America’s Filled With Potential, If Only the Community Could See It


A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans are switching religions more than ever. As many as one of every two adults does not practice the religion in which they were born or raised.

Evangelical and nondenominational Protestantism are the big winners. Catholicism and mainline Protestants are the big losers. As an aging religious group, it is time for Jews to take heed of the changes affecting religion in America because they are Americans, too, and no major trend passes them by.

Pew refers to the "marketplace" of religions in the United States, and that is exactly right. People shop around for the religious theologies, practices and communities that suit them. Some may try on a number of faiths until they find one that fits.

At a time when other religious groups are seeking adherents and promoting their religious faiths, Jewish organizations and institutions generally are so afraid of decline and loss that they turn inward. The result is that these very insular approaches end up ensuring that decline and loss occur.

The reason is that Jews crave free choice. We are more likely to retain more people because they feel they want to be Jews, not because they have to be.

The Jewish communal response to this expression of religious freedom is locked somewhere in another time or place — Europe and North Africa in the 1700s, for example. We keep having the same tired talks about "preventing intermarriage" or "strengthening Jewish identity" or saving the Jews from assimilation with the right kind of, or enough, Jewish education.

We don't really want to be part of the marketplace of religious ideas and practices; we just want to be left alone to marry each other, and keep everybody inside safe and secure.

This, of course, is an illusion.

Still, we fantasize that if we inoculate our young people with enough Jewish education, then they will reject the 98 percent of other Americans they might fall in love with or that they might not be attracted to Buddhism. What nonsense! No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious competition.

It's time for Jews to join every other group in America, and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now, it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms. We still question people's sincerity — do they really want to be Jewish? We make people jump through hoops. Those who convert have to be persistent enough to withstand the barriers.

Openness and excitement do not mean that learning and ritual requirements to become a Jew should be abandoned. Just the opposite is the case. Spiritual seekers are looking for meaning, content and purpose.

Our synagogues often are less welcoming than we think. And our newspapers, sermons and literature are filled with hysterical reprimands and dire predictions about the demise of the Jews that result from gentiles breaking through our traditional walls. How welcoming do we think it is when we say we wish our sons or daughters would have married someone else, but as long as you are here, we'll try and be nice to you?

We have a theology that has no intermediary between the individual and God. We have a set of daily, monthly and yearly rituals that provide guidance and purpose. We have rich liturgy, beautiful prayers, deep roots in Israel, a strong communal system. All appealing. By being attractive to others, we will also be more attractive to born Jews. What are we afraid of?

Those who choose to join the Jewish people will enrich us with their ideas, energy and passion. It is time to embrace the America in which we live.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.


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