Why We Should Listen to Young Secular Jewish Americans

Claire Bergen

by Claire Bergen

(originally published at: https://professorpurpledotorg.wordpress.com, used with permission)

February 14, 2024

recent New York Times article profiles Jewish American families in which older parents and young adult children struggle to understand each others’ responses to the Oct. 7 attacks and the ongoing Israeli military response in Gaza. As young Jewish Americans increasingly hold views that diverge from political allegiances that were taken for granted for decades in the US Jewish community, tense exchanges and uncomfortable feelings result – even as family members continue to affirm their love for each other.

Have these exchanges taken place in your family? How is the Jewish American generation gap shaping Humanistic Jewish communities, and how are they responding? What is a Humanistic response to the changing contours of the Jewish American community – as it reflects a changing geopolitical reality? To begin to answer these questions, I examined the literature on “Jews of no religion” – a category that became more widely known with the publishing of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Who are “Jews of no religion,” and what can Humanistic Judaism learn from studies about their beliefs, attitudes and characteristics? How do younger Jews of no religion differ from their older counterparts? And how can these varying beliefs inform the missions of Humanistic Jewish communities? In 2019, the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s Executive Director Paul Golin wrote that “today, most of the individual synagogues that are growing in any denomination are growing because they are mission-driven” and asked, “Is Humanistic Judaism on a mission?” Below, I build on his suggestions for focusing Humanistic Judaism’s mission by examining the research on Jews of no religion, offering suggestions for secular and Humanistic Jewish communities to grow and thrive as they respond to their members’ beliefs and needs – and the needs of the present moment.

As the American Jewish community struggles to make sense of, and respond ethically to, an unprecedented degree of violence in Israel-Palestine, I would like to offer that we need not fear the generation gap. Instead, I would like to suggest that Humanistic Judaism – with its roots in secular Jewish culture – is uniquely poised to respond to it. And if we do so with openness, curiosity, and even humility, we also open ourselves to the possibility of an ethical, compassionate response that meets the seriousness of the present moment. And what could be more humanistic than that?

American “Nones”

Who are “Jews of no religion,” and how do they relate to the changing political landscape? As the Pew survey defines them, they are people who answer “none” in response to the survey question “what is your religion, if any?” but also answer “yes” to the question “do you consider yourself Jewish?” In the most recent Pew report, Jewish Americans in 202027% of Jewish Americans fell into this category. But self-identified Jews are far from being alone in answering “none” to questions about their religion. In fact, the growing group of people in general who answer the religion question with the answers “no religion,” “nothing in particular,” “atheist” or “agnostic” – the group known as “the nones” – have spawned numerous books and even an “interspiritual” organization cleverly titled “Nuns & Nones.”

Whether described as “the nones,” “the nonreligious,” “the non-affiliated,” or “the secular,” this group appears to be on the rise. Pastor and political scientist Ryan P. Burge found that this group grew only very slightly in the US from 1972 to 1991 – and then “something changed from 1991 to 1996…to put it bluntly, 5 percent of the population disaffiliated in a five-year period.” The group has been growing ever since: while in 1991 only 6.3% of the US population had no religion, by 2018, 23.7% of the population were “nones.”

Reasons proposed for the growth of the nonreligious include classical secularization theory, which holds that as societies modernize, they become more specialized and individualized, and religion becomes relegated to a specific niche that people can choose to participate in, or not. Another popular theory is the “bowling alone” hypothesis which depicts a widespread decrease in American participation in group activities, attributed to changes in technology. Burge describes a more general loss of trust in many different institutions from the government to the Catholic Church, due to widespread media coverage of corruption in leadership.

Multiple authors argue that the alliance of the Republican Party with evangelical Christianity by the early 1990s, when disaffiliation began to rapidly increase, has been an important factor in the “rise of the nones,” as liberal Christians left their churches in response to anti-abortion and homophobic ideology. In fact, the connection between religion and politics – and the polarization of both – is strong and growing, with 43.6% of liberals but only 9.8% of conservatives unaffiliated in 2018. This relationship between politics and religion also began to grow in the early 1990s.

