Friday, March 25, 2011

Judaism by the numbers: Good, bad and okay

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today, let’s crunch some numbers and figure out what it means to be Jewish.

There are approximately 13 million Jews in the world – six million in the U.S., six million in Israel and another million or so spread around the globe. Those figures vary a bit depending on census numbers pulled together by various organizations and how they define what it means to be a Jew.

In a willy-nilly sort of way, I’ve come up with an algorithm that digs into the census figures and offers a good idea of what I think it means to be Jewish today. Essentially, my reasoning links up with an earlier posting that suggests most everything can be broken into thirds – good, bad an okay.

In this instance, forget about the subjective spectrum of good and bad and substitute affiliated, somewhat affiliated and don’t give a damn. Under the weight of this idea, I’d argue there are 4 million Jews in the world who are deeply committed to Judaism, Jewish culture and the Jewish people; 4 million Jews who are somewhat committed to such things and 4 million who eat lox and bagels and know some dirty words in Yiddish! And yes, I know that my figures don’t add up; but I’m trying to keep this simple for all my math-phobic readers.

Here in the Land of Cotton, what this all means – and, worth noting, is documented by the local Jewish federation – is that about 40,000 Jews belong to the 30 or so synagogues in the area; another 40,000 are affiliated in some fashion with some sort of Jewish organization – community center, federation, ADL, AJC, JF&CS – and another 40,000 have a favorite deli they nosh at regularly.

Now this is where it gets complicated and the beauty of my algorithm comes into play. The 40,000 Jews who are deeply committed – at the very least they are affiliated with a shul – can be broken into yet another group of thirds.

One third is deeply involved – they attend Shabbat and holiday services, keep kosher, know all the words of the Birkat Hamazon; another third is somewhat involved – they attend services on a semi-regular basis, don’t keep kosher but won’t eat pork or mix milk and meat, and at least know what the Birkat Hamazon is. Members of the final group attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, eat lobster and shrimp, but never with a milkshake, and are pretty sure that the Birkat Hamazon is some form of yoga. In short, being Jewish in the 21st century means different things to different people. Go figure!

A footnote. My algorithm – or at least the idea – has informed the building of synagogues in the U.S. for at least the last half century. In the late 1950s, architects were trying to figure out how best to build sanctuaries that were cozy and intimate. The problem was that on any given Shabbat, as detailed above, only about a third of the members would show for services. Build an expansive sanctuary and it was often empty. Build a cozy sanctuary and it wasn’t nearly large enough to handle the crowds on the High Holidays.

The solution, of course, was to build the main sanctuary next to the shul’s social hall with a moveable wall between the two rooms. On the two days each year – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – when attendance tripled, the back wall of the sanctuary was pushed aside and the once intimate space was now large enough to easily handle the overflow of holiday worshipers. Problem solved – yesterday and today!

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