The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope

Last year’s survey of American Jews brought dire news—rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations. Our reanalysis confirms the message, and complicates it.

November 2, 2014 | Jack Wertheimer, Steven M. Cohen
About the author: Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His latest book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice their Religion Today, has been issued recently as a paperback. Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

The historic Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York City’s Lower East Side. Flickr/Wasabi Bob.

A year has now elapsed since the Pew Research Center released its “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” based on the first national survey of its kind in over a decade. Conducted by a leading “fact tank,” as Pew describes itself, and based on the responses of over 5,000 individuals identifying themselves as Jews or claiming some other connection, real or imagined, with Jewishness, the report sparked numerous articles summarizing its key findings and commenting on their significance. It also prompted intense discussions within Jewish institutions, from synagogues to Jewish federations and communal agencies.

But as the weeks and months passed, and as few if any new policies emerged to address the Pew findings, the conversation petered out. Today, the study’s major conclusions—on the relentless growth in rates of intermarriage, on the falling birthrates and attenuating affiliations of non-Orthodox Jews, and much more of a distressing nature—seem to have receded far into the background of American Jewish consciousness.

This muted reaction stands in marked contrast to the communal response to the National Jewish Population Study conducted in 1990. In the face of that earlier survey’s disclosure of marked weaknesses in Jewish life, local and national organizations formed task forces to chart new policy directions, including new initiatives in Jewish education of which the founding of Birthright Israel became the best known and among the most positively consequential. Nothing comparable has been put in place since the appearance of the Pew report; nor is there evidence of anything significant on the horizon.

Why the tepid response? For one thing, conventional wisdom in many quarters has it that the report actually offered little news; at worst, long-standing patterns have simply continued to unfold. Some have justified their indifference by noting the report’s limitations: it offers only a snapshot in time, its questions were not designed either to produce or to assess policy outcomes, its categorization of Jews in largely religious terms was questionable, and so forth. A few optimists, seizing on the high number of Americans now claiming to be Jewish in some sense or other, even hailed the report’s demographic statistics as cheering.

Before these essentially dismissive attitudes take permanent hold, a fresh look at the Pew findings is in order. In what follows, we base ourselves primarily on a reanalysis of data gathered by the Pew survey but that did not make their way into its published findings. Our focus is not on the socio-economic mobility, general educational attainments, or other measures of Jewish achievement in America. Rather, we focus on how Jews relate to Judaism, Jewish institutions and causes, and what if anything they are doing to perpetuate Jewish life in the United States. The exercise should tell us a good deal about the American Jewish condition—a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future


1. The Tales American Jews Tell Themselves


Contrary to claims that the Pew report merely substantiates what we have long known, it actually offers powerful evidence to refute some of the most cherished myths of American Jewish life.

Take, for example, the pride Jews take in the strength and exemplary qualities of their family life. In theory, marriage and procreation are high ideals of Judaism, and much has been said and written about the ways in which the family has historically anchored Jews at times of joy and celebration, served as a haven of comfort during times of trouble, and guaranteed the continuity of the Jewish people. Even in our own time, this idea of Jewish family life as an impregnable fortress has remained all but sacrosanct.

In theory, marriage and procreation are high ideals of Judaism. But the fact is that fewer and fewer American Jews are actually getting married and forming families in the first place.

But how can any such idea withstand the plain fact that declining proportions of American Jews are actually getting married and forming families in the first place? At the time of the Pew survey, fewer than a third of non-Orthodox Jewish males and barely two-fifths of Jewish women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine were married. (The smaller, Orthodox population is excluded from our calculations because its overall family patterns are so different.) For those between forty and fifty-four, the marriage rate climbs, but does not exceed 68 percent for men or 58 percent for women. While a small proportion of the unmarried are living with partners, close to a fifth of non-Orthodox American Jews never “couple off” during the conventional child-bearing years.

