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The Annual Migrations of the North American Jews (Or, Why This Season is Different From All Other Seasons)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 @ 08:08 AM
posted by Roger Price
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When they are underway, the annual migrations of various animal species are truly magnificent to behold. By sea, land and sky, they move: the sea turtles and the baleen whales, the caribou and the wildebeests, the green darner dragonflies and the arctic terns and the free-tailed bats, among others. (See;

These migrations, which can transpire over thousands of miles, exhibit common characteristics. They suggest preparation and persistence, attentiveness, intentionality and unique allocations of energy. The participants will face distractions and temptations, but they will meet these challenges and more with what seems to be a shared sense of purpose. They are marvelous and inspiring adventures.

Perhaps these animals move because of some encoded instinct or perhaps from some form of communication we do not yet understand. Whatever the cause, they are not on an orderly and docile walk, two by two, as in the Noah fable. They are engaged in an existential activity, where travel is grueling and life and death are at issue for each animal individually and for the group as a collective, whether bale or pod or herd or team or swarm, flutter or flock.

Humans participate in seasonal movements, too. They are not as literally colorful or as dramatic in quantity or distance as the storied travels of the red crabs or the monarch butterflies.  No, these migrations are different, seasonal to be sure, but more dispersed and more conscious than those of other species. Soon, the annual migrations of North American Jews will commence.

The migrations are of two sorts. The first migration chronologically occurs over a period of several weeks. The migrating population is young, generally 18 through 21 years of age, though some are a bit younger and certainly some are older. Male and female they go, not to any one locale, but still to special places, where they will, like caterpillars, change and grow. Some will travel long distances and some will commute. Some will go to metropolitan areas and some to more rural settings. Some will go join large populations and some will go to be with small groups.

Not all in this age range will participate, but most will. They will go in droves, if not packs and prides. More than attending High Holy Day services, more than participating in a Passover seder, more than lighting Shabbat candles, young adult Jews go to college. Estimates vary, but perhaps 85-90% or more of young adult Jews go to college. (See, e.g., “Why More Colleges Want Jewish Students,” at; “American Jews,” at

Some will go to elite private schools like the University of Chicago and Harvard University. Some will go to elite public schools, such as the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. They will go to major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles and New York, for instance. They will go to college towns like Boulder and Tempe and Lawrence and Raleigh. They will go to Miami, the one in Florida and the one in Ohio. They will go to many and diverse places, but the key fact is that they will go, tens of thousands of them in any year.

The percentage of Jewish students at many schools is astonishing. Consider these figures for some private schools:

  • 32% at Tulane University in New Orleans
  • 30% at Emory University in Atlanta
  • 29% at George Washington University in Washington D.C. and at Oberlin College in Ohio
  • 27% at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • 25% at Washington University in St. Louis

Even at public schools, the percentages can be high:

  • 22% at the University of Maryland in College Park
  • 19% at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey
  • 18% at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
  • 17% at the University of Florida in Gainesville

Percentages can be deceiving, of course. Only 8% of the undergraduate population at the University of Texas is Jewish, but that 8% totals 4,000 students, about two and a half times as many as attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts which is 50% Jewish. (For a fuller list of schools and Jewish populations at them, see “Admissions 102 & 103” in Reform Judaism, Fall 2011, at 44-45  (  You can almost hear the merchants calling “The Jews are coming! The Jews are coming!”

What will they see and what will they hear? For most, the experience will be mind-expanding, as it should be. They may encounter new subjects, from archeology to zoology. They may drill deeper into formerly familiar concepts. No doubt old ideas will be challenged, old assumptions questioned. Their heads will be stuffed with dates and facts. Their brains will be asked to engage in critical thinking.

In the vast majority of cases, the young adults will succeed. Not only will they graduate, but many will continue their education.  In the Chicago area, for instance, about forty percent (40%) will earn graduate degrees. (See (At 24.))

And when they get out, when they emerge from their collegiate chrysalis, what will they know? Many things, of course, but here’s one thought they think is true. According to a recent survey at a Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, a clear majority (51%) of Jews aged twenty-something who responded agreed with the proposition: “Science explains everything, making God an unnecessary hypothesis.” (See “The God Survey” in Reform Judaism (Summer 2012) (

The Massachusetts survey is flawed, of course. The sample is small and the questions do not allow for subtle responses. Indeed, how many scientists believe that science explains “everything?” We cannot even define “everything.” Nevertheless, we understand the message and the results are not (or should not be) surprising. Whatever they learned in Hebrew school or Sunday school, in whatever congregation they belonged just a few years earlier — let’s call it pediatric Judaism — they seem to have rejected. What they have replaced it with, if anything, is much, much less clear. What is clear is that the pediatric Judaism that might once have been sufficient to sustain the children of Israel is no longer suitable for many of the adults of Israel.

