Bnai Brith Magazine - Spring 2014

Much Ado About Pew

Uriel Heilman 2014-03-15 04:21:36

When the Pew Research Center released the first comprehensive survey of American Jews in more than a decade last October, the study landed like a boulder in a small pond. Months on, the ripple effect is still palpable— but perhaps not entirely as first seen. The telephone survey of 3,475 Jews nationwide showed that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews were marrying out of the faith. Twenty-two percent of those surveyed described themselves as Jews of no religion, with the number rising to nearly one of every three Jews born after 1980. Among Jews of no religion, two-thirds said they were not raising their children Jewish in any way. Only one-quarter of those surveyed said religion is very important in their lives, compared to 56 percent among Americans generally. Less than one-third of American Jews said they belong to a synagogue, and only 12 percent said they attend synagogue at least once or twice a month. Not since the intermarriage figures reported by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey had the results of a national survey so alarmed the American Jewish establishment. “I don’t have another word other than devastated,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund and a former CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, an adviser to Pew and author of dozens of studies of American Jewish life and behavior, called it a “Jewish population meltdown,” likening its challenges to those posed by climate change. But, then a contrarian wave of commentary began to emerge as journalists, scholars and regular Jews took a closer look at the figures. Yes, there certainly was some bad news in the survey, they said, but there was also much in which to take heart. For one thing, the number of Jews in America appeared to have reached a record high, 6.7 million—far more than the last national study showed in 2001. The number included 4.2 million American adults who reported their religion as Jewish, 1.2 million adults who said they had no religion but were culturally Jewish, and some 1.3 million children being raised as Jews or partly Jewish. The survey did not count as Jews an additional 1.2 million people with no Jewish ancestry who said they considered themselves Jewish for some reason, or the 1.1 million Americans with at least one Jewish parent or who were raised Jewish but do not consider themselves Jews. One out of every five Jews who intermarry are raising their kids as Jews, according to the survey. “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,” Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, wrote in Tablet, the online Jewish magazine. This likely had something to do with one of the most positive figures in the survey: Some 94 percent of Jews surveyed said they were proud to be Jewish. “It wasn’t always this way,” Bethamie Horowitz, a research professor from New York University who directed the 1990 survey, wrote in a column in The Forward newspaper. She noted that Jews once were held in such low esteem that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, described the psychological burden of being Jewish in his 1937 book “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion” this way: “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.” Perhaps the most persistent debunker of Pew pessimism was journalist J.J. Goldberg, a columnist and former editor of The Forward, who attributed negative perceptions to faulty comparisons with the flawed 2000–01 National Jewish Population Survey. When compared to the more reliable 1990 survey, he pointed out, a far more stable picture of American Jewry appeared. For example, the 1990 survey found 20 percent of Jews said they had no religion; the figure in the Pew study was 22 percent. While Pew study’s authors cautioned against direct comparisons with previous studies, Goldberg argued that enough basis for comparison existed to show that the increase in Jews of no religion was far smaller than originally suggested by Pew. “Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative,” Goldberg wrote. “It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.” The criticism has resulted in some rethinking. On Nov. 12, about six weeks after the study was first released, Pew authors Alan Cooperman and Greg Smith published an addendum that recast the intermarriage findings originally seen as alarming as more of a good news/bad news mix. First, the bad news: “The survey shows that the offspring of intermarriages—Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent—are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America,” Cooperman and Smith wrote. “Yet, the survey also suggests that a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are Jewish in adulthood,” they noted. “Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.” A PORTRAIT OF AMERICAN JEWRY The changes underway in the American Jewish community are not taking place in a vacuum; they correlate with similar changes in American society as a whole. A 2012 Pew study found that one in five American adults—and one-third of all Americans under 30—are religiously unaffiliated, up from 15 percent of all adults five years earlier. A 2008 Pew study found that one-third of all American marriages are interfaith and that 28 percent of Americans no longer belong to the religion in which they were raised. While much of the communal discussion of the Pew study focused on what the figures on intermarriage and religious disaffiliation among young people portend for Jewish survival, the trove of other data in the survey help paint a portrait of contemporary American Jewish life. The survey showed that Reform remains the most popular American Jewish religious denomination, with 35 percent of all American Jews. The next biggest group, at 30 percent, is so-called “nones”—Jews of no denomination. Eighteen percent of respondents identified as Conservative, 10 percent identified as Orthodox, and six percent identified with other denominations, such as Renewal or Reconstructionist Judaism. Despite their relatively small number, the Orthodox appear to be the fastest growing denomination, both because of relatively high retention rates among young Orthodox Jews and high birthrates. While Jews have an overall birthrate of 1.9 children—below replacement rate and under the U.S. average of 2.2 children—the Orthodox birthrate is 4.1 kids. Overall, 70 percent of Jews said they participated in a Passover Seder the previous year, 53 percent said they fasted all or some of the previous Yom Kippur, 23 percent said they usually or always light Shabbat candles, and 22 percent said they keep kosher at home. Thirty-one percent of Jews said they belong to a synagogue, 18 percent said they belong to Jewish organizations and 56 percent said they made a donation to a Jewish charity or cause in 2012. Roughly 7 in 10 Jews said they feel attached or very attached to Israel, 43 percent said caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish, and 44 percent said it is important but not essential. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been to Israel. When asked what it means to be Jewish, respondents were given choices. The most popular was remembering the Holocaust, at 73 percent, followed by leading an ethical life at 69 percent. Fifty-six percent cited working for justice and equality, 43 percent said caring about Israel, 42 percent said having a good sense of humor, 19 percent said observing Jewish law and 14 percent said eating Jewish foods. The starkest divide on Jewish engagement appeared when comparing Jews who identify their religion as Jewish to Jews who profess no religion but describe themselves as “culturally Jewish.” Ninety-three percent of the former are raising their kids as Jews or partially Jewish, but only 29 percent of cultural Jews are doing so. Thirty-six percent of married Jews by religion have a non-Jewish spouse, compared to 79 percent of cultural Jews. The gaps between these two groups may be one of the most significant findings of the Pew study. If, as the survey suggests, cultural Jews are far less likely to transmit a Jewish identity to their children than Jews by religion, then the Jewish community faces a formidable challenge because the former are the fastest-growing single group in the community. They now constitute one-third of all Jews under age 30. If current trends hold steady, experts say, American Jewry a generation or two from now will appear far more polarized, with a larger contingent of Orthodox on one end and Jews of no religion on the other, and a diminished middle. And, with less than 29 percent of Jews of no religion raising their kids as Jewish, the offspring of today’s cultural Jews are likely to be tomorrow’s non-Jews. GRASSROOTS CHANGE To most keen observers of American life, the Pew survey provided numeric evidence for trends that have been apparent for quite some time. “I don’t know that the information is shocking, based on the trends of 1990 to 2000 and some of the trends we’ve seen in local community studies,” said Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. The trends are also obvious at the grassroots level of Jewish communal life. Perhaps nowhere is the rise of the “nones” more evident than in synagogue life. Reform and Conservative leaders openly bemoan the dearth of young people in their synagogues, and the number of synagogues in their movements is shrinking. One-quarter of Conservative synagogues have disappeared since the 1980s. The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said two years ago that “80 percent of our movement’s young people are out the door by 12th grade.” When it comes to intermarriage, there’s hardly a Jewish family in America that hasn’t been affected. In many communities where intermarriage has become the norm rather than the exception, the conversation has shifted away from how to thwart intermarriage to how to be as welcoming as possible to non-Jewish partners so that they commit to raising Jewish children. For example, at Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Port Chester, N.Y., interfaith couples receive a public blessing from the rabbi before their wedding—an adaptation of the traditional Shabbat “aufruf” celebration that precedes a Jewish wedding. During bar mitzvahs, non-Jewish parents may participate in the synagogue’s tradition of passing the Torah through the family’s generations on its way from the ark to the bimah. “We feel that since the non-Jewish parent has made a choice to raise their child as Jewish, they should be included in that passing ritual,” said the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Jaymee Alpert. Rabbi Charles Simon, the executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, is organizing seminars on how synagogues can be more inclusive. “Colleagues in communities where they have never allocated any role to a non-Jewish family member at a life-cycle event all of a sudden are asking questions like, ‘Can someone from another religious tradition say the prayer for our country,’” Rabbi Simon said. “It’s happening all over the place. It doesn’t mean that the standards of Conservative Judaism are changing. It means that my colleagues are metaphorically learning they have to broaden their own tents.” In the Reform movement, the same rabbinic body that in 1973 passed a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages recommended in 2012 adapting Jewish rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings. Last year, Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president-elect of Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, said HUC’s rabbinical school is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end its longstanding policy against admitting intermarried students. “Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease. It is not,” Rabbi Jacobs declared at the Reform biennial conference in San Diego in December. Even among the Orthodox, the traditional approach of shunning the intermarried has been dropped in favor of the more welcoming model pioneered by Chabad, the outreach-oriented Hasidic movement. “Many of our rabbis are open to working with intermarried couples and extending hands to them to try to bring the non-Jewish partner into the Jewish fold,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive director of the Rabbinical Council of America, a centrist Orthodox group. Even those who found reason for optimism in the Pew study acknowledge that the community faces a serious challenge getting Jews not just to be proud of their heritage, but to be active Jews. And, everyone appears to have their own answer to the challenge, from Birthright Israel trips to Jewish preschool, overhauling bar mitzvah prep, sending kids to Jewish summer camp, lowering the barriers to synagogue membership, Jewish youth movements like Habonim Dror or creating new communities for young Jews that do not revolve around synagogue life. Backers of these programs cite various studies as evidence of the effectiveness of their approaches. For example, a 2013 study commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation to gauge the effectiveness of a $10 million investment in five Jewish specialty camps found that the new camps had “positively influenced camper attitudes and behaviors about living a Jewish life and broadened their networks of Jewish peers.” A 2012 study by Brandeis professor Leonard Saxe found that Birthright Israel participants are 42 percent more likely than nonparticipants to report feeling “very much” connected to Israel and 45 percent more likely to be married to a Jew. A survey last December of Habonim Dror alumni found that 85 percent had visited Israel more than once and nearly one-fifth held leadership positions in Jewish or Israel-related organizations. “How do we help people understand the beauty and majesty of Jewish life, and how do we put them in a position to help others?” asks Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, which supports programming aimed at young adult Jews. “We’ve known about these issues for a long time, and many of us have been working in our own ways to address them,” Cardin said. “There’s no silver bullet. What’s important is that we all work together.”

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