Perhaps even more startling, about the same proportion of Jews just past the prime childbearing years have never become parents. In other words, not only are today’s younger generations delaying family formation, but increasing proportions are eschewing it altogether. Reasons can be adduced for these patterns (which are not dissimilar to those of secular, urban, and college-educated non-Jews as well), but the point remains: the choices made by a good many Jews hardly support the notion that Jews are paragons of family-mindedness.

A related fable American Jews tell about themselves is how child-oriented they are. Not only are they justly reputed to invest themselves significantly in their children’s education and social advancement at every stage, from pre-school to college and beyond, but this same sharp focus on the child also too often characterizes their relation to Judaism and Jewish institutions. Not surprisingly, Hanukkah candle-lighting and Passover seders, two highly child-centered practices, are the religious rituals most widely observed by American Jews. On the average, weekly Sabbath, it is not the regular service for adults, but a bar- or bat-mitzvah celebration that draws family and friends to the synagogue.

And yet, for all their child-centeredness, many Jews seem either unable to find partners with whom to have children or are not all that interested in having children in the first place. Overall, an analysis of the Pew data indicates a fertility level of about 1.7 children for non-Orthodox Jews, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children. The shrinkage is already visible, having resulted in a drop of nearly one-third in the cohort of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of seventeen as compared with the cohort between the ages of forty and fifty-seven. (Again by contrast, the smaller population of Orthodox Jews, at 4.1 children per couple, has been growing both in absolute and relative terms.)

Presumably, it would be of great communal interest to learn whether anything can be done to reverse the self-defeating fertility rates within so much of the American Jewish populace. But even in the absence of explanations or recommendations, it ought to be clear that what once was the strong suit of the American Jewish community—its family values and its child-centeredness—is now, when it comes to perpetuating that community, one of its greatest weaknesses.


Or take intermarriage, another issue that Pew illuminates more starkly than any previous study. Ever since findings released in 1990 showed dramatically increasing rates of exogamy, there has been much discussion of this issue in communal circles. Traditionalists have been appalled both on religious grounds—Judaism has long prohibited intermarriage—and on pragmatic grounds: it is exceedingly difficult to raise children committed to Jewish life in families with two separate religions. Decades ago, Milton Himmelfarb made the point succinctly when he was asked what the grandchild of an intermarried Jew should be called. “A Christian,” he answered.

But large sectors of the Jewish community have rejected this conclusion as unnecessarily defeatist or wrong. Speaking after the release of the Pew report, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, proclaimed: “being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity.” Several organizations now work to persuade the wider Jewish public that what prevents more intermarried families from joining synagogues and participating in Jewish life is only the Jews’ own failure to be sufficiently “welcoming.”

The Pew findings unequivocally support Himmelfarb’s more hardheaded conclusion. Among those findings: as many as 2,100,000 Americans of some Jewish parentage—overwhelmingly, the offspring of intermarried parents—do not identify themselves as Jews. Our analysis of Pew and other national and local surveys also shows that intermarried families are considerably less likely to join synagogues, contribute to Jewish charities, identify strongly with Israel, observe Jewish religious rituals, or befriend other Jews. Exceptions aside, the large majority of intermarried families are loosely, ambivalently, or not at all connected to Jewish life.

What we know about the adult children of intermarried parents is even less heartening. It is true that among all such adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, as many as 59 percent identify as Jews. For Ted Sasson of Brandeis University, these are grounds for cautious optimism. But until these eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds themselves marry, we can only speculate about their later relation to Jewish life—and on this score, there is little cause for optimism. When children of intermarriage do choose a spouse, reports Pew, 83 percent follow their parents’ model and marry non-Jews. To project even farther into the future, a mere 8 percent of grandchildren of the intermarried are likely to marry Jews.

And how could matters be otherwise, given what intermarried families told Pew about how they raise their children? Among the non-Orthodox population between ages twenty-five and fifty-four, 36 percent of mixed-marrieds are not raising children as Jewish at all, and 44 percent say their children are being raised partly as Jews or as Jewish but with no Jewish religion. That leaves only 20 percent claiming to raise their children exclusively in the Jewish religion. (For comparison’s sake, the equivalent figure for parents in in-married homes is 93 percent.).


