Tag: Pew Study on Portrait of Jewish Americans

Changing the Conversation about God: A How To

I am getting tired of this conversation:

Jewish Person: But rabbi, I don’t believe in God.
Rabbi: That’s okay, but what kind of God don’t you believe in?

So many God conversations seem to include this refrain.

It’s time to change the conversation. I yearn to hear this conversation:

Rabbi: So what do you believe about God?
Jew: While I don’t believe in the God of “reward and punishment,” I am drawn to the God-concepts of Martin Buber’s I-Thou and Milton Steinberg’s Limited Theism.

Setting aside the Pew Research study’s conclusions about the religiosity and spirituality of American Jews (my take here), there is no doubt that we Jewish leaders can and should spend more time talking about God. Only when our congregants hear about the wide variety of perspectives, theologies and experiences of God will they open themselves up to more Jewish conversations about God. At Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we are facing the challenge head on. This year, God-talk purposely permeates all aspects of congregational life. We hope to change the conversation by reframing the issue.

Talking Frankly about God, our Beliefs and Our Doubts at the High Holy Days
During the High Holy Days, our clergy spoke personally and passionately about their beliefs and struggles regarding God. On Rosh Hashana, I preached on 18 Different Ways to Believe in God (a.k.a. 18 Different Jewish God-Concepts). On Kol Nidre all three clergy shared their understanding of B’tzelem Elohim: Cantor Doug Colter preached a home-made multimedia sermon, new mother Rabbi Julia Weisz spoke about how while everyone talks about which parent her newborn son resembles while no one talks about how he is in God’s image, and I addressed the very essence of tzelem – that God is unseen yet ever present within us.

God-Talk Theme Permeates Our Learning Programs
Our Educational team selected B’tzelem Elohim (Creation in God’s Image) as the thread that binds together our tapestry of learning programs. In Kesher, our camp-like drop-off learning program, our teachers regularly lead students to explore how they are created in God’s image. Rap with the Rabbis time allows open discussions about different ways to think about and believe in the Holy One. In Mishpacha, our family alternative learning program, we focus this year on God, Belief and Disbelief, which has been so successful that we have adults without children in the program who are studying with us. Finally, our Adult Learning programs include multiple options for engaging God-talk.

Board Meetings Transformed into Spiritual Journeys
Our president Hedi Gross identified a return to the Jewish spiritual search as the central focus of the first term of her presidency. During her Rosh Hashana presidential message, she shared her own Jewish spiritual path and her belief in God. She then transformed our Board meetings so that almost half of our meeting time is now God-focused. The meeting opens as one board member shares and explains a short quote that inspires her, after which another recounts his Jewish spiritual journey in a 5-10 minutes prepared talk. Next, one of our rabbis leads the board in analyzing then praying a prayer, and following a discussion of congregants and family members who are in need of healing, the cantor leads a spiritual singing of the Mi Shebeirach healing prayer.

Board Member Gary Kaplan
Shares his Jewish Journey

We balance the time devoted to Jewish spirituality and God-talk with fiscal responsibility by instituting new procedures for the board meetings: all presentations must be written out beforehand and must be limited in time and scope. Those items that can instead be shared by email are shared that way. Board members no longer leave the temple frustrated by arguments and divisiveness. They leave inspired, and often tears now flow as heartache and hope are shared in equal measures. They then can guide their families and other congregants toward these same central values of God-talk and spirituality.

Ever Wonder What Your Mom and Dad Believe about God?
During their B’nai Mitzvah speeches, our students discuss what they believe and do not believe about God. After capturing those ideas, often with the rabbi’s help, the students return home to record three statements from each parents (or one or three or four parents, as the case may be) about what the parent(s) believe about God. A most amazing thing happens: mom, dad and B’nai Mitzvah student (or mom and mom, or just dad or…) share a discussion about who and what God is. Some students incorporate the statements with which they agree into their own D’var Torah God statement, writing “Like my mother, I believe…”. This process allows the rabbi with a chance to share his or her own thoughts about and relationship with God, thus providing additional in depth adult modeling of God talk.

God Shopping: Choosing from 18 Jewish God Ideas Dramatically Changes the Conversation
Most exciting are the sessions of the Mishpacha Family Alternative learning program. Revising a curriculum written originally by then HUC-JIR interns, now Rabbis Sara Mason-Barkin and Dan Medwin, current Mishpacha Coordinator rabbinic/education student Dusty Klass leads the families to pray, play, engage in age specific learning, and spend time doing family-focused God-talk.