Burge notes that “nones” can be further divided into atheists, agnostics and people who answer “nothing in particular” when asked about their religion: this last group accounts for about two-thirds of “nones.” And while American atheists and agnostics tend to fit stereotypes of secularity – young, white, wealthy, highly-educated, left of center, and more likely to be men – “nothing in particulars” reflect a very different demographic: evenly distributed across gender and reflecting US racial diversity as a whole, they tend to be younger but also include many middle-aged people, have incomes lower than the US average, are less likely than the average American to participate in a variety of political activities, and have the lowest level of educational attainment of any American religious group. Here, perhaps, are America’s “bowling alones.”

A final caveat about the research on “nones” and Jews of no religion: just because something is true of young people in general (for example, non-affiliation with religion), we cannot automatically conclude that that trend will continue. While some trends are connected to “age cohorts” (for example, Boomers or Millenials), others seem to change as any particular group of people ages: for example, most people are more likely to be unaffiliated when they are young, but become more likely to affiliate when they begin to start their own families, and drop off again later. Both effects seem to be at play in religious disaffiliation.

Jews of No Religion

While the same factors that may explain American “nones” – secularization, “bowling alone” and growing mistrust in institutions, political polarization, and others not discussed here – can all be applied to “Jews of no religion,” when it comes to the study of secularity and disaffiliation, Jews are a unique group of people. “Modern Jews are among the most secularized groups anywhere,” demographer Ariela Keysar writes. While the earliest Jewish American communities were Sephardic, Keysar discusses primarily Ashkenazi experiences, from the process of Central European emancipation in the early 19th century, continuing with the haskalah (haskole/Jewish Enlightenment); by the early 20th century, Eastern European Jewish communities and their immigrant counterparts in North America were widely aware of secular ideas and identities, which many expressed while maintaining a connection to Jewish cultural identity. Bundism, leftist Zionism, the Workers Circle, and the Forverts (the Yiddish language Jewish Daily Forward), among other institutions, promoted and perpetuated secular Jewish identity within these communities.

Despite this same community’s move towards religious affiliation in the 1950s, as secularism scholar Phil Zuckerman notes, “contemporary Jewry represents one of the most secular(ized) populations in the world.” Though the percentage of US “nones” is similar to the percentage of “Jews of no religion” (both are about a quarter of the population), the differences between secular Jews and religious Jews are far smaller than those between secular and religious Americans as a whole. Jews as a whole, for example, “are only slightly more likely to believe that God exists than the ‘no religion’ group,” writes Keysar. In 2001, 30% of Jews as a whole regarded themselves as “secular in outlook,” while only 6% of Americans as a whole did. In 2020 Pew report, only 21% of Jews as a whole said “religion is very important to them,” as opposed to 41% of all Americans; and while 56% of Americans “believe in the God of the Bible,” only 26% of Jews – including religious Jews – do. But, like American “nones,” this does not mean that a majority of Jews are atheist – rather, half of all Jews believe in an “other higher power/spiritual force.” Still, twice as many Jews (22%) professed no theistic belief at all as did Americans in general.

Despite the secularity of even religious Jews, there are notable differences between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. Jews by religion, for example, are far more likely to say that “being Jewish is important to them” in the 2020 report, and Jews of no religion are far more likely to say that being Jewish is more about ancestry than about religion, culture, or some combination. Jews of no religion are much less likely to have taken part in a Jewish practice such as a Passover seder or a lifecycle ritual – but barely more than half of Jews by religion fasted for even part of Yom Kippur, and less than one-third of religious Jews attend synagogue on even a monthly basis! Paul Golin points out the areas in which Jews of no religion are “more than” Jews by religion: they are twice as likely as Jews by religion to live in a multiracial household, and to hold a LGBTQ+ identity – and the majority choose to raise their children to have some kind of Jewish identity.

This last fact reflects a larger generational trend: while only 16% of Jews over the age of 65 identify as having no religion, fully 40% of those age 18-29 do. This may seem counter-intuitive – or, at the very least, frustrating – to those seeking to grow their secular and Humanistic communities, and noting their older-skewing membership: where are all the young Jews of no religion? Sociologist Joel Perlmann explains that, in comparing these age ranges, we are discussing entirely different groups of people: while during a large part of the 20th century, the term “secular Jew” might have primarily referred to those who chose to affiliate with the secular, primarily Ashkenazi communities described above, the majority of 21st century “Jews of no religion” are the children of “intermarriage” – those who have one Jewish parent and one parent who is not Jewish. Yet, despite the demographic differences between these groups – mirroring in some ways the differences between atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particulars” – there may be more political continuity between them than has been thus far acknowledged, as I discuss below.

As noted above, the much larger proportion of young Jews of no religion than their older counterparts does not in itself predict a secular Jewish future, as these young people may later start to identify with religion. Furthermore, it is more difficult to trace the growth of Jews of no religion than that of “nones” as a whole, due to the lack of consistent surveys. Nonetheless, the impact of Jews of no religion on the 21st century Jewish American community cannot be ignored.

Citing the popularity of secular Jewish institutions, such as JCCs, with non-Jewish Americans, Barry Kosmin and Keysar conclude that “while Jews feared that they would assimilate into America, it was America that was becoming more Jewish.” In 2000, “84% of American Jews reject the proposition that they feel outsiders in American society.” And American society has continued to return the feelings: a 2014 Pew study found that the American public rated Jews more positively than any other religious group, and a survey taken as recently as fall 2022 found that – despite perceptions of growing antisemitism from within the Jewish community, and acts of anti-Jewish violence in the news in the years since 2014 – the feeling had not changed.

Thus, since the 1990s at least, the Jewish American community has embraced diversity and openness through intermarriage, while the American community as a whole has embraced Jewish Americans in return – resulting not in the late-20th-century predictions of its disappearance, but instead the growth of a cosmopolitan, open-minded, theologically ambiguous population of nonreligious Jews.

Polarization or Consensus Breakdown? Politics and Generational Shifts

What does the research on Jews of no religion tell us about their political beliefs? Analyzing the 2013 Pew survey data, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz found that Jewish denomination is the largest factor in determining Jews’ political beliefs: in other words, on questions of both US and Israeli government policy, the differences between Orthodox Jews and members of other Jewish denominations were greater than differences based on age, education level, region, income, race, and so on. Kotler-Berkowitz found that Jewish “nones” scored similarly to Reform and “other” denominations on these questions. These divisions continue to be notable in the 2020 Pew survey, in which 75% of Orthodox Jews identified as Republicans, while about 75% of all other Jews identified as Democrats.

Keysar and others refer to a phenomenon of increasing polarization in the US Jewish population, characterized by declining numbers of Jews identifying with Conservative Judaism (considered the “middle” denomination) and increasing numbers of both Orthodox Jews and those who do not identify with any of the major Jewish denominations (who overlap with Jews of no religion, though are not exactly the same group) – especially among the youngest generation of Jewish adults. The declining influence of denominational Judaism in the 21st century is well-documented, and the polarization of politics in the US in general – and in regard to opinions about the Israeli government, in particular – is difficult to avoid. But as Golin points out, despite predictions of Orthodoxy’s growth over the past several decades, this growth has amounted to only a few percentage points.

Instead, Orthodoxy’s higher birth rates yield an overall younger population; but with attrition, overall growth is actually quite slow over time. In the meantime, the population of Jews of no religion appears to be growing. As a result, for Jews over 65, the distribution among denominations looks like a bell curve: most fall in the Reform and Conservative “middle,” with smaller numbers in other groups at the margins. For Jews age 18-29, on the other hand, the group of “nones” is far larger than any single denomination, including Orthodoxy. And while analyzing trends among 18-29 year olds is not the same thing as predicting the future, based on the analysis of American “nones” as a whole, I believe it is safe to predict that this group will at least remain significant in the future, if not continue growing.

What Keysar and others refer to as polarization, then, might really be characterized as a move away from organized religion – consistent with the growth of “nones” as a whole – or a move to the left. Another way of looking at this change may be as a breakdown in consensus, as reflected in the decline of groups formerly in the middle of both the religious and political spectrum. As Dov Waxman describes, the political consensus of support for the Israeli government, which held sway in the American Jewish community from roughly the 1970s through the end of the 20th century, has ceased to be a consensus over the past few decades.

The New York times headline reads, “Gen Z and young Millenials often see Israel as an occupying power oppressing Palestinians – a shock to their parents and grandparents, who tend to see it as an essential haven fighting for survival.” And a widely-cited November 2023 survey reveals that while the vast majority of Jewish Americans support Biden’s response to the war, only half of 18-35-year-olds do. A majority of younger Jewish Americans oppose the US veto of the UN ceasefire resolution, while a stronger majority of those over 35 support it. Only half of young Jewish Americans support US aid to Israel, while those over the age of 35 are nearly unanimous in their support for that aid.

I believe this change is no cause for handwringing: instead, it is an opportunity for hope, as the next generation of Jewish Americans confronts head-on the ethical and political questions about the futures of Israelis and Palestinians that were repeatedly deferred by previous generations to an unknown future moment. That moment is now, and young Jewish Americans are meeting it with awareness and ethical grappling, even if the language they use may seem unpalatable to those of older generations.

How does this gap show up among Jews of no religion? While the 2023 survey does not differentiate between religious and non-religious Jews, the 2020 Pew survey does. In it, Jewish Americans were asked about their awareness of and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has targeted Israel since 2005 similarly to the late-20th-century boycotts of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Only about half of respondents are familiar with the movement; of those, 18% support it, most only “somewhat.” Even among young Jews age 18-29, only 26% of those familiar with BDS support it. Among Jews of no religion, the numbers shift: only about 4 out of 10 Jews of no religion are familiar with BDS – but of those, 43% support it, though again, most only “somewhat.”

What about young Jews of no religion? If they are a different group, demographically, from their older counterparts, does this impact their political beliefs? Do they differ from young religious Jews? Analysis of the Pew data[1] answers both questions affirmatively – and the implications are worth thoughtful consideration by anyone interested in welcoming young Jews of no religion into their communities:

While Jews of no religion were less likely than their religious counterparts to be familiar with BDS, those under 30 were still less familiar: only 34% had heard “some” or “a lot” about it. The opinions of this small group, however, were telling: unlike any other group of Jewish Americans included in the Pew survey, the majority of young Jews of no religion familiar with BDS support it. In fact, this majority support was true even among Jews of no religion aged 30-49.

Among Jews over 65, the difference in opinion between religious Jews and Jews of no religion is small: a majority of both groups strongly oppose BDS if familiar with it. Among those 50-64, the consensus starts to break down, with religious Jews strongly opposing and Jews of no religion holding a wider variety of opinions. In fact, among all age groups, a majority of religious Jews strongly oppose BDS. But the younger the age group, the larger the gap in political beliefs between Jews with and without a religious identification. It is here that the breakdown in consensus begins to look polarized, as Jewish Americans begin to sort themselves into two distinct groups: young religious American Jews, who maintain the support for the Israeli government seen over the past 5 decades, and young Jews of no religion, who tend to be critical of that government.

Jewish American support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Source: Meryl Motika, 2023. Data from PEW 2019-2020 Survey of U.S. Jews.

Where Do We Go From Here? Implications for Community-Building

On an internet forum frequented by young, non- and anti-Zionist Jews, one writes recently, “I feel half my ancestors are Jewish and that’s the extent of my Judaism basically these days. Oh and the fact that it touches my heart to see Jews organi[z]ing against and/or outside of Zionism.” Like most Jews of no religion, this commenter sees Jewish identity primarily as being about ancestry – and aside from that, connects with Judaism through non- and anti-zionist organizing. Another, in fall 2023, writes:

“I’m having so much trouble even thinking about attending Temple for Shabbat or anything else. I have leaned into my Jewish upbringing over the past few years and I never realized my spirituality would be politicized the way I feel it has been since Oct. 7. It makes me feel I don’t belong in Judaism at all….knowing I’ll have the Israeli flag in my face at every turn, knowing there is an expectation to declare that I “stand with Israel” – I can’t do it.

“I really think this is it for my Judaism.

“I was in the middle of learning Hebrew and preparing for a bat mitzvah (finally) but I can’t do this…Maybe organized religion just isn’t right for my spirit and heart. Temple feels downright unholy, to talk about Israeli deaths with zero mention of Palestine. It feels like perpetuating conflict.”

This writer, who has attempted to engage with religious Judaism, feels alienated by their community’s response to the October 7 attacks and Israel’s military response – so much so that they are doubting their religious Jewish identity entirely. These anecdotes do not provide sufficient evidence to conclude that, like this person, most Jews of no religion over the past several decades have disaffiliated due to Israel politics. But it is not unreasonable to ask whether, like the liberal Mainline Protestants who disaffiliated beginning in the 1990s in response to the Republican party’s embrace of evangelical Christianity, politics have played a role.

How can Humanistic Judaism respond?

As I sat down for a recent conversation with a young Jewish professional who is involved with our local IfNotNow chapter – having introduced myself by email as a Humanistic rabbinic student – she began by musing, “I’m starting to think I’m a humanist.” When I asked why, she said that she values human life over allegiance to the Jewish community’s support for Israel’s military campaign. And a friend and colleague, in an email introducing me to others, wrote: “about 10 years ago Claire gently initiated an intervention that began deprogramming my revulsion at a Judaism that I’d been taught was devoid of values and rooted in Zionism; they introduced me to the vast history and variety other kinds of Jews who care deeply about tikkun olam [repairing the world], a history that I hadn’t ever been informed existed.” For this particular friend, learning about the history of the 20th century secular Jewish left provided them a connection to Jewishness after their ethical commitment to anti-Zionism had left them alienated from their Jewish identity.

This alienation is, by many accounts, widespread. In an Op-Ed entitled “Demanding support for Israel’s war Imperils the Future of Jewish Communal Life,” Jewish Currents (another product of mid-20th century secular Jewish culture) publisher Daniel May warns that “those caught in [this alienation] will, in time, simply build their own institutions or, if that is made impossible, cease living Jewish lives.”

Secular and Humanistic Jewish institutions are well-poised to avoid such a scenario, partly because they are descended from a rich history of institutions that – like Jewish Currents – arose as part of an alternative to the emerging 20th-century American Jewish political consensus, which was embraced by movements like Conservative Judaism (the largest Jewish denomination by the 1970s-80s). One need not support all of the historical positions taken by organizations like Jewish Currents – its current editorial staff certainly does not – to draw inspiration from the history of Jewish political alternatives.

Experts on congregational health and well-being emphasize the necessity of change: “growth is inevitable in healthy congregations” and “change is inevitable; misery is optional,” counsel two articles from the Unitarian Universalist movement. Congregations that embrace change are able to thrive, while “a congregation that is not growing in wisdom, strength, action, or numbers is a congregation that will not last in its present state,” and leaders are counseled to “select those efforts with the best match to the mission of the congregation, to water and nurture their energy.” Change and growth are possible at any point in the lifecycle of a congregation, and congregations must embrace new members on an ongoing basis as older members move or pass away.

