When more than 35,000 individuals are contacted by pollsters and quizzed about their religious beliefs, the results are bound to be complex.
The Pew Research Center has released the latest batch of data gathered during its landmark 2014 study about Religion in America, and the breakdown of facts and figures sends very mixed messages.
According to PEW analysts, overall there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. Indeed, by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago. At the same time, the share of the population with low levels of observance (e.g., those who seldom or never pray or go to religious services and who say religion is unimportant in their lives) has grown. And the percentage of American adults who are highly observant has declined. Even more striking is the fact that, according to the poll, there has been a significant increase in the number of Americans who aren’t affiliated with any religion.
For our community, what is particularly relevant — and downright frightening — are the replies given by the 847 participants in the study who identified themselves as Jewish. While it is unknown how many of these individuals weren’t, in fact, Jewish according to halachah, presumably many of them are. Tragically, the percentage of these respondents who identified themselves as atheists has risen dramatically, while 45 percent said that they never or seldom prayed.
One of the few statistics that actually saw improvement was also one of the most terrifying ones. When asked whom they look to most for guidance on what is right and wrong, only 17 percent cited religion. That actually is a sizable increase from the last such study undertaken seven years earlier, but remains a woefully small percentage for such a crucial question.
What do these figures mean for our community?
There is a powerful temptation to react to this poll with a deep sigh over the fact that the overwhelming majority of our brethren have become estranged from their glorious heritage, coupled with a sense of relief that “this isn’t about me.” Poll after poll has indicated that Orthodox Jewry is growing, thanks in large part to family size, which is considerably bigger than in the rest of the Jewish population.
The sigh is very much in place, but the sense of relief is tragically misplaced.
For one thing, kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. We all are responsible for each other, and the plight of our brothers and sisters who are, the for the most part, tinokos shenishbu — Jews who have been torn away from their roots because of assimilation and ignorance — is very much our concern. Secondly, invariably, our community is influenced adversely by what is transpiring in the outside world, both in the general Jewish population as well as in the general public.
Let us not delude ourselves by concentrating on certain external indicators while sweeping uncomfortable facts under the rug. While there is much about our contemporary community in which we can justifiably take great pride, there are also areas in which we face unprecedented challenges.
It is far easier to limit ourselves by pointing fingers into the distance instead of looking into our own hearts. While it is vital to acknowledge the very real threats we face from the outside — in the physical realm as well as the spiritual one — it is equally crucial to own up to the crises we face within our own homes, mosdos and shuls.
While the challenges we face are varied and complex, many — if not all — of them can be traced to or are associated with the same root problem: a severe deficiency in emunah and a lack of connection with the Ribbono shel Olam.
For generations, our ancestors faced myriad challenges that were unique to their own times. It was through the strength of their relationship with Hashem that they were able to overcome monumental obstacles and persevere against all odds. They lived and breathed emunah peshutah. Many Jews of yesteryear had little actual Torah knowledge, but their hearts were filled with genuine yiras Shamayim, and their lives — from the moment they awoke until they fell asleep — revolved around their connection to Hashem. The sefer Tehillim was a most cherished possession, and at every opportunity they spoke directly to Hashem, beseeching Him and seeking — and receiving — strength and solace.
It was with this rock-solid emunah peshutah that they raised their children from infanthood on. The cupboard may have been empty, the meals meager and the clothes threadbare. But they gave their children the greatest gift of all, the gift of temimus, of emunah peshutah.
More than ever before, now is the time to return to the fundamental basics of Yiddishkeit and instill in our lives and those of our children this most vital component. Let us not allow the threats from outside to distract us from our key mission: filling our own hearts with emunah and bitachon, and seeking to ensure that our relationship with Hashem is first and foremost in our lives.