I ‘ve finally been able to read the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” from cover, as they say, to cover.
First, Jews should be grateful to Pew for shouldering a responsibility abdicated by our own leaders, who decided in 2010 not to conduct the National Jewish Population Survey that had been conducted in 2000 and 1990. There appears to have been a desire not to hear bad news, which earlier surveys had delivered. I call this the Ostrich Syndrome. So, thank you, Pew Charitable Trusts.
What did they find?
Over sixty years Jews have steadily declined as a proportion of the U.S., even though the estimated number of Jews increased 15 percent or so from the 1950s to today. The result is an estimated 6.7 million. However, that includes Jews of no religion (people with Jewish background who are agnostic or atheist) and children who are being raised partially Jewish; these two subgroups have greatly increased. Also, the 15 percent rise in absolute numbers includes 11 percent of today’s Jewish Americans who are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or their children and an additional 4 percent who are immigrants from Israel or their children.
The report concludes that the Jewish share of the U.S. population has been stable for two decades (which required revising the NJPS 2000 numbers). But that news isn’t good enough. Since the 1950s at least, Jews have had fewer children than other Americans, which (immigration aside) means a steady decline in their percentage of the population. “Jews by religion” are at replacement (2.1 kids per family) while other Jews are far below it (1.5). This is the completed fertility of middle-aged people; indications (marital status, age at first parenthood) are that the future completed fertility of Jews now in their twenties and thirties will be lower.
Intermarriage has risen steadily; just 58 percent of married Jews have a Jewish spouse. Compare Mormons, 87 percent of whom are in-married, and Muslim Americans at 84 percent. Just since NJPS 2000, according to the Pew reanalysis and comparison, the proportion who are Jews by religion has declined from 97 to 78 percent. Among the 22 percent who are Jews of no religion, two thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way. All the numbers get worse as you go from older to younger adults, although some of these may identify more as they get older.
But the worst news is about the shrinking Conservative movement. As of 2013, what was once the largest Jewish denomination now stands at 18 percent, with 35 percent Reform and 10 percent Orthodox (the rest are other denominations or unaffiliated). But the Orthodox have 4.1 children per family, more than double the number in the rest of the Jewish community (1.8 would be a generous number for the non-Orthodox), and enough to double themselves in each generation.
The math is easy. Of 100 Jews today, 10 are Orthodox. In the next generation (say, 2040, without considering differential losses through assimilation, conversion, or shifting denominations) there will be 20 Orthodox Jews, but 81 other Jews. In 2065, there will be 40 Orthodox Jews, and perhaps 73 other Jews. In 2090, there will be 80 Orthodox Jews, and they will outnumber all others put together, by a substantial margin.
If they keep everyone. Reform and Conservative Judaism were created by people raised as Orthodox Jews. Pew confirmed that: of all those who were raised Orthodox 15 percent are now Conservative and 11 percent Reform. In addition, 26 percent are something else, including no denomination, no religion, and converts to other faiths. Of those raised Conservative, 30 percent are now Reform, 27 percent have left religion behind or converted away. Of those raised Reform, 34 percent are now without religion, without denomination, or converted. It is easy to see why Orthodox Jews refer to the rest of Judaism as an exit path. Yet they have supplied Jews to the other denominations for two centuries.
This may be stopping; Orthodox Jews keep more of their children than in the past. The Orthodox retained only 22 percent of those now over 65, but 41 percent of those between 50 and 64, 57 percent of those 30 to 49, and a remarkable 83 percent of those 18 to 29. It’s not plausible to see this as mainly an age effect; not that many Orthodox Jews are likely to leave the fold after age 30. More likely, Americanization drew young people away from Orthodoxy when it was the home religion of almost all immigrants. That is not happening any more.
Yet the Orthodox are not keeping everyone. Among the youngest cohort of adults who were raised Orthodox, 7 percent say they are not Jewish, 6 percent that they are Jews of no religion, 3 percent of no denomination, 0 percent Reform, and only 1 percent Conservative. This contrasts drastically with the oldest raised Orthodox, who are now 29 percent Conservative and 23 percent Reform.
Some of the young lost to Orthodoxy may be looking for something when they start becoming parents. Possibly too the formerly Orthodox who say they are not Jewish are an outed minority of dissatisfied Orthodox adults who would welcome a way to be Jewish that is not so exacting or illiberal. The question is, will there be enough left of Conservative Judaism to offer those straying, formerly strict Jews a way to remain Jewish?
One thing’s for sure: The Orthodox know how to create Jews. And barring some dramatic change in their culture, their numbers will double in every generation. So will the minority of disaffected youth among them. Will the other denominations seize this opportunity? It could revive them. But given the state of Conservative Judaism today, and the many for whom Reform is an exit path—and given the dismal birth rate of all non-Orthodox Jews—anyone who cares about the Jewish American future should be grateful for the Orthodox and hope that they keep doing more or less what they’re doing now.
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