In my last blog I discussed the results of the Pew Study and the implications of the reported trends for Jews in America and for Conservative Judaism. Recently, a new study published by Dr. Theodore Sasson re-analyzed the data collected by the Pew researchers and drew different conclusions in a few key areas, leading to new insights and different directions for Jewish leadership to take to strengthen the Conservative Movement.
One of the major results of the Pew Study was that 22% of Jews in America identified themselves as having no religion, i.e. they considered themselves to be Jews solely on the basis of culture or ancestry. This is a marked increase from a 2001 study in which 7% of US Jews self-identified as being non-religious. Further, when the data were analyzed by age group, increasing proportions of each generation claimed no religious affiliation, i.e. 7% of those in the Greatest Generation (born 1914-1927), 19% of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), and 32% of Millennials (born after 1980) identified themselves as having no religion. The authors of the Pew Study concluded that young adult Jews were abandoning their Jewishness, and they considered this to be part of a broader trend in American life that impacted all religions -- the movement away from affiliation with organized religious groups.
This past week the “New Analysis of Pew Data” was reported (see here: Tablet Magazine article). The author analyzed the data on intergenerational change by the respondents who were children of two Jewish parents and those who were children of an interfaith marriage. In both categories he found that across generations the proportion of Jews by religion was in fact not decreasing but fairly stable: 85-88% for those with two Jewish parents and 47-49% for those with one Jewish parent. The changing proportions found in the Pew Study were the direct result of the increase in intermarried families as a percentage of the Jewish population from generation to generation. For example, while only 18% of all adult Jews who are Boomers had intermarried parents, 47% of all Millennial adult Jews had intermarried parents. One additional piece of information is that the proportion of children of interfaith families who consider themselves Jewish has steadily increased over time, such that nearly 60% of today’s young adult Jews (18-29 years old) from interfaith families consider themselves Jewish.
Taken together, these data suggest a different explanation for the growing proportion of Jewish adults that are not religious. According to the author, this “is the result of the unexpected tendency of most young adults with intermarried parents to identify as Jewish. Instead of a growing population of young adults raised in Jewish households opting out, there appears to be a trend of young adults raised in non-Jewish or partly Jewish households opting in.” [my underlining]
My reaction to this new article is one of optimism. For those Jews born into a two-Jewish parent family, the data and the analysis in this article clarifies that there is not a growing secularization of the American Judaism community. Certainly, rates of affiliation with institutions are declining and the Conservative Movement in particular has experienced a significant reduction in membership. But our members are not abandoning their religion, they are simply looking for spirituality and/or meaning elsewhere. It’s up to us to find ways to make our synagogues and communities more appealing to them.
The data in this article also show that Jews born into an intermarried family are a significant and growing proportion of the Jewish population. We must not ignore them or make them feel unwelcomed in our religious communities! Regrettably about half of these Jews consider themselves to be non-religious. This presents a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the beauty and meaning that the Jewish religion offers.
As Men’s Club members we all have the ability to work in our synagogues to reach out to Jews from both in-married and intermarried families. We have the ability to share our club’s programs and activities, and we have the ability to work with our synagogue clergy and boards to effect changes in the synagogue culture where that may be necessary to promote welcoming and inclusion.
FJMC provides a wide array of programming to help in accomplishing this. FJMC also has a very successful Keruv (Outreach) initiative to help synagogues reach out to interfaith families. Are you taking advantage of all that we have to offer? What sort of success have you had?
I’d like to hear your stories about how you or your club has helped someone in your congregation find meaning by greater involvement in Jewish (religious) life. I’d also like to hear about your Keruv activities and how they have helped transform your synagogue or have been useful in creating a welcoming environment for interfaith families.