Congregation B'nai Israel

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Data Driven Judaism

by Ira Wise, January 2018/Tevet-Shevat 5778

Each year in Confirmation class, we ask the students to complete what we call the Good Jew survey. Essentially we ask them to complete the following kind of sentence: “To be a good Jew one… must/should/doesn’t need to…” for about twenty different behaviors or beliefs. To name just a few, we ask about keeping kosher, belonging to a synagogue, believing in God, attending or participating in a variety of festival, High Holy Day and Sabbath observances, circumcise a son, marrying a Jew giving and living Tzedakah. There are more. The survey is adapted from something published quite a long time ago, and we find that it can spark a fantastic conversation about what they think being a Jew means.

One night in mid-November, we began to look at the data. The only thing that a majority of them (71%) agreed one MUST do to be a good Jew was to accept being a Jew and not to hide it. One respondent indicated that hiding it would be ok if being public might endanger you. The only SHOULD DO items that made a 64% or higher threshold were: Observe Passover (79%); Fast on Yom Kippur (71%); Light Chanukah candles and Attend High Holy Day Service (64%). As you might expect, Keeping Kosher (86%), Reading Hebrew (71%) and Marrying a Jew (64%) led the way in the DOESN’T NEED TO category. This was not a scientific study.

Where it became really interesting though, was when, during the discussion, we asked them to look at their own responses and instead of trying to pass judgment on others, apply the standards only to themselves. For most of them – their answers changed, mostly shifting from less essential to more essential. No one said ONE must raise a Jewish family to be a good Jew (should was 57% and Doesn’t Need To was 43%). When asked to answer for themselves, all of the answers shifted. No one said that it didn’t matter. Many said it was essential for them. And the rest said they probably would – but couldn’t speak for whoever their life partner was going to be.

Support for Israel showed a similar shift. 14% said a Good Jew Must support Israel. The rest were evenly split between should and it makes no difference. The ambivalence nearly disappeared when thinking only about themselves. One student said “I don’t think it matters whether or not someone supports Israel in terms of being a good Jew. But I love Israel and am totally committed to it!”

Data is an interesting thing. It can tell us a lot. It can also lead us to assume things not clearly indicated by the data. I am delighted in the outcome of this exercise. These students are spending the year learning and preparing to Confirm their connection and commitment to the Jewish people and the Covenant first forged with Abraham and Sarah 3,800 years ago (we will survey them on whether they think that actually happened when we begin our unit on God in January!). That is what Confirmation is all about. Our post-survey conversation makes me think we are looking at a group who will become good leaders and committed adults in our Jewish community. The future is bright.

And save Sunday, May 20 at 2:00 on your calendar. Join us for our service on Confirmation to welcome them to the next level and to celebrate the giving of Torah on Shavuot!