Leading voices of U.S. Judaism have expressed despair over a recent survey that found sharply declining interest in the religion among American Jews. The Pew Research Center survey, the most comprehensive study of American Jews in more than a decade, also suggests a new peak in what was already a high rate of interfaith marriage.
Slightly more than one-fifth of those interviewed identified themselves as Jewish by “culture” or “ancestry” and chose “none” when asked their religion. Among those “Jews of no religion,” or about 1.2 million adults, fully two-thirds said they weren’t raising their children as Jews.
Rabbis and community leaders across the country fret that American Jews, except the most Orthodox, are rapidly dissolving into the broader American landscape. Commentary magazine called the Pew study “a portrait of a shrinking community.” The Jewish Week of New York, in an editorial titled “Losing Our Faith,” wondered “whether Judaism can survive long-term in this country without religious belief and practice at its core.”
In fact, after a close examination of the numbers, the new survey shows a population in the midst of a healthy growth spurt, though it seems to have escaped the notice of many rabbis and other Jewish community leaders.
To begin with, consider the raw numbers. Pew found a Jewish population in the U.S. of either 6.3 million or 6.7 million, depending on your definition (specifically, whether you include about 300,000 children being raised as “partly Jewish”). The last widely accepted population estimate, in 1990, was 5.5 million.
As for rising intermarriage, that’s a misreading of the Pew report, which shows that intermarriage has leveled off, after rising steadily from 1970 until about 1995.
Then there’s the alarm over growing numbers of Jews disavowing religion. That’s simply wrong, for two reasons.
First, it’s a statistical error. Pew compared the proportion of “Jews of no religion” in its survey -- 22 percent -- with a parallel figure in the last major survey a decade ago: 7 percent.
Alas, that previous survey, the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, was a multimillion-dollar fiasco. Delayed for two years, it was subjected to two outside commissions of inquiry. One was led by Mark Schulman, who was then the head of the prestigious American Association for Public Opinion Research; his report found the survey to be riddled with dozens of mishaps and methodological missteps.
One error was a Jewish population count of 5.2 million, which led to a panic that Jews were disappearing. Another was a decision not to examine the religious attitudes of persons with “weak Jewish connections.” This led, among other things, to a serious undercount of nonreligious Jews. The final text warned readers repeatedly not to compare its findings with other surveys. Apparently the warning wasn’t repeated often enough.
To get a clearer picture, it’s best to look back another decade to the generally well-regarded 1990 survey. Its 5.5 million Jews included 1.1 million “of no religion.” That’s 20 percent, statistically identical to this year’s figure. In other words, there has been no change.
No less important, religious skepticism is an integral and, to many minds, honored part of modern Judaism. Over the last two centuries, since the Enlightenment, this cast of mind has been the norm, not the exception. Modern Israel was founded by secular Jews rebelling against religious passivity. Today, just 20 percent of Israelis call themselves religious -- by which Israelis mean Orthodox -- and 37 percent say they are moderately traditional. The remaining 42 percent are firmly secular, twice the proportion of American Jews.
Even among the majority of American Jews who told Pew they’re Jewish by religion, only 17 percent said being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, and just 39 percent said they’re certain God exists.
But what about the two-thirds of nonreligious Jews who say they aren’t raising their children as Jews? Doesn’t that point to a looming demographic collapse?
Not likely. The 1990 survey found that close to half of all Jews getting married at the time were marrying non-Jews, and only 28 percent of interfaith couples said they were raising their children as Jews. This led to another panic. Today, a generation later, Pew has caught up with those children, who are now adults. Whatever their parents intended, almost half identify unambiguously as Jews -- about 23 percent by religion and 23 percent without. It seems the ones who were “raised as Jews” became Jews by religion. The rest adopted their parents’ skepticism along with their heritage.
These are the folks we used to call “half-Jews,” though the term has largely fallen out of favor.
What sort of Jews are they? Here’s what we know: They’re more likely to marry non-Jews, and they are less likely to fast on Yom Kippur or donate to Jewish charities than adults with two Jewish parents.
They’re less tribal than two-parent Jews. Inevitably so: The gentiles whom traditional Jews know as “the Other” are the grandparents and cousins of these offspring of mixed marriages. In that and many other ways, they’re changing the nature of American Judaism. That’s the point: Jewish life in America is evolving, not disappearing.
In at least one important way, they’re more Jewish than the two-parent Jews: If Jews are outliers in white America, starkly more liberal and more Democratic than their neighbors, the mixed-heritage Jews and “Jews of no religion” are even more liberal and more Democratic. And no surprise: They are the living evidence that America has accepted and embraced Jews as no society in history has done. They owe their very existence to tolerance and diversity.
At the same time, if the Jewish experience is to be an outsider, the people with mixed parents are outsiders among the outsiders. Jews are never fully at home wherever they call home. The products of two-faith parents aren’t quite at home even among their fellow Jews. They are the paradox of the new Jewish experience in America.
Will their children be Jewish? Who knows? They themselves weren’t supposed to be Jewish, but they are. And they have a choice.
But this good news will never convince the hand-wringers. Every new survey provides new evidence that the end is just around the corner.
In May 1964, Look magazine published a cover story titled “The Vanishing American Jew.” Forty-nine years later, Look has vanished, but the Jews are still here. The children are turning out fine.
(J.J. Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Jewish Daily Forward and the author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.”)
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