“I have to admit that it’s less bad than I originally expected,” said Rabbi Ron Shulman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation and the president of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Rabbi Shulman was referring to the findings of the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews, as he opened the panel discussion held at Congregation Shomrei Emunah on Sunday, Nov. 24.
Rabbi Shulman continued, “The news isn’t good, but I think it’s a relatively accurate portrait of who we are. … It’s like looking at ourselves in the mirror … there are elements of the reflection that I think are very good, and there are elements of the reflection that are of deep concern.”
Rabbi Shulman moderated the panel discussion intended to help the approximately 50 attendees (including Israel Patoka representing Governor Martin O’Malley’s office and Marianne Kreitner representing Barbara Mikulski’s office) further dissect and understand the recently released information from the Pew survey of U.S. Jews.
The panelists were Alan Cooperman, deputy director at the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, Laurence Kotler Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis and director of the Berman Jewish DataBank at the Jewish Federations of North America, and Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Cooperman interpreted the surveys’ numbers and helped the audience decipher the meaning behind them. He also explained some of the terminology, such as the difference between Jews by religion (self-identify as Jewish and claim Judaism as their religion) and Jews of no religion (self-identify as Jewish but claim no religious affiliation) and how that information was determined.
Some statistics Cooperman presented elicited reactions from the audience. One of those was that 30 percent of self-identifying Jews considered themselves Jewish because Jesus was a Jew (these were people who consider themselves non-Jewish by religion or parent). Also, 34 percent of Jews polled thought it possible to be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the messiah.
But the information that garnered much discussion and comment was data gathered from the survey question that asked respondents about their emotional connection to Israel. The least religious and also the youngest age group, 18 to 29 year olds, are much less emotionally connected to the State of Israel than all of the other age groups.
Kotler-Berkowitz presented next and focused on the commonalities and differences among the groups surveyed. He took considerable time to further expound on the “emotional connection to Israel” question. He explained that the debate among scientists studying the Pew data is whether or not these younger Jews will remain less emotionally attached to Israel or whether they will become more attached to Israel as they grow older, as the survey data (from older respondents) could possibly indicate. The question, he explained, is whether this group would behave in the manner of a “cohort effect” or not.
Cohort effect, in this instance, is if the cohort or unit of young Jews effectively stays unified in their thinking and attitudes and therefore remains relatively detached from Israel as they grow older. The opposite of that is to break out from their cohort frame of mind (for a host of reasons) and become more emotionally attached to Israel as they get older. The audience’s comments and questions reflected a large concern about hearing this information.
“Pew has been a game changer,” said Hoffman, the final presenter of the evening. “The amount of attention this study has had over the past couple of weeks has been a conversation starter for our national community and our local community.”
Hoffman admitted that it’s hard to translate a national study like Pew into a local application and that studies like these generally present many more questions than answers. He explained that in looking at the Pew findings in relation to Baltimore’s local 2010 study, Baltimore trends better in terms of attitude, behavior and participation in Jewish life. Baltimore Jews polled also trend higher in emotional attachment to Israel as well as travel to Israel. But the data also tells us, he warned, to be mindful of the findings and that Baltimore is not necessarily immune to these national trends.
“Judaism is becoming more individualistic and we have to figure out how to translate that individual expression into community,” said Hoffman.
He cited another statistic from the local study: Although 55 percent of non-Orthodox 18-to 34-year-olds say being Jewish is important to them, only 14 percent say being part of a Jewish community is important to them.
“So there is great deal of Jewish pride in the younger generation,” said Hoffman, “but they haven’t translated that into the value of participating in Jewish life.”
Some 46 percent of respondents found Jewish organizations in Baltimore to be remote or not relevant.
“It’s a call to action for us,” said Hoffman. “We need to be collaborating on how we’re going to evolve Jewish life in Baltimore so it continues to be vibrant, exciting, relevant and meaningful. … We have to meet the needs of the potential consumers of Jewish life.”