The 2013 Pew Research Center survey on Jewish life in the United States suggests 22 percent of American Jews identify as “Jews of no religion.”
The survey, which interviewed more than 5,000 people, also opened the definition of “Jewish” to interviewing people who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but no longer identify as Jewish, as well as people who said they have a “Jewish affinity” but were not raised Jewish nor have a Jewish parent, yet they consider themselves at least partially Jewish in some way.
How such Jews and connected non-Jews who live outside of the mainstream Jewish community, which is defined largely by synagogue attendance and participating in institutional Jewish activities, associate with Jewish life was a topic of discussion at the Nov. 20 installment of “Tribe Talk: New Jewish Conversations,” an interactive discussion series put on by Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Landmark Centre in Beachwood.
The program, which is in partnership with the Cleveland Jewish News and the Cleveland Jewish News Foundation, featured guest panelist Dan Moulthrop, The City Club of Cleveland CEO, along with its regular panelists Siegal Lifelong Learning Executive Director Brian Amkraut and director Alanna Cooper. About 60 people attended the program.
Moulthrop may fit into the “Jews of no religion” category – although he was raised with one Jewish parent (and one Protestant parent) in what he called a secular household with some religion mixed in. Moulthrop’s children are being raised Catholic, per his wife’s religion.
Amkraut said he was curious about Moulthrop’s connection to Judaism and how it may be different from someone religious or solidly integrated in local Jewish activities.
“It seems to me quite often that the organized Jewish world, institutional Jewish life, is really insulated in terms of how they think Jews think,” Amkraut said.
Moulthrop discussed how his familial history was key to his Jewish identity, however, feels the institutional Jewish community of Cleveland normalizes certain viewpoints to the extent that there isn’t space for different opinions.
“One of the things I love about being Jewish is the license to argue, and a license to disagree and to still be together and be part of the family.” Moulthrop added, some issues, such as differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and groups on either side of it, seem too taboo to disagree about publicly in the mainstream Jewish community and can isolate those who have non-mainstream viewpoints.
“These are really difficult issues to talk about, but I do think there are taboos in Jewish life about what you can have a dialogue about and what you can’t. Particularly here in Cleveland, I think that that is something that turns off those of us on the margins.”
Cooper brought up the Pew study and described why the local organized Jewish community may struggle opening itself up to what Moulthrop referred to as “disorganized Jews” and their sometimes disparate views.
“I think the organized Jewish community does struggle with this question of, ‘how much should we maintain a connection to what we see as traditional Jewish practice and how much should we open it up?’” she said. “And when do you say, ‘that’s no longer Jewish practice.’”
The program also covered free speech on college campuses, namely white supremacists like Richard Spencer trying to book speeches on campuses around the country.
Moulthrop, an advocate of free speech per his job, said much of the issue revolves around not whether one can share controversial and prejudicial viewpoints, but whether they have an audience for it and can claim the other side’s outrage infringes upon free speech.
“The thing that they are hoping for more than anything is an opportunity to file a lawsuit, so the ACLU or some other organization comes to their defense and they win a freedom of speech case,” he said of such controversial speakers.