by Rabbi Richard Hirshillustrations by Sarah GliddenWhen the Pew Research Center released its new study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” observers looking at the same data arrived at often opposite conclusions as to whether the “news” was good or bad, cause for hope or despair, confirming of preexisting assumptions or challenging of long-held assertions. Unlike prior studies commissioned by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and its predecessors, the Pew report, released in October, presented data but drew no conclusions. Nonetheless, it has functioned as a Rorschach test when it comes to measuring Jewish attitudes and anxieties.
The full Pew report is over one hundred pages and covers much territory, but here are some highlights that have been most cited in the copious coverage given to the study since its release.
There is a sharply descending line of Jews who identify as “Jewish by religion.” Ninety-three percent of Jews born between 1914 and 1927 identify as Jewish by religion; 68 percent born after 1980 identify similarly. The generations in-between represent an ongoing decline in such “religious” identification. Among “Jews of no religion” (i.e., they identify as Jewish but do not affirm “Jewish religion”), 83 percent say being Jewish is “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture,” and 55 percent identifying as “Jews by religion” agree. All of this may be encouraging news to Jewish secularists — but other data in the report suggest that celebrations of the ascendency of secularism ought to be deferred.
The rate of intermarriage has been a key and contentious piece of data in every survey of American Jews, no less so with the Pew study. “[I]ntermarriage rates seem to have risen substantially over the last five decades,” says the study. “Among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six in ten have a non-Jewish spouse . . . among Jews who got married before 1970, just 17 percent have a non-Jewish spouse.” Intermarriage “is much more common among secular Jews . . . than among Jews by religion: 79 percent of married Jews with no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36 percent among Jews by religion.”
Among “Jews by religion,” 36 percent are “very attached,” 40 percent “somewhat” attached, 23 percent “not very/not at all” attached. Among “Jews of no religion,” 12 percent are “very attached,” 33 percent “somewhat” attached, 55 percent “not very/not at all” attached.
What any rabbi could have reported anecdotally is now confirmed in the data, namely, that the younger the Jews surveyed were, the less important to them were denominational affiliations. On a national level, Conservative Judaism continues to contract (18 percent) and grow older, with only 11 percent among college-age Jews self-identifying as “Conservative.” Reform remains the largest (35 percent), followed closely by “no denomination” (30 percent).
Not surprisingly, the Orthodox community “scores high” on all sorts of “Jewish identifiers,” as well as on in-marriage, raising children Jewishly, and highest birthrate per family, leading one prominent Jewish sociologist to suggest that within a generation the majority of American Jews who continue to identify as Jews will be Orthodox. For those who recall the anticipated demise of Orthodoxy in America predicted in the 1920s and 1930s, this would be quite a reversal.
Unfortunately, the Pew data does not succeed at locating the population of secular or cultural Jews for whom Jewish religion is meaningless or marginal but for whom Jewish identity is central, Jewish belonging is essential, and “doing Jewish” is core to their self-understanding. Judging from the data, it would seem that the deeply committed, culturally-engaged, ethnically-affirmative, Jewishly literate, and Jewish-values-driven community of secular Jews (including many readers of Jewish Currents) — clearly a statistical minority, even among “Jews of no religion” — embodies a declining or marginal identity choice, especially among younger Jews for whom ethnicity is a declining identifier.
This does not mean the survey overlooked secular identification. A thoughtful sidebar (page 18 of the report) asks, “Who is a Jew?” and notes that the “net Jewish population” for the Pew research team comprises “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion,” with the latter group is described as “people who describe themselves (religiously) as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, but who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and who still consider themselves Jewish in some way.” While this acknowledges that Jewish culture or some form of Jewishness other than religion can be as much or even more of an identifier, there is a wide gap between considering oneself “Jewish in some way” and actively pursuing and living a core secular Jewish identity of primary significance, predicated on Jewish values, identification with Jewish history, and participation in Jewish peoplehood.
“Jews of no religion,” judging from the study, seem primarily to be Jews who have some residual but presumably more passive sense of identity that remains despite having no affiliation with “Jewish religion.” They are not, by and large, affirmative secular Jews for whom Jewish culture, ethnicity and ancestry are central to their self-understanding and the identity they want to transmit to their children. Indeed, the younger such “Jews of no religion” are, the fewer indicators of active Jewish identity seem to be present for them.
This represents a remarkable evolution in American Jewish life. When Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, published his classic Judaism as a Civilization in 1934, he was writing for the children of immigrants, Jews who were striving to acculturate, assimilate and integrate. His paradigm was “living in two civilizations” — that one could be both American and Jewish, with the understanding that “American” would naturally be primary and “Jewish” necessarily secondary. Eight decades later, non-Orthodox Jews, certainly those under 30, have moved from “two civilizations” to multiple identities.
Anxious Jewish pundits often assume that unless someone reports their Jewish identity as “core” (and who defines the meaning of “core”?), she or he is not “as Jewish as . . .” or “Jewish enough.” However, general surveys of “identity,” as well as contemporary academic analysis of the concept, suggest that the idea of “core” identity may itself be in decline. Perhaps another way to look at the Pew data is that at some moments, American Jews manifest their Jewish identity as central (such moments are almost inevitably tied to lifecycle events or family-focused moments like a Passover seder), while at other times that part of their identity recedes. A productive question might be: When does the Jewish part of identity seem central, and how might we maximize such moments and their impact?
Jews, in other words, can be found along a spectrum on which Jewish identity at one end is central and defining, and at the other end marginal and mostly irrelevant. What seems clear is that regardless of where non-Orthodox Jews are on that spectrum, Jewish identity is increasingly diverse, malleable, differentiated by age, and likely to change many times within a lifetime. Young Jews display positive and active Jewish identities, for example, in untraditional, sometimes idiosyncratic, and often innovative and unusual ways. While they may seek communities within which to share Jewishness, and may even abide by the norms that a given community enacts for itself, doing so will be a matter of choice. Individual choice is, indeed, the overriding factor in Jewish identfication, especially among younger Jews.
