Judaism: A Sense of Belonging

Dec 3, 2013 | Judaism

Assimilation: Fight it? Accept it?

We asked five contributors to answer the question above in response to this article. Below is Jackie Luffman’s response.
See Jessi Pollock’s response here.
See Adam Moscoe’s response here.
See Joannie Tansky’s response here.
See Rabbi Goldstein’s response here.

Map with pin

Gabriel Roth’s Slate article, entitled: “Americans embrace your secular intermarried selves”, was itself provocative and sparked its own reaction just as the Pew report generated much heated discussion. As a sociologist who has been observing general North American trends towards secularism, Roth is correct in his assertion that there are large numbers of cultural Jews who do not wish to maintain ritual Jewish practices. He is also correct that American Jews (and no doubt Canadian Jews) are much less likely to suffer systemic discrimination and, therefore, have achieved remarkable success in integration into American and Canadian culture and, from there, greater assimilation. At this time of year when Jews particularly feel different, we have certainly integrated our own spin to the December holiday spirit. Take for instance Chanukah song mash-ups, popularized by the Maccabeats that have millions of YouTube hits—something that has probably popularized the Chanukah holiday to all Americans and Canadians.

The research and data show that where you live is a bigger predictor of Jewish practice and cultural assimilation than Jewish education, camps etc. The reality is small Jewish communities have higher rates of assimilation – but this is also true of other small ethnic groups.  A high rate of intermarriage is considered to be an indication of social integration because it reveals intimate and profound relations between people of different groups.

So, other than in perhaps Toronto and Montreal, we can expect to see assimilation increasing for much of Canadian Jewry. Research shows that, generally speaking, it seems that, as a whole, North Americans are moving toward more secularism. Inter-faith marriage among Americans grew dramatically over the course of the twentieth century. Approximately one third of all married Americans are in an inter-faith marriage, and one half chose to marry someone of a different faith (Source: Robert Putnam).

There is no question then that the current trend is away from formalized religion and traditional religions intuitions. But it is exactly that: a trend. We have seen throughout history that trends do and can change depending on the current political, economic and social environment of a given population. One thing that sociologists have identified based on research is that a strong sense of religious identity provides individuals with a greater sense of social well-being. In other words, the happiest people tend to be those that are strongest in their religious practices.

Moving forward, I believe Judaism has an advantage because it is both a faith and an ethnic identity. As a human species, we all need a sense of belonging. I believe that is why we see Americans most definitely proud to be Jewish—to be a part of something bigger than just our own nuclear household.   In this decade, although we are just not particularly interested in what the Jewish structures and institutions are offering us, that doesn’t mean that Judaism cannot or will not offer us something in the future or at different stages in our lives. It is often true, and it may well happen for Roth himself, that during difficult times, people do turn to religion or their community even if they never did in the past.

Trying to stem assimilation is unrealistic given our geographic, social and economic forces in Canadian and American society.  Both assimilation and intermarriage are complex sociological constructs and not something easily “fixed” or can be set aside.

Just as Judaism changed upon the destruction of the second temple, where there was shift towards Torah study and Jewish life rather than temple worship, we will likely need to re-organize ourselves again. We see change happening already – we have “synaplexs” or shared prayer spaces; rabbis without borders, online Jewish learning, Jewish LGBT groups, revival Yiddush theatre, and the list goes on and on.

The Jewish people are small in number but our enduring sense of peoplehood and our ethical values have allowed us to overcome many adversities. I suspect Jewish culture, religion and civilization will continue to offer many things to the people of this planet who yearn for meaning in an uncertain world.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Chanukah!


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