I see it falling into place. Many Lilith hypotheses about gender and Jews are borne out by the findings in “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a study just out from the Pew Research Center.
Full disclosure: I am not a demographer. As an editor and writer, though, I’ve lived through several Jewish population studies and I know that each one has brought its own panicked responses, including a cry, from decades back, that Jewish women were simply not having enough babies and that the Jewish birth rate was falling thanks to women’s selfish involvement with their own education. So when I look at the latest study, released in October, I understand that its data can be mined in many different ways. Here are a few salient findings relevant for Lilith readers.
Although only a few survey responses are separated out by gender, some telling differences between Jewish women and Jewish men emerge. Among them, the fact that more women than men say that being Jewish is “very” important in their lives, and that religion also is “very” important to them. Yet, paradoxically, a Jewish woman is now more likely to marry a non-Jew than a Jewish man (a change from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000–2001).
There’s some non-news in the study, too — like the fact one in five Jews say they have no religion. Or that the offspring of intermarriage are themselves more likely to intermarry than are Jews with two Jewish parents. (These phenomena were already emerging into the spotlight when I explored their origins in my 1989 book, Intermarriage.)
As this survey reveals, being Jewish is about more than religion. Twenty-two percent of the people surveyed identify themselves as Jews “of no religion.” Of this group, two-thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way. But who is doing the raising? In heterosexual households, is it mothers who still have primary responsibility for naming the banner under which a child is being raised? And if Jewish women still feel undervalued as Jews (even after all these years of the women’s movement for change), are these women simply walking away? It seems not.
On the contrary. On almost every measure of what people consider essential to their Jewish identity, more women than men say that remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, working for justice/equality and being intellectually curious are defining markers of whether one is Jewish. Women define themselves as more liberal than men, and — perhaps because, more often than men, women find themselves in need — more women than men want government to provide more services.
Several of the articles you’ll read here bear out these Pew findings.
For instance, Jewish women have been in the forefront of the ethical and political movements for reproductive freedom for more than a century (read, among other articles, “No, Margaret Sanger Wasn’t Jewish,” by Melissa Klapper, in the Lilith archive at lilith.org). In this issue, the harnessing of social justice to one’s Jewishness informs “Our Reproductive Selves,” a whole section in which you’ll meet an abortion foremother of the 1970s; a ritual-maker who mines Jewish sources for a prayer to repeat while she ambivalently undergoes an abortion; a truth-teller broadcasting the sad and oft-occluded statistics about how twenty-first-century technology is failing infertile women; and a twentysomething who’s a harbinger of why young Jewish women may become nurses.
The Pew survey shows that synagogue affiliation and attendance are dropping among non-Orthodox Jews. Yet you’ll read here about Jewish women religious leaders in Los Angeles who are magnets for tens of thousands of Jews, showing that women understand how to infuse Jewish activities with fresh meaning. Clearly, these are influential pockets of Jewish creativity led by charismatic women, animating Jewish sources for otherwise “non-religious” Jews who are looking for ways to celebrate a holiday, mark a milestone, engage with others right now.
Where will we find the next good ideas to keep Judaism, and Jewish identity, going?
When you’re looking for fresh ideas to seed change, know that you will harvest more of them when you’re receptive to diverse contributions. Our open-ended editorial meetings around the Lilith conference table convince me of this. Architect Esther Sperber’s cover story calls this “relational creativity.” Turns out that book clubs, college seminars, ateliers, writing groups, incubators and think tanks have learned this too: we (in this case meaning women) do some of our best, most original and innovative thinking not as solitary geniuses, but rather when we’re relating to others, in settings where our own ideas can germinate and develop from what is generated by the people around the table. And so it goes. I often say, when a single individual is credited with some particularly compelling topic or issue of Lilith magazine, that no publication (and likely no building and no research project) is the work of one person alone. So we’re pretty certain that the next best Jewish ideas — the corrections that will swing this or that piece of the data in another direction — will come from the kind of collective, generative, relational creativity you’ll encounter in Lilith’s pages.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief