The results are in on American Jewish identity, and they tell us what we should have sensed by now: that particularly among the young, an increasing number are moving away from formal expressions of Judaism, marrying out, and not raising children as Jews.
The survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, the most extensive exploration of American Jews since the 2001 report from the now-defunct National Jewish Population Survey, finds that the percentage of Jews who place themselves in the “no religion” category has more than tripled, from 7 percent in 2001 to 22 percent today. And the intermarriage rate of non-Orthodox Jews is a whopping 71 percent. In addition, the fertility rate for non-Orthodox Jews is 1.7, a good bit under the break-even statistic of 2.1. (The Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of the Jewish population, are holding strong, with strengthened identity among the young.)
As sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who was a consultant on the Pew study, noted: “The demographic vital signs of non-Orthodox Jewry are not very healthy. We are culturally productive and demographically challenged.”
It is clear that the American Jewish identity is shifting, in keeping with American religious identity in general, away from religious practice and organizational affiliation and toward marrying later and having fewer children.
The question today is what, if anything, will our community do about this trend?
There are those who emphasize that American Jews remain fiercely positive about their Jewish identity, feel an emotional attachment to Israel, and express their Judaism through social justice, ethical values and remembrance of the Holocaust.
Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and author of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” told The Jewish Week, about a survey earlier this year showing that while older Jews use philanthropy primarily for preventative purposes — “intermarriage, the destruction of Israel, the dilution of Jewish genes” — wealthy young Jews who have discovered or rediscovered Judaism think of the religion “less as a thing to protect than a process. It’s more about the future. So they’ll steer clear of institutions that seem to be about real estate or barricades.”
But reports like the Pew survey, which in many ways reinforces the findings of last year’s New York Jewish Population Study, not only speak to a changing Jewish identity but to the question of whether Judaism can survive long-term in this country without religious belief and practice at its core.
Steven Cohen notes that communal leaders “have lost faith in their ability to affect the in-marriage rate … and believe, wrongly, that speaking positively about in-marriage offends people who are intermarried.”
He disagrees, and calls for letting it be known that “intermarriage is a major challenge to Jewish continuity” and that Jewish education and building Jewish social networks — that is, giving Jews more opportunities to make Jewish friends — are highly effective, and should be emphasized and increased.
The choice, in the end, is ours. We can define-down what it means to be Jewish, with the growing emphasis on ancestry and culture, or we can build on those cultural ties while striving for a revival of the traditions and values that have allowed our heritage to survive since the days of the Bible.