In addition to its data on aspects of family life, the Pew report also sheds light on the participation of America’s Jews in group or communal activities. In the 1960s, Fortune magazine rhapsodized in particular over the “the miracle of Jewish giving.” For their part, Jews have historically taken pride not only in their well-documented altruism but in their shared sense of connection with and responsibility for their fellow Jews.

No longer. Fewer than one-third of Pew’s national sample have joined a synagogue or regard belonging to a Jewish community as an essential part of Jewish identity. As for charitable giving to Jewish causes, it is eschewed by over 40 percent of American Jews. Although considerably higher percentages donate to non-sectarian causes, supporting Jewish philanthropy is no longer a given.

Social interactions among American Jews are also on the wane. Fewer than one in three claim mostly Jewish friends, and over one-fifth report none. The most weakly connected of all are in the Sunbelt and West Coast regions that are now attracting Jewish migrants; there, even larger numbers shun connections with other Jews, affiliation with Jewish institutions, or giving to Jewish causes.

This failure of group connectedness is having serious consequences for organized Jewish life. It is no secret that most federations of Jewish philanthropy and other communal institutions are being forced to rely on shrinking numbers of supporters, or that the federation system attracts considerably fewer than half the number of gifts it received just a few decades ago. Correlatively, the membership rolls of Jewish organizations have been greatly reduced, and the programs offered by Jewish institutions draw significantly fewer takers.


To put all of this in generational terms: wherever we look, we find age-related declines in the number of non-Orthodox Jews who are active in Jewish life. Comparing thirty-to-forty-nine-year-olds with those twenty years older, we see about half as many who are members of synagogues or of Jewish organizations, or who donate to any Jewish cause. Roughly similar declines affect the numbers feeling very attached to Israel, or saying that being Jewish is very important to them, or having close friends who are mostly Jewish.

No other major Western Jewish community displays such low levels of Jewish literacy, or sends such a small proportion of its people on trips to Israel.

What does this mean? Not only are there, to begin with, far fewer non-Orthodox Jews in the younger age cohort (about 1.2 million vs. 1.8 million), but the proportion of those younger Jews who are active or committed is itself smaller as well; on every measure of Jewish identity, those between thirty and forty-nine trail substantially behind those between fifty and sixty-nine. This, in turn, leaves those who are still interested and active in Jewish life much less likely to find family members, friends, colleagues, or community members who are similarly involved. The preponderance of so many inactive non-Orthodox Jews in their prime childbearing years cannot but foreshadow further declines in the next generation.

Altogether, as Jewish institutions speak for fewer and fewer constituents, Jewish group life becomes more attenuated, episodic, and impoverished. In this respect as in the others we have described, organized American Jewry lags behind its counterparts in Canada, England, France, Australia, and South Africa. No other major Western Jewish community displays such low levels of Jewish literacy, enrolls so small a proportion of its children in Jewish day schools, or sends such a small proportion of its people on trips to Israel. If Pew tells us anything, it is this: judged by their ability to retain the allegiance of their young, foster a commitment to the group life of Jews at home and abroad, or even meet the elementary needs of survival, American Jews, whatever stories they continue to tell about themselves, no longer constitute a great community.


2. The Exceptions, and What They Tell Us


If the overall picture is of a community weakened and unhealthy, a closer examination yields instructive examples of subgroups that are either positively thriving or doing a relatively good job of supporting communal life and transmitting a strong sense of Jewish connection to the next generation. There is much to be learned from these examples.

First, on the broadest level, Jews who identify themselves with the Jewish religion are far more engaged with all aspects of Jewish life than are Jews lacking such an identification. By “all aspects,” we mean not only such obvious things as synagogue attendance and ritual observance but also connection to Israel, engagement in non-religious Jewish organizations, likelihood of giving to Jewish causes, and forging close friendships with other Jews.

And that is on the broadest level. Even more striking is that the specific religious denomination in which Jews are raised—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or otherwise—carries major implications for the choices they make as adults. Overall, a “denominational gradient” holds true: those raised Orthodox tend to be the most engaged, followed by those raised Conservative, followed by those raised Reform, followed by those raised with no denomination.

