Synagogues Reach out to Young to Keep Faith; Numbers of Jews with 'No Religion' a Challenge to Continuity, Rabbi Says

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Byline: Teresa Stepzinski

More young Jews are going to Jacksonville synagogues, but several local rabbis say challenges, as detailed in a controversial study of Judaism in America, remain to ensure that current and future generations keep the faith.

Young adult American Jews are increasingly estranged from Judaism, according to a Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project survey released in October.

"We definitely see this as a major challenge to Jewish continuity ...," said Rabbi Yaakov Fisch of Etz Chaim Synagogue in Mandarin, adding that "we are not immune to what the Pew study highlighted."

About 32 percent of the youngest generation of American Jews - those born after 1980 - say they have "no religion," but instead identify themselves as Jewish based on ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Meanwhile, 22 percent of all adult American Jews interviewed also said they had no religion, and that group appears to be increasing, the survey showed.

"Differences by generation are very stark. Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion," Alan Cooperman, deputy director of Pew's Religion and Public Life project, said.

However, almost all said they are proud to be Jewish. The majority said the most essential part of being Jewish includes remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life and working for social justice and peace.

"That same study found that the young generation is disgruntled with the so-called mainstream: organizational Judaism, the system. But the younger generation is seeking spirituality, warmth and a certain genuineness and they are finding it with Chabad organizations like us ... where they can feel welcome, warm and at the same time that even if they come a little bit, they still get a lot out of it," said Rabbi Nochum Kurinsky of Chabad at the Beaches.

The study is sparking discussion as well as concern in synagogues nationwide, including Jacksonville, which is home to about 15,000 Jews.

Rabbi Shmuel Novack of Chabad Southside said the survey "is a little deceptive because it's based on a certain dynamic which indicates Jewish involvement based on membership."

Chabad-Lubavitch synagogues such as Chabad Southside, Chabad at the Beaches and the four others in the Jacksonville area aren't membership-based.

By essentially overlooking Chabad, the largest Jewish organization in the world, the survey is "worthless," Novack said.

People participating in Chabad may identify themselves as different denominations of Judaism. Chabad welcomes them all, and is experiencing exponential growth, he said.

"Jews of all ages, especially young Jews, are coming more often. They are coming for classes more often, and for formal as well as for informal services."

Novack added that there is a frustration with the business aspect of religion. In contrast, Chabad offers a welcoming, non-judgmental, no-frills, no-membership and no-strings-attached experience, he said.

"You can just come and experience Judaism. I think it is something that appeals across the board to Jews of all backgrounds who want an authentic experience but who may have been turned off by some of the organizational aspects of Judaism," Novack said.

Chabad at the Beaches is about "50 percent retirees and 50 percent young people in their 20s and 30s." The number of young people is increasing. Many older Jews come for traditional reasons such as their parents or grandparents died, or barely survived, the Holocaust. Many young Jews share elders' values but are looking for more.

"They want modern relevance in Judaism," Kurinsky said.

The majority of Chabad Southside participants are young Jews and their numbers also are growing. They have an enthusiasm for Judaism which contrasts with the Pew study's message of dismay with Judaism, Novack said.

"The message that we are trying to say is 'lose the denomination. …