Now how to sustain it?

by Paul Golin

 

THREE LOCAL JEWISH COMMUNITIES released population studies in recent weeks, including two of the five largest Jewish communities in the country, and though the results are not shocking to anyone who follows such things, the numbers are still profound.

In over a decade since their previous studies, the San Francisco Bay Area saw its overall number of Jews holding steady or growing slightly.

In Greater Washington DC and Pittsburgh, the community saw dramatic growth. This trajectory mirrors the Pew Center’s seminal 2013 Jewish population survey, which identified over a million more Jews than when the Jewish community surveyed itself in 2001.

Coinciding with the growth in total number of Jews is the dramatic increase in intermarried households. The Pew survey found significantly more intermarried than in-married couples nationally. Pew didn’t put a number on it, but didn’t object to my methodology when I estimated 1,166,000 intermarried households to 742,000 in-married households in the United States.

The recent local surveys confirmed that there are more intermarried households than in-married households in DC and San Francisco. Pittsburgh, smaller and with a more traditional Jewish geographic center, still has slightly more in-married than intermarried households, though rates among younger couples suggest that will flip in the coming decade.

For those of us who grew up Jewish in America during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s (and perhaps even the ’90s and aughts), this was not the expected trend. More intermarriage was supposed to mean fewer Jews. The phrase “Vanishing American Jew” was used in a cover story for Look magazine in 1964, as the title of Alan Dershowitz’s 1997 book-length screed, and as the subject for countless thousands of pulpit sermons in between.

Yet the Pew survey attributed Jewish population growth, in part, to intermarried households raising Jewish children in rates surpassing the 50 percent threshold needed for replacement. The Pew authors, in revisiting their intermarriage findings, wrote, “In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.”

This was the dream for those of us working to build a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community in the 1990s and 2000s. Fifteen years ago, I argued that “Increasing the percent of intermarried families raising Jewish children from 30 percent to 50 percent is an attainable goal, and should be a primary mission for the Jewish community.” We achieved, then surpassed, that goal. Pew estimated that in 2013, 61 percent of intermarried households nationally were raising their children with some Jewish identity. The new Bay Area study found their rate to be nearly 60 percent, and in Greater DC it is a whopping 75 percent.

 

WHY, THEN, does the “Vanishing American Jew” remain such a compelling narrative for so many leaders in the organized Jewish community today?

The mistake I and others made in advocating more outreach was to expect “Jewish” for the children of intermarriage to mean the same as “Jewish” the way the organized community wants to measure it: synagogue membership, shabbat candle-lighting, religious and ethno-national loyalty. Implicit in outreach goals was that the organized community could make “them,” the intermarried, behave like “us.” For more than a decade, however, it has become increasingly obvious that we live in a time of transition into new forms of Judaism, Jewish identity, and Jewish community — and that intermarriage is having its influence on that transition.

Measuring households only by those who declare their children “Jewish by religion” lops off a significant and growing percentage of Jews. In fact, “Jewish by culture” and “Jewish and something else” are the fastest growing segments of the Jewish community. Business-as-usual from the old guard Jewish communal institutions won’t reach enough of them; these new local studies show that even in communities with surprising increases in their overall Jewish populations, membership in synagogues is declining.

The intermarried and their children are at the vanguard of those rejecting mainstream Judaism, but intermarriage is not the cause of that rejection. The trend of intermarriage, together with the trend of disaffiliation, are both driven by much larger forces over the past half-century: increasing secularism, multiculturalism, mobility, and the decline in antisemitism, which meant full access for Jews to live and learn and work wherever they wanted.

It is these societal changes that cause a plurality of American Jews, regardless of marital status, to no longer consider it essential to be part of an organized Jewish community. So what comes next?

A frequently-stated goal for much of the Jewish community’s programming has been to “deepen Jewish identity.” In theory, “identity” is something we get to choose, thanks to our free and open society. But in practice, Jewish identity is something the overwhelming majority of Jews are born into. What is the purpose of strengthening it? To behave a certain way? To support a certain cause? The primary unstated goal (though sometimes stated) was inculcation against intermarriage. By that measure, it failed spectacularly.

It is clear to me now that “Jewish identity” was always a disingenuous measure for those who would use it to write off swaths of American Jewry. The recent Bay Area study states, “Just 26 percent of inter-group couples report they are raising their children as fully Jewish.” That word “fully” was not offered to any survey participant. It is a judgment statement by the report’s authors, a shameful perpetuation that Judaism is “diluted” if the household also acknowledges their other heritages by declaring themselves Jewish and something else, as nearly 35 percent of the Bay Area intermarried households do.

In his dismantling of those who would exclude the 22 percent of all Jews that the Pew survey labeled “Jews of no religion” — many among them adult children of intermarriage — Professor Theodore Sasson explained: “although more weakly tied to religious observance and the Jewish community, the Jews of no religion still look fairly Jewish in terms of their demographic and political profile. They also express pride in their Jewish identities (83 percent) and hardly ever attend non-Jewish worship services.”

Today, in my work creating content for the Humanistic Judaism movement, when I encounter the word “identity,” I usually change it to “meaning.” Meaning is something you can actually use. Meaning adds benefit to your life, or helps you improve the world. If, in deriving meaning from Jewish life and learning, your Jewish identity is somehow measurably stronger than your parents’, great. But that’s not the goal. Identity ebbs and flows over the course of a lifetime, sometimes over the course of a weekend. Jewish meaning can be derived by anyone, regardless of Jewish genetic bona fides.

Dr. David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of the Jewish Education Project, uses the word “thriving” to describe the goal of Jewish education. Thriving includes: “Connecting Jews to things that matter in their lives” and “providing Jews with the tools to bring about a more equitable and just world.”

As our attachment to “identity” has changed, so have other values. The insularity baked into Judaism over the course of 3,000 years has been thoroughly overturned in just three generations of American inclusion. Today, multiculturalism is a Jewish value. Few liberal Jews would lament the finding from the recent Bay Area study that 25 percent of households “include a respondent or spouse who is Hispanic, Asian-American, African-American, or of mixed or other ethnic or racial background (other than white).”

The continued insularity in many sectors of the organized Jewish community, which contrasts so with the overall Jewish population, can be attributed at least partially to the lack of diversity among paid professionals. A 2014 survey of over 4,000 Jewish communal professionals found that less than 10 percent of married communal professionals were intermarried, compared to 44 percent of all married Jews. If Federations and other Jewish organizations genuinely want to engage more intermarried households, perhaps they should sponsor a kind of affirmative-action hiring for intermarried Jewish communal professionals.

There are certainly many Jews who are happy with the status quo of organized Jewish life, and communal organizations can and should continue to serve them. Nevertheless, moving from identity to meaning is just the tip of the iceberg of potential changes in store for Judaism, as the grassroots begins to build its own community in parallel, if not in replacement, of what currently exists.

 

Paul Golin is executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.