Bagels Aren’t Enough

The results of the Pew Survey on American Jews track a weird set of ironies that have haunted the Jewish Institutional Community (JIC) for some time. On the one hand, the survey clearly shows that the minority of Jews who identify as Jewish for religious reasons are the only ones who really care about the kinds of Jewish values that lead to sustainability and continuity—i.e., values other than the holocaust and bagels. Pew’s data sets out the stark reality: Jews not religiously invested are just not that Jewishly invested in general.

The irony here is that the leading funders of the JIC are anomalies: non-religious Jews who are nonetheless committed to Judaism. They’ve coined new words like “Peoplehood” to describe what they’re interested in preserving: the sense Jews have of being part of a people, maybe even a nation. Such values are basically The Simpsons’ version of Auld Lang Syne: we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

Unsurprisingly to outsiders, but confusingly to the philanthropists who have spent tens of millions of dollars on the problem of Jewish continuity, this solution doesn’t work. For some, yes, Jewish culture, history, and “peoplehood” are enough reasons to raise your kids Jewish. But as the Pew data shows, not for most.

As a result, the funders of the JIC—an increasingly small circle of increasingly wealthy people—are stuck. Few people want the product they’re selling, and the product that people want, they don’t want to sell.

Conceivably, the Jewish community could experience an “evangelical turn,” by which I mean a shift to more spiritual, experiential form of religious expression. But I’m not sure. American Jews, on average, are highly educated, highly skeptical, and more than a little awkward. It’s hard to see Jewish Millenials speaking in tongues. A tongue sandwich, maybe.

This leaves those of us invested in a Jewish future contemplating either smaller, boutique forms of Jewish engagement, or perhaps a Judaism that transcends the Jews. Perhaps the best of Jewish spirituality becomes as accessible to non-Jews (i.e. 99.5% of the world population) as the best of Jewish humor. Or perhaps anti-semitism will surge up again, causing us to circle the wagons. But we now have yet another data set showing that bagels aren’t enough.

*Read more from “Pew and the Jews: ‘So What?'”, an RD special feature on the Pew survey.