If you go

WHAT: Three-Rabbi Panel: The Evolving Role of the Synagogue. Three local rabbis will discuss the changing role of the synagogue in Charleston, once home to the largest Jewish community in North America. Sponsored by the college’s Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Stern Center Ballroom at Glebe and George streets, College of Charleston campus

COST: Free, open to the public

INFO: 953-5682 or jwst@cofc.edu.

What does it mean to be Jewish in America today? The answer appears to be changing in ways that could alter the future of Judaism in this country.

A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month tackled this question. And the results have raised concern in Jewish circles nationwide and here in the Holy City, once home to North America’s largest Jewish community.

Among the survey’s key findings:

A large and ongoing rise in Jews marrying non-Jews. Nearly 60 percent of Jews marrying since 2005 married someone who is not Jewish. In comparison, before the 1970s, only 17 percent intermarried.

A dramatic drop in younger generations of American Jews who identify themselves as Jewish by religion, and a corresponding rise among those identifying as Jewish by culture and ancestry.

Two-thirds of Jews who don’t identify themselves as religious say they are not raising their children Jewish.

What does this mean for Charleston’s historic and robust Jewish community?

“We look at it as a challenge more than anything, not as a sign of doom or despair,” said Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum of Synagogue Emanu-El, the first Conservative synagogue in South Carolina.

After all, local rabbis note, the Jewish narrative is rife with stories of challenges, doomsday predictions, arduous journeys — and survival.

“A Pew study 2,000 years ago may have looked very similar,” said Rabbi Moshe Davis of Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue, the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue. “We’re still here. And for me, that is very empowering.”

Chosen by whom?

A growing segment of Jewish Americans, especially younger ones, don’t consider themselves Jewish by faith in God but rather by culture and ethnicity.

Among the Pew survey’s respondents, 78 percent call themselves Jewish by religion while 22 percent deem themselves atheists, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

The changing nature of Jewish religiosity is most obvious over the generations.

About 93 percent of the oldest generation of living Jews, those born between 1914 and 1927, identify as Jewish on the basis of religion. Only 7 percent describe themselves as nonreligious.

Compare that to the youngest generation of Jewish adults, those born after 1980.

Nearly one-third describe themselves as having no religion. They based their Jewish identity on ancestry and culture (although some said they believe in God to some degree), the survey found.

That shift isn’t confined to Jews. Americans overall increasingly report no specific religion.

Religiously unaffiliated ranks of Americans have reached 20 percent, the highest ever recorded, according to a separate Pew survey released last year. Compared that to the 22 percent of American Jews who report they are not religious.

A clear exception is among Orthodox Jews. Nearly 90 percent report being convinced of God’s existence.

“Belief in God is at the core of Jewish values,” said Davis, the local Orthodox rabbi.

Yet, overall Jews surveyed didn’t consider belief in God necessary to being Jewish.

About 62 percent consider Jewish identity primarily defined by ancestry and culture. Just 15 percent said it is mainly about religion, the survey found.

“Judaism isn’t just a religion. It’s a way of life,” Rosenbaum said. “Judaism is a people.”

Yet, while Rosenbaum is glad that many secular Jews still embrace traditions such as serving Passover Seder and lighting Hanukkah lights, he sees work ahead for Jewish professionals.

“It’s totally fine to enjoy those things,” Rosenbaum said. “But our job is to say that behind the culture is a really beautiful religious tradition.”

Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation downtown, said that unlike in a church or mosque, belief in God is not the singular underpinning of Judaism.

At her synagogue, involvement is as much about worship as assembling in a community and studying Judaism.

“It is an openness to God that is essential,” Alexander said. “It’s a willingness to wrestle with whether or not you believe in God.”

Yet, secular Jews are much less likely to remain connected to their Jewish heritage and the cornerstones of Jewish life such as attending synagogues.

This challenges a faith that takes pride in not proselytizing.

“We no longer live in a Jewish society where it’s just a given that every Jew will affiliate at some point and be included in the community,” Rosenbaum said. “We can’t assume people will automatically come to us.”

Future of Judaism

The future of American Judaism may hinge on one critical change: Most Jewish people today are marrying non-Jews.

Nearly 60 percent of Jews who have married since 2000 married someone who isn’t Jewish. Before 1970, just 17 percent did so.

Intermarrying is far more common among secular Jews than religious ones. Nearly 80 percent of married Jews who aren’t religious have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36 percent of religious Jews.

And intermarried Jews, especially nonreligious ones, often are not raising their children Jewish.

“It affirms that we should do everything we can to welcome families making Jewish choices,” Alexander said.

The trend prompted Synagogue Emanu-El in West Ashley to adopt a new “household membership” option last year for couples with just one adult Jewish partner. This opens more of the Conservative synagogue’s ritual activities to both members of interfaith couples, Rosenbaum said.

Davis added that a key way to ensure children are raised Jewish is by sending them to private Jewish day schools, as Orthodox families do.

At Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school, he sees children, young adults and parents actively engaged in Judaism.

“We are the People of the Book for a reason. We believe in books and education,” said Davis, a father of young children himself. “I see vibrancy.”

Reaching out

The changes in American Jewish identity may explain why Reform Judaism, the most inclusive of the three main movements, has become the largest in the country.

More than one in three Jewish Americans identify with the Reform movement compared to 18 percent Conservative and 10 percent Orthodox (although Orthodox have the highest birth rate, which could change these rankings), the Pew survey found.

Charleston is the birthplace of American Reform Judaism, which has long taken steps to embrace this changing Jewish identity.

The local Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the continental United States.

KKBE has made welcoming interfaith families a priority. Its website features common questions these families face, such as: How should the children in interfaith families be raised?

“We need to be a resource to help them find ways to make Jewish choices and to make sure the next generation makes Jewish choices,” Alexander said.

Since 1978, Reform temples have reached out to converts and interfaith families. And while Judaism traditionally has recognized lineage only through Jewish mothers, the Reform movement recognizes patriarchal descent as well.

“I’m proud of the welcome it shows and firmly believe it ensures the future for Jewish generations,” Alexander says.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.