Recently, we used Rabbis Medwin and Mason-Barkin’s God Shopping lesson plan, an adaption of a NFTY program, which in our version introduces participants to the plethora of Jewish God-concepts and modern Jewish theologies. Each participant – young and not so young – received a blank “God Shopping Grid.” As families, they traveled through the “God Shopping Mall,” visiting six different “God Stores.” Each God Store presented one category for understanding God: What is God like?; God and the world; What does God want?; How do I get to “know” God?; God and me; and Big questions I have about God. Each God Store offered up to 18 different responses, based on the ideas of twelve different Jewish theologians.

Participants read the responses, chose as many responses as they agreed with or connected to, and pasted the chosen responses into the corresponding square in their God Shopping Grid. Those who could not find a response that reflected their ideas could write in their own statements.

Reassembling in the sanctuary, family members compared their God Shopping Grids. Since same color responses represented the thinking of one specific Jewish theologian, a quick look at the colors of the God Shopping Grids showed how parents and children shared similar or different God-concepts.

Faculty Hikers Prepare to Ascend
their own Paths to Finding God

During same age-learning, small groups of students continued to explore the God-concepts, utilizing the metaphor of different paths up the mountain to God. Older students met the theologians themselves through their writings and biographies. In each group, participants created/decorated/illustrated their own individual “path” up the mountain to God. Adults, meeting with a rabbi, discussed a color-coded “God Concept Grid” which delineated the thinking of each theologian across the six categories for understanding God. Adults were encouraged to identify intriguing God-concepts and to continue learning about them at home by first googling the theologian, and then exploring other secondary and primary sources.

Wow, I Might Actually Believe In God…
Toward the end of the God Shopping session, we asked the adults to raise their hands if they arrived thinking that they did not, or were not sure whether they, believed in God. The same group was asked if this activity enticed them with new God-concepts so that they might actually be able to believe in God. Almost half of the people kept their hands raised. Over the next weeks, adult participants, and their children, remarked at how they found the session to be both eye-opening and belief altering.

Danielle, her husband David
and one son Aidan

As participant-parent Danielle Waldsmith reported:

A few weeks ago when we began our Mishpacha study of “God: Belief and Disbelief,” I was definitely one of the participants who was unsure that I believed in God. But while shopping for God last Sunday, it became very clear to me that I do in fact believe in God – it’s just that I haven’t been sure what that means to me. As we visited the stores around the God Shopping Mall, a picture of MY God – my own belief in God – began to emerge. 

I am inspired that I now know that I am on my path to realizing what God means to me. And it is a wonderful experience for our family to be able to find our paths together. Certainly God means something different to each of us, but exploring it together is strengthening our ties to each other. We are looking forward to learning more about the ideas of Isaac Luria and Martin Buber, and to discovering more about God through nature, our connections and Tikkun Olam (social justice).

6 Lessons Learned about God-Talk
We have so much more to accomplish if we want to fully alter the God-conversations. Yet through these immediate steps we learned a number of lessons:

  1. Adults, teens and children do want to talk about God, especially when a variety of Jewish options are presented.
  2. Vast numbers of Jews do not believe in the “God rewards the good and punishes the bad” Torah-literal theology.
  3. So many Jews, even those very involved in synagogues and Jewish life, do not realize that there are a plethora of alternative modern Jewish theologies.
  4. When introduced creatively to multiple God-concepts, Jews of all ages are intrigued by the possibilities for belief.
  5. More work needs to be done to publicize newer God theologies, including those of female Jewish thinkers.
  6. Jews of every age can and should engage in God talk, especially in the synagogue.

The Antidote to Pew Study Anxiety

Soon after I finished reading the Pew Research’s Religion and Public Life Project study – a Portrait of Jewish Americans – the first thing I did was to ensure that I was registered for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention in San Diego on Wednesday to Sunday, December 11-15, 2013. Getting together with 5,000+ committed American Jews ranks high on my short list of responses to the more worrisome portions of this landmark study of American Jewish identity and values.

To Agonize or Not to Agonize: That is the Jewish Question
The Pew study lays out its analysis of the successes and challenges facing the Jewish community. Depending upon how one reads the study, there is much to celebrate and much to fret about. The internet is replete with analyses, praises and critiques of the study and its conclusions. Of course, we can soon expect the conversation to move from where we are to what we can do to strengthen the identity and religious commitment of Jews and the Jewish community.

Experience suggests that significant responses can be discovered when we take advantage of unique opportunities to gather together with others who share these concerns. For me, this happens whenever I attend a Union for Reform Judaism Biennial convention. Each Biennial offers the Jewish spiritual high and the programmatic low down to guide front line Jewish synagogues regarding the way forward. That is why I am attending the Biennial and taking with me many of our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) leadership. And that’s why you should too.