If Jewish college graduates in North America are the future of the Jewish people in North America (and they are), and if Judaism is the evolving, religious civilization of the Jewish people, as Mordecai Kaplan defined it four score years ago (and it is), then the collective college experience of North American Jews will have a dramatic impact on that civilization as it continues to evolve, including how and to what degree that civilization will be described as “religious.” We need to listen to what they are saying, verbally and physically, and engage with them in forging a vibrant, positive Judaism for the adults of Israel.


The second seasonal migration of North American Jews is quite different. Older Jewish adults will also embark on what amounts to a pilgrimage. They will travel a generally short distance to some synagogue or temple, maybe even a hotel, a movie theatre or a church, but in any event to some location where other adult Jews are gathering to participate in High Holy Days services. For many, this will be the only time or two in the year in which they will engage in any religious or Jewish communal activity.

The 2012 Jewish Values Survey states that “slightly more than one-third (35%) of American Jews report being a member of a local synagogue . . . .” Self-identifying Conservative Jews appear to do so about twenty-five percent (25%) more often than self-identified Reform Jews. Among those who are “just Jewish,” only one in twenty is a member of a congregation.

Whether affiliated or not, only about a fifth (21%) of American Jews attend religious services once or twice a month. Just over a quarter (26%) never attend. That leaves slightly more than half of the adult Jewish population (52%) who say they attend “seldom” or “a few times a year.” (See  (At 27).)  If they are going to participate at all in Jewish communal activity, High Holidays are the likely time.

What will they see and what will they hear? When they arrive at their destination, they may see family or old friends, or not. They may engage in the local prayer service, standing and sitting more or less on cue, or not. They may read along, or tune out. Relatively few will understand whatever is said in the ancient tongue that dominates the occasion. That will be a cause of restlessness for some, and a source of white noise for others.

Discomfort for the annual migrants often sets in when some message is communicated in English. Not comfortable with God-talk to begin with, here they are confronted with God-talk on steroids. This is not the relatively soft creation and rest theology of the Sabbath. Nor is this the time for some namby-pamby, sugar-coated, feel-good spirituality. These holy days are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, beginning with a day at once joyous as it is Hayom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world, and solemn, for it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. It is time for seriousness about how we behave — a purely confrontational experience with the God as King, as Judge, and, most significantly, as Decreer not only of life and death, but if one is to die, how that person shall die, whether by fire or by water, whether by sword or by beast, whether by hunger or by thirst.

Most of the words encountered are of ancient origin, quotations from ancient texts, collected over time and arranged in a particular order. Many of the passages are poetic. All are metaphors, depicting the God of the ancient ones in terms to which those in communities far, far away in space and time could relate.

By training or experience, some will understand the references and the symbolism. They will transvalue the words and phrases into messages that work for them. However, most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate well to the old language. They will hear about God as Malkenu, Our King, but they are citizens of a democratic republic and do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the subject of any King (even if corrected politically to Sovereign or Ruler). If history is any guide, they will likely not return for another year.

They will hear about God as Avinu, Our Father, but they know too much about DNA and evolution and, in any event, are too independent to warm to this kind of paternalism. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the children of this distant and invisible Father (even if gender neutered to Parent or Ancestor). They will likely not return for another year

They will hear about God as Roeh, the Shepherd, but they are now urban, or maybe suburban, certainly not rural. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as members of a flock to be herded, even for their protection. They will likely not return for another year.

When not inundated with metaphors or other mythic poetry to which they cannot relate, some will hear descriptions of ritual practices in two temples destroyed thousands and more years ago. Most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate to these words either. They are not familiar with a theocratic world, with animal sacrifices and special words only invoked by a priest in a special room at a special time. They have no desire to rebuild the long gone temples, and, if possible, less desire to hear about them.  They will likely not return for another year.

Some will hear a seeming internal inconsistency in the holiday message. First they will hear that their fate is written and soon to be sealed. Then they will hear that the severe decree can be averted by Teshuvah, Tzedakah and T’filah, i.e., by repentance, charity and prayer. Well, they might ask, “Is my fate sealed or isn’t it?” As the service progresses, they will not have much time, even if they have the inclination, to resolve the apparent conflict or contemplate how much needs to be accomplished and by when.

Unless something is done to change the pattern, once they have satisfied whatever urge or obligation they felt which drew them to congregate, most of the annual migrants will not return to a pilgrimage site for another year. Not understanding much of what has just occurred, many will feel  (perhaps paradoxically) smugly satisfied that they have done their duty and yet are so much superior to the regulars who were singing their hearts out, beating the chests at the mention of community foibles and, on that last day, cranky with hunger.

Most rabbis who conduct High Holy Day services are not stupid. They know that a good number of annual migrants will not come back for another year. And they even know that berating them for their lack of attendance throughout the year will be counter-productive. Nevertheless, many of these rabbis will still be tempted to win over the migrants with a clever sermon or some cute gambit they think might hold appeal. The wise ones will resist that temptation, and remember that these holidays are not about them, nor even about God. The holidays are about the people who celebrate them, many of whom do so despite their distaste for theology and ritual.

The wise rabbis will, therefore, reduce and maybe eliminate their sermons. Here less can truly be more, for wise rabbis will use the time saved to insert teaching moments throughout the service. For instance, when the time comes for a communal confession which is traditionally accompanied by breast beating, rather than just read and beat, they will take the time to explain the practice, and even provide alternatives like heart stroking. Encouraging physical movement will at minimum serve as a useful break from the sitting and standing routine. The annual migrants think that the service is repetitious and boring. The wise rabbis will try to prove them wrong. Properly done, changes of pace will be memorable. Who knows, maybe changes in behavior will precede changes in belief?

Rather than reading the English portions of the prayer book rapidly and in a “responsive” manner, the wise rabbis will also inject moments of silence and refer congregants to the commentaries that now line mahzorim such as Lev Shalem and Kol Haneshamah. If the books presently used do not contain such lessons, the wise rabbis will provide them. The annual migrants think that they are smart. The wise rabbis will give them times to think. Sometimes the way to the heart travels through the head.


The annual migrations of the North American Jews are approaching. They are times for reflection and growth. For a minority of North American Jews who do affiliate with a synagogue or temple, the ancient words may still resonate.  Maybe these individuals  take these words literally and believe the statements to be true. Maybe they are able to understand the textual references and the symbolism and accept the lessons taught. Maybe the words are unimportant, but they are moved by the music either because of its inherent worthiness or because of its ability to evoke fond memories. Regardless, their continued attendance and engagement must be respected. But the data suggests that they are a minority and a shrinking one at that.

Here’s the thing. The Jewish population in North America is shrinking. Synagogue membership is shrinking. Attendance of those who are members is shrinking. And every year, we lose Jews who had ties directly or through close relationships to an older world, maybe based in a distant land. And every year, we gain, or at least have the potential to gain, highly educated Jews who see the world differently than did their ancestors.  As a result of all these trends, the remaining population of Jews, not entirely for sure, but increasingly, does not accept that which is being offered. More crassly, they are not buying what is being sold.

If we were merchants or goods or services and we saw our customer base change, if we saw that the new customer base was not coming into the store as much, not buying as much when it came in, what would we do? For starters, we might take a hard look at whether the problem is the merchandise or the packaging. We might try to figure out what our customers want and whether we can provide it. Especially difficult will be the question about how to attract new customers without alienating the remaining ones who are quite content with the familiar product.

To be clear, Judaism is not a good or service to be sold and bought in the marketplace.  And the inventory should not be changed to meet any and all demands. But two things are for sure. First, as the old adage has it, if we keep going the way we are going, we are going to get where we are headed. The returning herds in each annual High Holy Day migration will be thinner and thinner, the annual meeting grounds will be fewer and less inviting, and at some tipping point there will be an absence of critical mass. Second, this path is not immutable and that destination is not inevitable. But averting this severe decline will require more than Teshuvah, Tzedakah and T’filah. It will require some Tachlis, too, that is, some frank, reality based substantive talk. It will require seminaries and rabbis to start talking sense to, and talking sensibly with, the American Jewish community. It will require recognition that saying the same things that have been said before at the migration celebrations, only louder or more slowly or with bigger typeface and more transliterations, will not cause anyone to hear or understand them better. All God-talk is metaphorical, but some metaphors may be better than others. It is well past time to find the better ones and use them.  It is time to turn a worrisome trend into an opportunity, as with the other annual migration of North American Jews, to build a vibrant, positive Judaism for the adults of Israel.

Roger Price

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