously as Jews as an either/or proposition.
Respondents who identified themselves as “spiritual" or “cultural” and were engaged in Jewish life were alienated from synagogue membership or synagogue attendance, even though they practiced some religious rituals on their own and believed that religion was very important to them.
Just under 40% of those surveyed were under 35-years-old. 56% of respondents said they held a deep attachment to Israel, which the Workmen’s Circle claims is larger than “any other non-Orthodox group".
In past Workmen’s Circle surveys, Jews who defined themselves as cultural Jews were “more passive about their approach to Jewish life,” a rather murky Sholom Life report reprinted in Ynet notes.
However, this year’s survey shows that there appears to be a shift in the way those respondents identifying as "cultural Jews" try to express their Judaism.
These cultural Jews care about Jewish values and want to be affiliated with the Jewish community, but mostly want to experience this outside of a synagogue setting.
But the Jewish community has few programs or publications aimed at these cultural Jews outside of traditional outreach-style programs meant to convert these secular Jews to various forms of Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy.
Secular Jewish funders like Michael Steinhardt have refused to fund programs that would actually benefit these cultural Jews, and have instead focused on funding various Orthodox outreach programs thinly disguised as non-denominational because they often appear to have quicker and better results.
However, any fundamentalist groups given the imprimatur and backing of the Jewish community would most likely also have quick results, because a certain percentage of people are drawn to simple answers to complex questions and to religious leaders who draw the world in black or white with no shades of gray.
At the same time funders have shied away from funding truly secular programing, bastions of secularism like the Forward have been taken over by Jews who identify as religious and who themselves identify as Jewish through religion, not through culture. This impacts their papers’ and organizations’ output and limits their products’ appeal to secular cultural Jews.
Also, powerful synagogue and rabbinical groups often effectively block community secular programing which is frequently viewed by the rabbis and synagogue groups as both threatening and heretical.
This year’s Workmen’s Circle survey may show that younger secular cultural Jews are finally choosing to stay within the Jewish community and to begin to fight for their share of communal resources.
The Workman's Circle issued a press release on the survey that notes that:
You can read more about the survey here.
[M]any Jews today fit into another category, that of the engaged and congregationally unaffiliated.
This group, according to the survey, makes up 16% of Jews in the United States, or about 1 million of the 6 million Jews in the country. These individuals say that being Jewish is very important in their lives and that they actively seek Jewish expression and engagement outside of a synagogue.
These characteristics put them in marked contrast to other categories of non-Orthodox Jews in this extensive study — the engaged and congregationally affiliated, the congregationally affiliated but unengaged (those who join synagogues but rarely attend), and the unengaged and congregationally unaffiliated.
While the engaged and congregationally unaffiliated are not synagogue members — they typically attend religious services only once or twice a year on average — they still show numerous signs of Jewish engagement. They also tend to be attached to Israel and demonstrate noticeably strong commitments to economic justice and social equality.
They are also exceptional in their progressive political views. Of note, nearly twice as many of the engaged and congregationally unaffiliated Jews compared to others see economic justice issues as important “to a great extent,” identify as pro-labor to a great extent, and see the current federal tax system as unfair.
Furthermore, these individuals tend not to describe themselves as religious, secular, or anti-religious. Rather, they typically identify themselves as cultural Jews and see their Jewish identity as more fluid than others have in previous generations. They frequently self-define as “spiritual.”