Our analysis of the Pew data challenges two commonly held beliefs about the state of denominationalism in Jewish life today. For one thing, the widely touted phenomenon of post- or non-denominationalism—allegedly, the leading edge of a new American Judaism—requires rethinking: on every measure, Jews by religion who were raised in no denomination evince lower levels of Jewish connection than do Jews raised in some denomination.

Jews under the age of fifty who have been raised Conservative exhibit far higher rates of connection than do their Reform counterparts.

For another—and very intriguing—thing, the Pew findings also refute the notion that a convergence is taking place that will erase the differences between, for example, Conservative and Reform Judaism. As we saw above, if we take non-Orthodox Jews as a whole, there has been a striking decline in Jewish activity or commitment among those under the age of fifty. But when we compare specific denominations of the non-Orthodox, we find striking differences in levels of Jewish engagement. In fact, those differences are more pronounced among younger Jews than among their elders.

This pattern is especially evident with regard to the sense of belonging to and of responsibility for the Jewish people; on this measure, Jews under the age of fifty who have been raised Conservative exhibit far higher rates of connection than do their Reform counterparts. Similarly large gaps open between those raised Conservative and those raised Reform when it comes to levels of attachment to Israel, participation in religious life, joining Jewish organizations, and having mostly Jewish friends. The same can be said about rates of intermarriage and about the family decisions made by intermarried parents. Indeed, the variance in intermarriage rates alone is so stark—in the period 2000-2013, 39 percent of Conservative-raised Jews intermarried versus 82 percent of those raised Reform—as to suggest that we are faced with two different sets of attitudes and practices.

These findings must be tempered by the sobering reality that both the Conservative- and the Reform-affiliated populations have been shrinking. The two major movements outside of Orthodoxy are losing market share: only 11 percent of American Jewish adults are members of Conservative synagogues, and only 14 percent are members of Reform temples. Nevertheless, it is blindingly clear that so-called liberal Jews are not all the same. Instead, Jews select and remain in a particular denomination because its ethos conforms to their own self-understanding and style of Jewish living. If anything, that tendency has grown over time.


A second critical axis of differentiation among Jews concerns education. Here the gradient of engagement extends downward from the high of those who have attended day schools for nine or more years, to those with seven years of supplementary schooling plus a Jewish summer-camp experience, to those with progressively fewer years of supplementary schooling, and finally to those who have received no Jewish education and who are correspondingly the least likely to be engaged in Jewish life. (In fact, among non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, nearly half have received either no Jewish education or just six years or less of supplementary schooling. These minimal exposures speak to family priorities.)

The same pattern applies regarding marriage and other indices. If, in the aggregate, more Jewish education means more Jewish engagement, more Jewish education also means higher levels of in-marriage. Similarly, those with more intensive Jewish educational experiences are most likely to be raising their children in the Jewish religion, to feel a sense of responsibility for other Jews, and to participate in religious and synagogue life. In line with these data are findings on the beneficial impact of Jewish summer camps, especially those that combine camping with a strong educational mission, thereby offering an organic experience of Jewish life that reinforces and complements formal Jewish education of any kind.

In brief, the most sustained and immersive forms of Jewish education are associated with the best later outcomes. To imagine otherwise is illusory.


Third: endogamy, all by itself, matters. In the aggregate, individuals who have been raised by two Jewish parents make very different choices from those made by children of intermarried parents. We have already seen the marked tendency of the latter to marry non-Jews in their turn, and the relative unlikelihood of their raising their own children exclusively in the Jewish religion. Similar disparities can be shown on measures of religious participation and connection to the Jewish people, where adults raised by intermarried parents are, at most, only half as likely to be involved in the community as those raised by two Jewish parents; the gaps are even wider when it comes to joining synagogues, friendship with other Jews, and donating to Jewish charities.