What does it look like when secular and Humanistic communities embrace growth and change, including the breakdown in Jewish political consensus and the emergence of new political allegiances?

Two Models of Embracing Change

The Boston Workers Circle is one of less than a dozen remaining branches and schools throughout the US and Canada affiliated with the Workers Circle (formerly the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring), out of over 100 at its height a century ago. At one time affiliated with SHJ through the short-lived International Federation for Secular and Humanistic Judaism – of which both SHJ and the Workers Circle were members – the socialist Workers Circle offered education, healthcare, housing, theater, music and more to the early-20th century North American Jewish immigrant working class. Today’s Workers Circle continues to advocate for social justice domestically, in particular through voting rights initiatives, as well as offering Yiddish classes and other cultural events.  

Of the remaining four schools associated with the Workers Circle, the Boston branch is particularly visible beyond the Northeast, with virtual holiday observances, social justice initiatives, and a thriving shule (Sunday school). It received attention in October 2023, when it was threatened with expulsion from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which it had helped found in 1944, due to its co-sponsorship of a rally calling for a ceasefire in Israel/Gaza. This move came after years of developing an organizational position on Israel-Palestine, including two community surveys taken in 2019 and 2022.

The vast majority of respondents to the surveys agreed that “issues involving justice in Israel/Palestine are important to me” and “it is important to me that my Jewish community takes a stance on Israel/Palestine.” Clearly attracting a specific subset of the Jewish community, unlike Jews of no religion in the Pew study, a majority of BWC members reported “feel[ing] educated and knowledgeable” about BDS. The vast majority in 2022 reported being “most aligned” with or donating to the organizations Jewish Voice for Peace (which has identified itself as anti-Zionist since 2019) or IfNotNow (which has advocated for a ceasefire along with JVP). Skewing to the left of the Pew survey, within the BWC these organizations enjoyed a higher level of support among members age 55-74 than any other organization listed; members age 25-34 supported them to the exclusion of nearly any other organization.

Far from being hurt by the JCRC expulsion, the organization has reported gaining members as a result. Likewise, a survey respondent reported, “I think that our past reluctance to push the envelope in this area [support for BDS] has cost us some members, maybe especially younger ones, and I’m not happy about that.” Thus, the Boston Workers Circle has, perhaps uniquely among secular North American Jewish communities, taken a highly public political stance, in line with both its membership and the emerging consensus among young Jews of no religion – and in doing so, has grown while (perhaps uniquely as well) maintaining a membership base of older members who diverge from the consensus of Jews age 65 and above.

The BWC’s approach is far from the only mission-driven option available to secular and Humanistic Jewish communities: Secular Synagogue’s mission, prominently featured on its website, is “to create meaningful, valuable, beautiful Jewish learning, experiences, and community for secular/cultural Jews.” This will “foster two-directional goodness: it will make our lives richer/better and, in turn, it will make us better so that we can create more goodness in the world.” This two-step process is reminiscent of the mission statement of post-denominational congregation Mishkan Chicago: “Fueled by Jewish tradition, Mishkan Chicago leads people toward more purposeful, more connected, and more inspired lives. When we do that, we change the world.” Both communities envision Jewish experiences and cultural and/or religious resources leading first to internal, personal transformation, and subsequently to global change.

Like the Boston Workers Circle, Secular Synagogue is a growing community; it is, however, a new community – and entirely online. Rabbi Denise Handlarski attributes its growth since its founding five years ago to “being what people need when they need it – responding to the contemporary moment.” For Secular Synagogue, responding to the contemporary moment since October 7, 2023 has looked very different from the BWC.

