Jews all over the world sit down at sundown Monday to celebrate the freedom of their ancestors from slavery in ancient Egypt as the first night of Passover begins.
The eight-day festival is celebrated from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. By following the rituals of Passover, Jews have the ability to experience the freedom that their ancestors attained.
Today's American Jews have become more acclimated than generations past. Rates of secularism and intermarriage have risen, yet certain rituals, such as the Passover seder, remain ingrained in the life of a Jew.
In fall 2013, the Pew Research Center, a polling and analysis organization, released A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Launched in 2001, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
In A Portrait of Jewish Americans, those polled were a nationally representative sample of more than 70,000 screening interviews. Longer interviews were completed with more than 3,000 Jews.
Overwhelmingly, American Jews said they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
But the survey also suggested that Jewish identity is changing in America, where 20% of Jews now describe themselves as having no religion.
The changing nature of Jewish identity is clearer when looking generationally at the survey's results. Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion with 7% describing themselves as having no religion.
By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation — the millennials — 68% identify as Jews by religion while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue and one-fourth do not believe in God. The survey showed that Reform Judaism continues to be the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States.
One-third of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox and 6% with a variety of smaller groups. About 3 in 10 American Jews say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.
Emotional attachment to Israel has not waned among American Jews in the past decade: 70% remain "strongly" or "somewhat" attached to Israel.
Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 75% also said they have "a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people."
Pew Study thoughts
Several Jewish organizations and leaders are mixed in how to interpret the study's findings and what actions they should take as a result. According to some New Jersey clergymen, the Pew Study and its main finding about Jewish identity is positive, though some are concerned about other results.
All felt confident that being open to new and innovative ways to keep faith and culture going was one of many answers.
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg leads Temple Emanu-El in Edison, N.J., a Reform congregation with 230 families. He believes the Pew study's results are "a good thing for Judaism."
"Jews today have different needs than Jews of the past," Vaisberg said. "In the past, we didn't need to make Judaism engaging or meaningful. Judaism is an amazing tool for making life meaningful. We have an excellent product that is meant to be engaging. My job as a rabbi is to empower people to find the connection in their lives."
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Temple B'nai Shalom of East Brunswick, N.J., a Reform synagogue of more than 300 families, said the next step is making tangible connections between people and their heritage.
"I think it presented a nuanced view of the future of the Jewish community and its prospects for the future," he said. "There is a great sense of pride among Jews. They were proud of their religion and heritage. Our trick is to hop on this and have them feel connected to synagogue and Jewish community. Research has shown when given measurable Jewish experience, you create a strong Jewish identity."
In a sermon given about the Pew study last year, Eisenkramer said while some in the Jewish community fear that American Jewry is shrinking and may disappear, others saw the survey as indicating the Jewish community continues to evolve and change.
"In 1990 the Jewish population was estimated to be 5.5 million. A quarter century later, the Pew Survey puts the number of Jews at 6.6 million, an increase of 18%," he said."The American Jewish community then, despite the prevalent narrative, may well be growing and strengthening."
For Rabbi Arnie Gluck of Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, N.J., a Reform synagogue of more than 450 families, the Pew Study held more troublesome findings.
"It shows that a pattern of affiliation of Americans is happening less. There is a lower level of engagement, involvement and affiliation," he said. "These were significant findings in being Jewish, more Jewish feeling, but less Jewish doing."
Rabbi Ari Saks of Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, N.J., a Conservative synagogue established in 1897, said the study had a lot of potentially positive points.
"The fact that 94%t have a positive association to being Jewish, that speaks to its success," he said. "The challenge is how to address what it means now to be Jewish. They are proud to be Jewish, but not necessarily associating with being Jewish."
Saks said how Judaism is defined remains a matter of "much conversation and debate."
"The fact that there is so much pride has to "mean that there is something pulling at us, something that not only claims but commands us to be Jewish," he said.
Reasons for changes
How American Jews perceived themselves and their Judaism is attributable to several factors, including their successful integration into American society, the rabbis said.
Eisenkramer believes that a Jewish congregation is one of the best ways to strengthen Jewish identity.
"Our task then is to open our doors wider and bring more people into our congregational families," said Eisenkramer, who is co-author of Fly-Fishing — The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice.
Gluck said he is concerned about the rates of intermarriage, which have increased in every movement of Judaism except Orthodox: 58% of Jews who are married have spouses who aren't Jewish.
"I do think that affiliation and identity and its relationship to intermarriage is troublesome," he said. "It is dangerous to be making generalizations because they don't apply to individuals, but community leaders and policy makers have to look at these."
A number of the rabbis credited specific programs open to young Jews as having strengthened Jewish identity, including Taglit-Birthright Israel, a nonprofit educational organization that sponsors free 10-day trips for young Jews age 18 to 26.
"There are Jewish programs that work to change the curve and engage. Birthright is definitely one of these," Gluck said. "In our own synagogue, we encourage Birthright and going to Jewish camps to help ensure Jewish experiences."
"Birthright, along with Jewish summer camping, give young people that feeling of being a part of a warm Jewish community," Eisenkramer said. "This is such a great service."
But Eisenkramer cautioned that children and young adult programming is not the only answer.
"We must involve the whole community," he said. "As a congregational rabbi, there was one statistic (from the study) that stood out for me — only a third of Jews belong to a synagogue. One of the primary tasks of the synagogue is to teach children and adults the Jewish faith and religion, to instill Judaism in the next generation. If Jewish and interfaith families are not in our synagogues, we have no ability to interact, to teach and to study with them."
Calling every Jew a "Jew by choice," Vaisberg believes "we have made fantastic progress as a group."
He does have some cautions though. Vaisberg and Eisenkramer said a synagogue must not be just a place for bar or bat mitzvah and young families.
"We must focus on being engaging after bar/bat mitzvah. They must find there is still something for them," Vaisberg said.
Gluck said his congregation is working to make sure that one of the troubling trends — that only 20% of people continue to be involved in Jewish life after their bar or bat mitzvahs — does not continue.
Judaism "is open to anybody and everybody who wants to be a part of it." he said. "We need a Judaism that is aspirational — one that is about vision. There is absolutely every reason that this should be the golden age of Jewish life."