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October 14, 2013

The hole in the middle of American Jewry

There is a Yiddish saying about the mysteries of faith, family and fellowship that, loosely translated, proclaims: "You cannot make Shabbat by yourself."

"The point is that you need the presence of other Jews around you to live out the dictates of your Jewish beliefs," said sociologist Steven M. Cohen of the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College.

Shabbat creates that circle of support. Beginning minutes before sundown on Friday, it involves a day of rest, prayer, ritual feasting and ties that bind. Some of these traditions are defined by faith while others are rooted in ethnicity and culture. But the whole ancient package assumes that Shabbat brings Jews together.

So what does it mean when the first major study of American Jews in more than a decade shows that -- even among Jews who call themselves religious -- only 33 percent believe being part of a Jewish community is "essential to being Jewish"? Only 23 percent of these "Jews by religion" considered it essential to follow Jewish laws.

The results in this Pew Research Center study were, of course, even more sobering among the rising number of Jews -- one in five -- who said they had "no religion at all."

"In theory, Jews who answer 'none' when asked about their religion can still be part of the wider Jewish community. There's nothing new about that," said Cohen in a telephone interview.

In practice, however, this "none" trend is viewed as negative by many Americans who consider the practice of Judaism to be a crucial part of Jewish identity, he said. Thus, the rising number of Jewish "nones" has many of the same serious implications as the much-discussed national rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated among people in general.

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