Strange but true: Jews are the most popular religious group in America today.
In their extraordinary book, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell examine how warm Americans feel toward various religious groups other than their own. Using what is called a “thermometer score” (a score of 100 is as warm as possible, 50 is neutral, and zero is as cold as possible), the authors found that Jews as a group score highest. We are somewhat more popular than Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelical Protestants, and much more popular than Buddhists, Mormons, and Muslims.
One wonders why this result received so little attention within the Jewish community, despite widespread news coverage of the book. One reason, perhaps, is that on some level we Jews are not receptive to revelations that contradict our ingrained self-image of victimhood.
It is dangerous for us to be constrained by such “old world thinking,” as it blinds us to current realities. Much evidence points to this siege mentality of the North American Jewish establishment as a primary reason why so many young Jews are distancing themselves from Jewish organizational life. This mindset is not consistent with their own experience, nor—as Putnam and Campbell demonstrate—with the latest research findings. Jewish young adults are not naive about the perils Jews face around the world, especially in Europe and Israel—but they are not going to hold their lives hostage to a Jewish identity predicated on fear and defensiveness.
How, then, should we Reform Jews respond to our young people? We must talk honestly about the risks facing Jewry: terrorist threats targeting Jews, the real dangers Israel faces. At the same time, we must acknowledge the security and well-being that America offers.
Most of all, we must listen to what our young adults are saying. They want a Jewish world constructed on positives, not negatives. They want a Jewish community built on vision, openness, inclusion, spirituality, and a creative path to Torah. They are right to want a vibrant, hopeful Judaism. And if we are to retain their loyalty, this is what Reform Judaism must offer them.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism