HomeNovember 2013Rethinking Jewish Demographics

Rethinking Jewish Demographics

It raises at least as many questions as it answers.  It’s both enlightening and frightening.  It suggests a number of challenges ahead for the Jewish people, and, depending on one’s point of view, these challenges will be relatively easy or more difficult to manage.  Of course, there are thought-provoking questions and diverse viewpoints.  We’re Jews after all.
The recently released survey by the Pew Research Center shows the diversity of Jewish identity and practice.  The telephone survey of 3,475 Jews nationwide was conducted between February and June and released on October 1.  The statistics are telling, but do they tell the whole story?
According to the introduction, “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people…but…Jewish identity is changing in America,” where 22% of Jews now describe themselves as having no religion.  Furthermore, the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish “has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%…Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.”
While 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion, only 68% of the Millennials identify as Jews by religion, while 32% identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.  The percentage of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is comparable to the overall population (20%), and “religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each),” the report said.
The report also found that 62% of Jews surveyed say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. “Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish,” the report said.
Secular Jews, according to the report, are less religious, less connected to Jewish organizations and less likely to raise Jewish children.  More than 90% of Jews by religion are raising children to be Jewish or partially Jewish, while secular Jews are not.  Intermarriage is much more common among secular Jews than among Jews by religion: “79% of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36% among Jews by religion,” according to the report.  These intermarried Jews “are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.”  While 96% of Jews who have a Jewish spouse are raising their children as Jewish by religion, only 20% of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse are raising their children Jewish by religion, and 25% are raising their children partly Jewish by religion.  About one-third (37%) of intermarried Jews are not raising their children Jewish at all.
According to the Pew Study, “Intermarriage rates seem to have risen substantially over the last five decades.  Among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse.  Among those who got married in the 1980s, roughly four-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse. And among Jews who got married before 1970, just 17% have a non-Jewish spouse…It is not clear whether being intermarried tends to make U.S. Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make U.S. Jews more inclined to intermarry, or some of both. Whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage…Furthermore, Jews who are the offspring of intermarriages appear, themselves, to be more likely to intermarry than Jews with two Jewish parents.”
Reform Judaism (35%) is the largest Jewish movement in the United States, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.  About three-in-ten American Jews do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.  While Orthodox Jews currently are the smallest of the three major denominational movements, they tend to be younger, have larger families and have less falloff among younger people.  On the other hand, when people switch from one movement to the other, they tend to switch to something less traditional.
The survey related that seven-in-ten Jews (70%) participated in a Passover meal (Seder) in the past year, and 53% fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur in 2012, slightly down from a decade ago.  On a positive note, 94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish.  Three-quarters of U.S. Jews have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  Emotional attachment to Israel “has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the past decade,” but many are concerned about Israel’s approach to the peace process and the construction of settlements.
Beyond the raw numbers, the study is trying to determine what being Jewish means today.  While many U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness, more than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them and about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity.  Observing religious law is not as central to most American Jews. Just 19% of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Jewish law (halakha) is essential to what being Jewish means to them.  Most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on the Sabbath or does not believe in God.
Other findings from the Pew Research Center survey include: Jews from the former Soviet Union and their offspring account for roughly one-tenth of the U.S. Jewish population; Jews have high levels of educational attainment (58% are college graduates, and 28% have a post-graduate degrees); 25% have a household income exceeding $150,000, but 20 % have household incomes of less than $30,000 per year; 39% live in a household where at least one person is a member of a synagogue; 52% know the Hebrew alphabet, but 13% understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew; and most are in urban areas and suburbs.  As a whole, Jews support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by more than three-to-one: 70% say they are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 22% are Republicans or lean Republican. Among Orthodox Jews, however, the balance tilts in the other direction: 57% are Republican or lean Republican, and 36% are Democrats or lean Democratic.
What does all of this mean, and what do we do with it?  Various groups and individuals have opinions about where we go from here.
Nigel Savage, executive director of  Hazon, said, that the study “makes interesting and challenging reading for those of us who believe in non-haredi expressions of serious Jewish life.  One of the things that comes through very clearly is that many younger Jews in this country do not take Jewish particularism as self-evident.  They — to some extent, we — are choosing to express a sense of Jewishness whilst at the same time engaging very deeply with the wider world.”
American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger said, “We see tremendous cause for optimism because the Pew Study highlights that many American Jews see their Jewishness being driven by their deep compassion and powerful thirst for justice.  For those of us who are both proud Jews and global citizens, we understand and welcome the fact that the upcoming generations of American Jews want to be engaged in the most crucial, global social justice work of our time by ensuring dignity and human rights for all.  By tapping into their energy, we believe that we can repair the world.”
“One of the important features of our tradition’s understanding of Jewish identity is that it is a national one and not merely a religious one,” in the opinion of Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel.  “One becomes Jewish through birth, conversion, or marriage and remains so regardless of faith and practice.  Consequently, sociological data about the Jews are not merely descriptive but definitive as to who we are.  Modernity and, in particular, life in Israel and North America have changed the rules of the game.  The question is how we are going to play.”
“Jews who have learned the Bible know their history did not start in 1933,” said Caroline Glick, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post.  “They know that the Jewish story is the story of a people that believes so strongly in its mission to bring the liberating idea of personal responsibility to choose good and life over evil and death that it refused to surrender to its oppressors.  The Jewish drama, as set out in the Bible, is the story of a nation that from the outset and until the present day chooses freedom over submission, while maintaining allegiance to a sacred trust, and an ancient people and a promised land.  When you understand this, remaining Jewish is a privilege, not a sacrifice.  And, alas, when you fail to understand this, leaving Judaism not a tragedy but simply a natural progression.”
“To me the fact that there are still so many Jewish people who celebrate Passover in America (70%) and so many that fast all or part of Yom Kippur (58%) is amazing,” said Rabbi Zalman Marcus of Chabad Jewish Center of Mission Viejo.  “After all the suffering and persecution and abuse that we have been through over the past 4000 years, it is truly a miracle.”
He added, “What I see in this study is a powerful testament to the strength and connection that we Jewish people have with our Jewishness.  That no matter what we have been through and no matter how many generations have passed, we are still here and although we have plenty of work to do, the Jewish spirit is alive and well.  The question still remains how do we turn the numbers around?  How do we turn the next generation into more passionate and even deeper connected Jews?”
According to Rabbi David Young of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, “All the numbers, the analyses, the wondering don’t really tell us what it feels like to be Jewish.  I submit that feeling Jewish is just as important as keeping kosher or attending Friday night services.  How we express our Judaism could never be covered by a poll.  There is no list of questions that could cover the expansive variety of Jewish practices that exist in the United States.”
He concluded, “What we should be focused on is the person sitting next to us or across from us, at work or at home, in the synagogue or on the beach.  There is Jewish life all around us, and people who are making it happen in vibrant, innovative ways.  We should be reaching out, learning about each other and creating new bonds with people who could become our new friends, family and community.  There is a beautiful Jewish world out there, and it is up to us to create it.

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