These are painful days. And yet, strange as it may sound, there is hope.
Yesterday, while I was focused on the news from Israel, another newsworthy occurrence happened: the Pew Research Center released its study Jewish Americans in 2020.
My first experience with the organized Jewish world as adult came in 1990, when I was asked to join our Federation community in San Francisco for its General Assembly. The buzzword at the time was “continuity”. There was angst and there were grave warnings about rising assimilation and intermarriage rates, and the prevailing mindset was that of a closed community. Exclusive. Selective. Monolithic. In that context, the 1990 population study was a wake-up call.
It’s now 2021. Since 1990—and since the last Pew survey of American Jewry in 2013—we have become a more diverse community. We have become a more populace community. (In 1970, there were 5.4 million self-identified Jews in the U.S.; today, there are 7.5 million.) And after five generations, the fact that 70% of young people raised in households with one Jewish parent identify as Jewish and over half marry within the faith says something important. It says that there is meaning, there is depth and substance in what Judaism offers. The survey further reveals that 80% of respondents feel a positive connection to Israel. Synagogue affiliation has increased. And through a multitude of ways, both traditional and not, college-aged students are exploring their Jewish identity.
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, is set in the second month of the second year after the Exodus. A census is conducted, with a half-shekel coin representing each “head.” Even within the context of this count—this survey of our numbers—our sages emphasize that concern for each person is paramount and that the individuals whose persons are counted are more than just a tick mark on a tally sheet, or a shekel tossed in a basket.
We are as a civilization. With belief, with behavior, and, fundamentally, with a sense of belonging to each other. Our mandate is to engage, to elevate, to make meaning, to make space, to validate identity. Our mandate is to count those who seek to be counted in the People Israel.