Our Temple Transformed by Biennial Attendance
Over the years, the congregations I have served and my own Jewish life have been transformed by the Biennial. Most recently, the 2011 Biennial in Washington, DC, which challenged us to rethink our Youth Engagement activities. Following that gathering, Or Ami’s clergy and lay leadership quickly evaluated our offerings and created a new process and program. We have since enjoyed a 20% increase in post-B’nai Mitzvah youth participation and a stellar reputation for our Tracks for Temple Teens (“Triple T”) program.

Previous Biennial conventions inspired us to deepen our congregation’s accessibility for Jews with disabilities, to articulate officially our outreach to the LGBTQ Jews and Jewish families, and to pursue an energetic foray into eNewsletters and social media. Similarly, we have answered the call to innovate our worship services, expand our Torah study, and creatively embrace and educate interfaith couples.

Transdenominational Participation Promotes a Wide Variety of Perspectives
I am even more excited about this year’s Biennial in San Diego because for the first time ever, the Biennial is open to those outside the Reform Movement. Registration is open to anyone – not just to members of Reform synagogues. The cross denominational and cross organizational interactions promise to point all of us toward more comprehensive analyses of and workable responses to the challenges the Pew study illuminated.

Jews of all stripes – lay leaders and professionals, youth, congregants, and clergy – gather together to be energized, inspired and uplifted. Intellectually challenged by the high level scholars and Jewish thinkers, we participants face the challenges that the study only talks about. The ability to network with leaders and thinkers from all over the Jewish world makes the Biennial the place to retreat, respond and rejuvenate.

Bonding at Biennial
Personally, I cherish the opportunity to spend long hours in sessions, in services and over scrumptious meals with leaders of my congregation. Many a Biennial has provided just the opportunity to deepen the bonds that ensure a smooth partnership back home at our synagogue. We create a common language and shared insight on national issues and local concerns. By seeking out leaders from other parts of the country who have faced and successfully addressed the issues we have identified allowed us to return home with a “can do” attitude and a toolbox of options.

Finally, there is Shabbat. It is rare that a clergy person gets to sit and pray without the responsibility to act as Shaliach tzibur (communal worship leader). The poignancy and power of worshipping alongside 5,000 other Jews is unmatched. The kahal (community) is transformed by an emotional-spiritual high that our ancestors called hitlahavut (the passion of prayer). The study options – from the Shalom Hartman Institute, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, the Mussar Institute, and others – bring Torah to life and refill our souls with the succor from our Jewish tradition.

So Stop Worrying
We have been here before, worried about the present, anxious about the Jewish future. With the instantaneous conversations afforded by the internet and social media, those worries are compounded and seemingly all pervasive. Yet, I am breathing easy. Not because I know the way forward. Not because I understand fully the problems we face. Rather, because as the Jewish world continues to get worked up about the Pew study on American Jews – trying to wring meaning from it and prophesy the path(s) ahead, I know that I will be at the best place I can be to address these issues: spending five days with 5,000 thinking Jewish leaders at the URJ Biennial Convention in San Diego.

Maybe you will join me as well?

Spiritual but Not Religious: How Religion Lets Us Down


Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, its survey and analysis of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs, has emerged as THE topic of conversation in the Jewish world. Some celebrate the survey; some wring their hands over what it says about us Jewish Americans.

The Union for Reform Judaism released a preliminary analysis for the Reform Movement.

Jewish Religiosity or Lack Thereof

Most fascinating are questions about the religiosity or lack thereof of our Jewish brothers and sister. According to the study, only a slim majority of U.S. Jews say religion is very important (26%) or somewhat important (29%) in their lives. We might surmise that almost half of the Jews do not consider themselves religious.

In a related category, we see that Jews are not significant worship service attenders. Roughly one-third of Jews (35%) say they attend religious services a few times a year, such as for the High Holidays (including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). And four-in-ten say they seldom (19%) or never (22%) attend Jewish religious services.

Similarly, those Jewish practices defined by the study – beyond the popular Passover Seder and, for some, fasting on Yom Kippur – do not attract significant adherents. Only a quarter of Jews (23%) say they always or usually light Sabbath candles, and a similar number say they keep kosher in their home (22%).

Yes, it seems that a vast majority of U.S. Jews consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Just what does this mean?

What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?

I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.

Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore.

Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.

Religion Sometimes Spoils Spirituality

So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.

I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us to separate out our women, to eschew the non-Jew, or to extend our power over others for so-called holy purposes. Of course, when religious leaders – rabbis, teachers, communal leaders – speak such nonsense in God’s name, they further alienate Jews from the religious part of Judaism that could be strengthening their spirituality.

What do we do?

Rituals find meaning when they point us back to the holy, the spiritual. Rituals are significant when they inspire our spiritual core.

It becomes the responsibility of religion – and religious leaders – then, to return to Judaism’s roots, to rethink/reform/renew Judaism’s ritual components, and to embrace the holy in the midst of the rest.

How do we do that? 

Let me know what you think…