Earlier this week, someone sent me a very fun, cute, and short video (please watch), created by two Portlanders (and BB Camp alumnae). It is a video about a group of seniors in Palm Desert who celebrate Shabbat at a local Wendy’s restaurant. Yep – Wendy’s the hamburger place.
The person who sent me the video knew I would enjoy it. What they may not have realized is how symbolic this video is. In many ways, it is a peek into Jewish life today.
In fact, in the past few weeks, three major American Jewish communities – Pittsburgh, the Bay Area, and Washington, DC -- released their latest demographic studies (click on the city above to read their report). Each is worth reading, at least the Executive Summaries.
A few highlights:
• West coast Jewish communities are different than east coast Jewish communities (affiliation, intermarriage rates, connections to Israel, etc.).
• Each community saw a dramatic growth in its population.
• Despite the growth in population, membership/connections to “legacy institutions” like synagogues, JCCs, Jewish Federations, etc. declined.
• Economic insecurity is at higher levels than years past.
• The national trend of a rising neutrality toward Israel is evident.
• Jewish communities are highly diverse. In DC, 7% identify as LGBTQ, and another 7% identify as a person of color. In the Bay Area, one-in-ten Jewish households overall, and one-in-five in San Francisco specifically, include someone who identifies as LGBTQ. A quarter of Bay Area Jewish households include a Latino, Asian-American, African-American, or a mixed or other ethnic or racial background (other than white) individual.
• Across demographics, few Jews feel unwelcome in Jewish spaces. It counters the narrative that people are seeking Jewish engagement, but are not finding it because we do not know how to welcome them.
One commentator on the studies wrote, “In the last few decades, analysis of population studies have become the starting points for debate about what to make of a rapidly changing American Jewish community. I recall the bitter debates about intermarriage, assimilation and how best to preserve what we called “Jewish continuity.” For the most part we have stopped trying to hold on to the old paradigm of Jewish life rooted in observance, Zionism and solidarity with Jews throughout the world. Jewish community now faces the reality of a community that is less religious, more diverse and more indifferent to Israel, and, perhaps, lacking a sense of Jewish peoplehood.
The unveiling of the National Jewish Population Survey in 1990 marked the formal beginning of the “continuity” debate. It is best remembered for its intermarriage rate of more than 50%. While that number was disputed and misunderstood (the figure represented only those marrying at the time, rather than all marriages involving living Jews), it scared the organized Jewish world because it raised the possibility that within a generation or two, not enough Jews who cared about Jewish life would be around.
That led to more spending on Jewish identity-building initiatives and outreach to increase the chances that young Jews would choose to create Jewish families, rather than merely assimilate into American society. That also meant more resources devoted to Jewish education, summer camps and trips to Israel, all of which are proven to strengthen interest in Jewish life.
The debate continued after the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. But by the time the Pew Research Institute put out its definitive study in 2013, it was clear the tide had turned in terms of the discussion about demography. The Jewish community had changed and is changing.
Bottom line -- people who are engaged in being Jewish seek out situations where they connect with other Jews and this leads to stronger engagement. The more “doing Jewish,” the more Jewish friends, and vice versa. This is the strength of synagogues, JCCs, day schools, camps, etc. But they may not be for everyone. Many seek to create Jewish community “outside the walls” of those institutions.
This leads me back to the video. Rachel Myers, the director wrote, “Jews come in many forms. I can imagine from a very religious perspective that a fast food restaurant for Shabbat might seem unorthodox, but for this group of people the weekly Shabbat celebration is a joyous gathering of old friends to connect with their religion and local Jewish community. Jews can find holiness and spirituality in many ways and in many different spaces. Culture and times change, and for this group Wendy’s is their modern Jewish answer to a weekly Shabbat dinner observance.”
These seniors are not alone. People of all ages are finding traditional and innovative ways to live and experience Jewish life. They are creating activities on their own. They may not necessarily be ways you and I think of, but for them there is great meaning and value. So, as we think about the next decade of Jewish life and beyond, it is time for us to look inward and ask ourselves, “Where’s the beef?” in what the Jewish community offers and what people are looking for in their own Jewish lives and engagements.
On a separate note, thank you to those who gave so generously to our Passover4All annual campaign. With your support, we raised over $7,000 in less than ten days and will now provide Passover food boxes to 120 individuals and families throughout the Portland and SW Washington areas. On behalf of the Jewish Federation, Congregation Kesser Israel, and Jewish Family and Child Service – THANK YOU!
Finally, we are once again participating in the international annual Good Deeds Day on April 15, 2018. It is a family day of hands-on volunteering to make our community a better place. Last year, over 2.5 million volunteers (including hundreds here) in 93 countries worked on 20,000 projects totaling 6.7 million volunteer hours. Join us and be a part of this special day -- register now.
Shabbat shalom and do not forget to “spring ahead” and move your clock forward.