The patterns traced by the Pew data, then, reinforce what common sense would tell us: Jewish identification and engagement are strengthened when young people are raised by two Jewish parents, exposed to many intensive Jewish educational experiences, and raised in homes tending toward traditional Judaism. In the aggregate, strong Jewish backgrounds make for later adult involvement.

Employing this general rule of thumb, can one proceed to construct communal policies that might pull American Jewish life back from the brink?


3. Rebuilding for a Better Future


A crucial first step is to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. Whatever may be the number of Americans claiming some measure of Jewish identification, the proportion among them who, though of Jewish parentage, no longer identify themselves as Jews has never been higher. Not only that, but among identified Jews who are non-Orthodox, the levels of disengagement from Jewish life—diminished social connections, shallow practice, attenuated involvements—are unprecedentedly high. If current trends continue, the identified American Jewish populace will consist increasingly of burgeoning communities of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews and unengaged or “partial” Jews.

American Jews now stand on the precipice of a demographic cliff, and the choice before them is simple: either fall off, or turn around.

American Jews now stand on the precipice of a demographic cliff, and the choice before them is simple: either fall off, or turn around. Alas, much of organized Jewish life—which is to say, much of American Jewish leadership—shows no sense of urgency but proceeds as if a few small tweaks will miraculously reverse the destructive patterns eroding secular and non-Orthodox Jewish life. Seeing their roles as cheerleaders, reasoning that donors and volunteers can be recruited only if guaranteed of success, too many leaders cannot bring themselves to admit that American Jewry is in the midst of a deep-seated crisis. They therefore ignore not only the Pew data but, even more damagingly, a raft of other studies in recent decades that, for anyone truly interested in rebuilding American Jewish life, point to a number of ways out of the crisis.

All such studies make evident that the most effective initiatives share three critical features. (1) They create social networks that enhance interactions among Jews centering on matters of Jewish interest. (2) They target individuals in the same stages of life, enabling them to heighten their involvement in Jewish life along with their peers. And (3) they communicate Jewish content by exposing learners to sacred texts and the cultural heritage of the Jewish people.

With those three criteria in mind, let’s turn to the most endangered but also the likeliest candidates for re-engagement, namely, those in the middle: Conservative and Reform Jews who are either in-married or intermarried but still committed to some form of Jewish life. And the most obvious place to begin is with their school-age children, who are still forming their identities. The Pew data underline the significance of both the time and the intensity devoted to early Jewish education. These are the immersion years, in which bedrock Jewish literacy is most easily acquired and the Hebrew language is most quickly assimilated. This makes it all the more tragic that day schools at every level have become largely the preserve of Orthodox Jews, with only small percentages of others choosing an immersive Jewish education for their children.

The challenge, therefore, is to persuade more Jewish parents to enroll their children in strong programs of Jewish education—and to support what those programs are teaching. A properly organized Jewish effort would aim to increase the numbers of such parents and students by investing more philanthropic dollars in order to reduce tuition costs and by fighting for—rather than against—tax credits to offset those costs and stimulate greater philanthropic giving. (In this connection, it has been short-sighted in the extreme for philanthropies to stand idly by as Conservative institutions, especially Solomon Schechter day schools, have faltered; their decline or disappearance has impoverished the wider Jewish community.) Any such concerted effort should also seek to dispel the misconception that these schools cordon children off from participation in American society. The truth is that, in addition to offering a strong Jewish return on investment, most offer a first-rate general education and send their graduates on to elite colleges.

As young Jews enter their teen years, other forms of informal enrichment exist and need to be supported: residential summer camps offering serious Jewish content, Israel trips for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, youth groups. They also provide forms of intensive Jewish engagement for the many young people whose parents are unable, or unwilling, to send them to day schools. These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years. Rather than letting its teens fend for themselves after bar and bat mitzvah, a serious Jewish community would seek to embrace and excite them.

What about the college years? Several studies have shown that organized campus activities generally produce positive outcomes. The energetic growth of Chabad, some haredi groups, and a recent push by the Modern Orthodox movement have expanded opportunities for extracurricular Jewish learning and socializing on campus. But the messages conveyed by these programs do not always appeal to non-Orthodox Jews. Meanwhile, non-Orthodox personnel and models of engagement are rarely present on campuses, where they are greatly needed. Here, then, is another opportunity waiting to be seized.

