My father’s five most disliked words are – “I don’t care” and “so what.” Throughout my childhood, and even until this day, my father gets angry at me when I use those phrases. To him, the words sound ugly, as if nothing matters to me (when in reality, that is not the case). And, now, I feel the same way when I hear those phrases (or something similar) from others, including my own children.
On Christmas Day last year, USA Today ran an article about the “hot” religious statistical trend of the past 20 years -- the “nones” – people who check “no religious identity” on the American Religious Identification Survey. This is the fastest growing religious group in the United States. The “nones” numbers have increased from 8% in 1990 to 16% today – and continue to grow. Not surprisingly, some people are just not on a spiritual path. And, these individuals do not seem to miss rituals or traditions – which for some -- may never have been learned or observed.
I had forgotten about the article until the March 12 issue of TIME magazine, which included a special section listing 10 ideas for the future. One of the ideas caught my eye – The Rise of the Nones. The author writes about this fast growing group of people who have “given up” on traditional religious institutions and religious beliefs. Perhaps, they just don’t care? The sentiment is that people are “rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”
“The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest is minimal” says Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College. “We live in a society today where it is acceptable for someone to say they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable.” Yes, but so what?
While some may be turning away from organized religion, some in this group are still seeking rich, if unorthodox, ways to build spiritual lives. “40% of unaffiliated (non-members of religious institutions) people are fairly religious, and are still hoping to eventually find the right religious home.” This has spurred on independent groups (in the Jewish community you will often hear them referred to as independent minyanim) to create their own worship and learning communities.
Since living in Portland, I have met many people who identify as spiritual, yet not religious nor a member of a synagogue. When I ask them to define what it means to be spiritual, I hear words that seem more concerned with social injustice than anything else. It is as if “goodness is overtaking godliness.”
On Tuesday night, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, spoke at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. He spoke about the Jewish future and that of the State of Israel. At a private dinner, Rabbi Gordis talked about how “Jewish faith” had replaced “Jewish peoplehood” as the primary connector for Jews in America, which was not the case decades ago.
Let me state that in no way am I making a judgment, nor telling anyone how they should define their own Judaism and Jewishness. There are some who equate being Jewish with being part of a religious group, like being Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. Others see being Jewish as part of one’s nationality, similar to French, Canadian or Russian. Others may identify via culture, history, or their values.
Rabbi Gordis raised the point that we need to emphasize the “peoplehood” aspect of who we are. A “people” have a common language (Hebrew, despite the fact many Jews do not speak/read the language), common history and memory, and a homeland (Israel) – faith based groups do not. Moreover, Rabbi Gordis emphasized that “people can opt out of faith and become non-believers. But you cannot opt out of being part of your people.”
The research is showing that indeed a growing number of people are becoming “nones.” This includes many Jews. A question American Jewry (primarily those who define their Judaism as a religion) must answer -- do we adapt to this trend or do we fight it? This will have a wide-ranging impact on our current Jewish infrastructure including synagogues, social service organizations, camps, schools, etc.
I do believe we can counteract this by inviting people to join us in Jewish communal activities, involving them in our community and Jewish institutions, and providing accessible, affordable, and meaningful Jewish education and Jewish experiences (both formal and informal) for people of all ages. This way we will not hear, what some refer to as “apatheists” say those five difficult words -- “I don’t care” and “so what” when it comes to who they are as a Jew.
Let’s commit ourselves to a future where Jews of all ages are proud of their Jewish identity, Jewish heritage, Jewish Homeland and Jewish beliefs. Because, in reality, our Jewish future depends on it.
PS – Thank you to everyone who filled out the east side survey. We received over 560 responses. You will be hearing more about the results and data in the months ahead.