In a video posted to her public Facebook page in November 2023, Handlarski explains:

“The issue of Israel-Palestine tears communities apart. I’ve seen it, it’s ugly, and it has not helped one Israeli or Palestinian person when communities fall apart over this issue. So what I said to my community… is we’re going to hear each other, we’re gonna not argue with each other, we’re certainly not going to engage in name calling… When you speak on this issue, speak from your heart. That’s the only way we ever convince anybody of a position anyway – is to just say what we believe, and why, and speak from our heart, and we’re just going to let differences of opinion stand.”

Handlarski, who has publicly called for a ceasefire, affirms that “You’re still allowed to to have your own personal activism. You should. This is not a time when I think we should be silent.” Secular Synagogue’s approach is to hold a “big tent” in which both Zionists and anti-Zionists share their views – but are cautioned not to engage in debate, instead “let[ting] differences of opinion stand.” Thus, unlike the Boston Workers Circle, Secular Synagogue is a community where many – including the rabbi – hold passionate and often opposing views about the Israeli government and even Zionism itself, but the community as a whole takes no position, allowing political views to be aired individually but not communally.

Throughout the video, Handlarski returns to the necessity of “hear[ing] each other.” In response to a question about specific rhetoric that a community member finds intolerable, she responds, “I would ask questions. If we don’t get it…why those words? Here’s why I don’t agree with those words…. We don’t have to agree on the use of that word [in this case, apartheid]. We have to hear each other.” She sets a boundary at “call[ing] for or celebrat[ing] violence against anybody,” which will not be tolerated within the community. As community members hear each other, she counsels them to question themselves as she does, “constantly asking myself ‘what if I’m wrong?”

Handlarski admits that “some members have left. That’s natural, they’re going to leave, they don’t like what I have to say,” and ends with a plea for the power of community in difficult times:

“If this community falls apart over the issue of Israel and Palestine, we will not have saved the lives of one Palestinian or one Israeli, we will not have solved the problem, there will be no one state or two state solution, all we have done… is create one fewer place where Jews and their loved ones…have a place where they can be Jewish and have community.

“And community is vital.…Community is protective against so many things, anxiety, depression, burnout…is joy giving and life giving and affirming, and this is the time when we need to not feel so alone….So I feel very strongly that we have to be able to stay in community. Even when we disagree, and even when it feels intolerable…It’s not going to help anybody if our Jewish communities get torn apart over this issue…We have to love each other across difference. And this is where intermarried families can lead the way…at the end of the day, if we can still say ‘I love you’, there’s hope in that.”

Returning to the Jewish American community’s growing, cosmopolitan embrace of intermarriage, Handlarski suggests that “intermarried families can lead the way” in demonstrating love across lines of difference. For her, the power of a community containing multiple perspectives can be an anchoring support for its members of all perspectives, who then express those perspectives individually – echoing Secular Synagogue’s mission to “make our lives richer/better and, in turn… make us better so that we can create more goodness in the world.”

Conclusion: Change and Hope

The growth of Jews of no religion – the source of much anxiety among the Jewish establishment over the past few decades – can be reinterpreted as a source of pride, as increasing numbers of Jewish Americans embrace intercultural relationships, multiracial families and queer identities, while their children increasingly continue to self-identify as Jews, enriching and diversifying the Jewish American community. Likewise, the emerging political consensus among young Jews of no religion, who express solidarity with Palestinians, can be seen as a source of hope for the future rather than a source of anxiety: maintaining a sense of their own identity while also empathizing with the aspirations of a group conventionally pitted against them as an “enemy” (and in the face of actual warfare), young Jews of no religion embody humanistic values. Yet their struggle to find Jewish communities that reflect or welcome their views puts that Jewish identity at risk. We owe young Jews of no religion communities where they can fully express both their Jewish identity and their humanistic values: the Boston Workers Circle and Secular Synagogue offer two very different models for doing so. With courage, reason, and the openness to “hear each other,” there can be many more.

[1] Meryl Motika, Analysis of Pew 2019-2020 Survey of U.S. Jews. Unpublished analysis.

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