As for the post-college years, we noted early on how the large majority of non-Orthodox Jews remain single and, if they marry, defer childbearing. Most connect to Jewish life episodically if at all, perhaps attending an occasional social or cultural event or joining their parents on a holiday. At this key period of life, when major decisions are being made, why has the Jewish community neglected to provide them with a rich menu of opportunities to remain involved?

Finally, for those who intermarry, why is there no concerted effort to invite Gentile partners and spouses to convert to Judaism? The differences between intermarried and so-called “conversionary” families are significant, with the latter much likelier to conduct themselves as do families in which both partners have been born Jewish. Conversion-oriented courses and institutes lead to more families that are exclusively committed to Jewish life, with all the attendant positive results—and here is yet another area of wise investment on the part of a community seeking to retain its members and ensure its future.

Beyond all of the initiatives outlined above lies the issue of quality: quality of life, and quality of standards. Jewish communities owe it to their members, especially the well-educated among them, to connect the two. The leaders of these communities need to explain to their members that just as a minimal Jewish education does a disservice to Jewish children, stunting their growth, a continuing immersion in Jewish life and Jewish learning invigorates the mind, nourishes the soul, and inspires the dedication of individuals and communities alike. They need to tell them that just as showing up sporadically at a Jewish event does nothing for a generation patently hungry for connection, more opportunities for Jews at every age level to come together with their peers for purposes of Jewish enrichment hold out the promise of making a transformative difference in their own lives and, through them, the life of their people. They need to tell them that just as intermarriage most often leads to disengagement from Jewish life, the advantages of in-marriage are positively salutary in their effect on Jewish family life and beyond, empowering all to claim their rightful role in the stream of the generations and instilling a healthy pride in a tradition transcending time and place.

At hand within the non-Orthodox sectors of the community—the Jewish middle—are reserves of human material that have gone unappreciated and shamefully underfunded.

Once engaged in content-rich Jewish learning, moreover, Jews of all ages can come to know and to possess a sense of transcendent purpose at once life-giving and defiantly at variance with today’s faddish and often deadening emphasis on self-centered experience. Encountering the accumulated wisdom of a civilization with its own highly developed, deeply principled, and time-tested views on the largest existential and ethical issues faced by human beings, they can come to know and to recapture for themselves the bedrock courage and conviction that have differentiated and sustained both Judaism and the Jews through the ages. Absorbing the facts about contemporary Israel, its stunning achievements in nation-building in the face of a century of hostile threats, they will free themselves of reductionist narratives and take just pride in the epic project of the Jewish people unfolding before their eyes. Replacing atrophied Jewish reflexes with a muscular understanding of what it means to be part of a global and eternal people, they will come to know and to reclaim the truly universal blessing that flows from caring for and seeing to the perpetuation of one’s own.

Such, at least, is our own conviction, and our stubborn hope.

Of course, for any of these initiatives to succeed, it will be necessary to reverse the self-defeating rationalizations that have taken hold in so many Jewish circles of Jewish leadership. A combination of ill-founded optimism, denial, and hopelessness has nurtured the belief that current patterns of Jewish life are acceptable and/or immutable. That belief is false: at hand within the non-Orthodox sectors of the community—what we have described as the Jewish middle—are reserves of human material that have gone unappreciated and shamefully underfunded. Rather than succumb to defeatist counsel, a new idealism is in order, grounded in hard-headed understanding of the parlous condition of American Jewry and the determination to redress it.

In the past, American Jews have mobilized to extend help to their coreligionists facing grave challenges abroad—Israelis in their battles against hostile neighbors, Russian Jews desperate to flee Soviet oppression, beleaguered Jews all over the world in need of rescue and succor. Can they now muster the will and resources to revitalize their own community? The task is immense; the hour is very late. But it is still possible to influence for the good the size, the character, the commitment, and the spirit of American Jewry.