The Pew Report on Jewish Americans

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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.

Don Seeman and Daniel Gordis have published interesting analyses of the Pew report in The Jewish Review of Books.  Critics commented on Gordis, and he replied.

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6 thoughts on “The Pew Report on Jewish Americans

  1. Thank you, Mel, for your summary of the Pew Report and the links to Seeman’s and Gordis’s articles.

    Seeman is right in claiming that defining Jews by religion or by ethnicity is problematic, and that “the distinction between religion and ethnicity was not native to Judaism at the dawn of modernity, was never uniformly welcomed or accepted, and is still relatively alien to many non-Ashkenazi communities.” To some Ashkenazi communities too, I would add.

    Unfortunately, Seeman’s observation does not change the alarming statistics in the Pew Report, but it is an invitation to a new thinking about the complex question of what we mean by “Jew” and how we can enrich the educational approaches to developing and maintaining Jewish identity. I personally subscribe to Mordechai Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as Civilization. And if it were to me, I would have approached the young generation and those who seek for their Jewish identity within such a large frame. I am grateful to my Israeli education in the 1960’s that took me through such a path.

    Growing in a secular family and a secular high school, Bible, Talmud, Medieval Jewish poetry and literature, Jewish history, Zionism, and the Hebrew language made up my Jewish upbringing. I agree with Amos Oz that as Jews, we have unique relationship with texts. We need not all be scholars of Jewish texts, but the Bible and the Talmud should not remain in the sole ownership of religious Jews.

    Jewish pluralism should not be limited to religious movements. We should all have free access to our rich heritage, be it religious, historical, cultural, or humanistic. Judaism is rich and dynamic enough and should be inclusive to all Jews. We are all entitled to it—history, texts, customs, and human values. We should start making all of it available to all young Jews in the kindergarten; and to all—young and adults—according to their own self-definition.

    This might present a challenge to statisticians, but not necessarily to Judaism and the Jews of America.

    • Dear Shlomit, I too embrace Kaplan’s “Judaism as a civilization,” which is quite different from Judaism (or Jewishness) as bagels-and-lox, although both can include justice, history, and victimhood (or at least Holocaust memorialization), all of which rank high in the Pew report on “what makes you feel Jewish” type questions. You propose to teach this from kindergarten, but non-Orthodox Jewish day schools reach a small fraction of Jewish children at present. Reconstructionism as a movement appears to be very small. Peter Beinart has proposed that we support government funding for religious schools as the only way to keep the expensive day school movement large enough to preserve American Jewry. I also favor community support for after-school programs, which have not been numerically replaced by day schools and which have high barriers to entry due to high synagogue membership costs. Finally, I would expand the Taglit (Birthright) program of subsidized trips to Israel by for example: adding a second subsidized trip for a newly married couple if both are Jewish; subsidizing at least partially trips for influential people like college professors (as the American Jewish Committee did for me). I agree with all that you say, but the question is how to implement this broader, non-orthodox embrace of Jewish civilization.

      Thanks for your helpful comment, Mel

  2. I thank the Pew Report and Mel for your input as well as Shlomit’s response. My upbringing was similar to Shlomit’s, although not in Israel but in Argentina. Text and Jewish sources area welcoming open tent for those who are seekers and not necessary dwellers. As my mentor and Rebbe, Prof. Rabbi David Hartman taught me, “Judaism is a heart of many rooms” and in each systolic or diastolic movement I found the opportunity to pump its strength. How do we convey the beauty of Jewish endless discoveries and opportunities to the next generation?

    • Dear Rabbi Dr Analia,

      Thank you for this important observation, lovely metaphor, and good question. The “heart of many rooms” and “the beauty of Jewish endless discoveries and opportunities” are indeed going to be lost to the next generation without the most creative efforts. Non-orthodox Jews need strategies as bold as the Lubavitchers’ “Mitzva Tanks” and many others. New experiments in Jewish camping, part-time Jewish afternoon schools, support of college courses, wider and more appealing campus events, and much much more. A more welcoming attitude toward non-Jews who might consider converting (other than passively through marriage) and also toward young Orthodox Jews who might be searching for something less dogmatic and insular.

      But what the Pew report shows is that we have a tremendous amount of work to do to prevent blueberry bagels (or ham-and-cheese ones for that matter) from replacing Judaism and Jewish Civilization.

      Thanks for your beautiful comment,


  3. I still can’t get over the prescient speculations of Hillel Halkin in his “Letters to an American Jewish Friend” on the gradual attenuation of Jewish practice and affiliation to be expected. That it is confirmed by the Pew Report is not exactly startling. After all, Halkin wrote about this inevitable trend in 1975. Pew just confirms it.

    • Dear Martin,

      Yes, this was predicted many decades ago, but not the huge rise in numbers of the Orthodox, whose commitment is greater than ever and who will double in every generation. Even now their children represent 40% of Jewish-school students. They will certainly keep the Jewish community alive, but if the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements are to be anything but vestiges around the margins of that large Orthodox Jewish community, they have a lot of work to do.

      Thanks for commenting,


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