Previous Jewish population surveys have identified certain criteria as reflecting “core Jewish identity” (fasting on Yom Kippur, attending a seder and celebrating Khanike are the big three). To the degree that Jewish pundits continue to insist on defining what is “essential” and what is “marginal” as markers of Jewish identity, they are likely to be dismayed by the data. Better to look past the data to the stories behind them. As Dr. Bethamie Horowitz noted in a 2000 study called “Connections and Journeys," rather than asking, “How Jewish are you?” a more provocative and potentially productive question today would be “How are you Jewish?” To the degree that we are open to hearing what Jews are saying is essential to them, we are more likely to start thinking about how to maximize opportunities to provide outlets and connections that engage the Jewish identities people are manifesting.
The Pew report focuses primarily on religious identification and consequently does not devote attention to institutions like Jewish community centers, federations, the American Jewish Committee, or the Anti-Defamation League. What it does tell us, however, is that we are well into the post-denominational era of American Jewish life. While those who staff, support and sustain their Jewish identities through the institutions of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism will understandably be dismayed by the demographics, it is hard to avoid the conclusions towards which they point. I am using the term “post-denominational” descriptively and, I hope, dispassionately, something like the way economists use the term “post-industrial” to indicate not an end of industry but its relative displacement to the margins of the economy. That we are well along the way towards a post-denominational American Judaism is not meant as an indictment, lament, or prophecy, but only to suggest that the denominations have done the job denominations were created to do: to help Jews integrate into American society by reframing Judaism and Jewish identity so that both would fit into the wider culture that Jews were eager to embrace.
American Reform Judaism’s initial constituency was the early-arriving, economically advantaged middle- and upper-class German Jews, whose Reform Judaism most closely resembled middle-of-the-road American Protestantism as an adaptive identity strategy. American Conservative Judaism’s initial constituency was the wave of East European immigrants who came next at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, who were coming from communities where ethnicity rather than assimilation dominated, and were starting at the bottom of the economic ladder, at least a generation away from entering the middle class. Their Conservative Judaism naturally most closely resembled the American ethnic churches, including Catholic, where custom, culture and clan were at least as important as doctrine and decorum. With subsequent generations these distinctions diminished, rendering the formerly differentiated denominational structures increasingly marginal.
This understanding of Jewish denominations as primarily sociological structures with a specific functional task runs contrary to the usual understanding that denominations represent philosophies or ideologies meant to provide a coherent program that could bridge “Old World Orthodoxy” and the modern American context. (I leave Reconstructionism aside because its function actually was ideologically driven, ironically so insofar as critics of Kaplan often dismissed him as a “sociologist”!)
With “no denomination,” “just Jewish” and similar descriptions in the Pew study rising in inverse proportion to the age of Jews surveyed, it is interesting to note that one place where the leveling of denominations has yielded creativity and collaboration has been the college campus. The national Hillel organization has been an exemplary model of how to gather all kinds of Jews by focusing on what they share rather than duplicating the denominational structures they may have grown up with. It is noteworthy that the Conservative movement’s college program, Koach, has been de-funded, and the Reform movement’s campus initiative, Kesher, is contracting — yet Jewish life on many college campuses is doing just fine.
In any event, the Pew study suggests that the religious organizations of American Judaism face an adaptive challenge of reframing their missions, redesigning their business models, and reimagining their role. To expect patterns of allegiance to duplicate those of earlier generations runs counter to everything the data is telling us.
The Pew Research Center did not set out to do this study on its own. Leaders of the Forward newspaper suggested and apparently helped secure the funding for such a study. The readers of Jewish Currents may see the irony in the current incarnation of the secular Forverts being the initiator of a study of American Jewish religiosity — and the chief journalistic advocate for responding to the Pew report by reinvigorating American Jewish religion, including its denominational institutions.
At a briefing I attended with the Pew researcher responsible for the study, many of the other Jewish professionals present (who were with one exception male and mostly over 60) challenged the design of the study, the way its questions were framed, and the way the data were analyzed — as if a flaw might be found in the study itself, which would diminish the the importance of the data.
The researcher pointed out that what the Jewish community does with the data is up to the Jewish community. Pew was not prescribing remedies, identifying problems, or assigning blame or praise for failings or accomplishments. Nevertheless, the number of Jewish publications and websites that used a “half-empty-half-full glass” illustration for their obligatory Pew study story suggests that we remain unhelpfully locked into a binary “good-for-the-Jews/bad-for-the-Jews” model.
Certainly, parts of the report’s enormous amount of information point to directions or even conclusions, even if the report’s narrative does not. In many cases, however, the data is ambiguous and can be read in multiple ways. (What does it mean, for example, that 25 percent of intermarried Jews are “raising their children” as “partly Jewish”?) It is therefore simplistic to invoke the “crisis/opportunity” paradigm in response to the Pew report.
There is not a lot to celebrate in the data, by any stretch of the imagination, but as Mordecai Kaplan often noted, we can only work with the community we have, not the one we wish we had. Rather than longing for what was (if indeed it ever was) or lamenting over what is (if indeed we can define that with any precision), perhaps the Jewish community can turn towards innovation and responsiveness that will shape new connections, collaborations, and creativity.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He edited The Reconstructionist from 1996 to 2006 and is the author of A Guide to Jewish Practice: The Journey of Mourning and A Guide to Jewish Practice: Welcoming Children. Hirsh served as chair of the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi from 1998 to 2001 and was the author of its report, The Rabbi-Congregation Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century.