Five years after the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey deepened the concern within the community with a finding that Jews are becoming increasingly unmoored from communal institutions, a flurry of new demographic data from three major cities largely confirms Pew’s revelations — but with some surprises.
Taken together, the data from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington, D.C. area and Pittsburgh — with a total of 700,000 Jews — paint a picture of a Jewish community that is strong in numbers, including intermarried households, but weaker in Jewish engagement.
The Pew study of 2013 is partly to blame for that, according to Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life. He explained that because the study found that 94 percent of American Jews said they were proud to be Jewish — despite also finding that 1-in-5 Jews said they had “no religion” — “it caused some Jewish leaders to become complacent and believe that that assured Jewish continuity.”
But pride in one’s heritage has not translated into a commitment to practice Judaism, “and so the optimism was misplaced,” Bayme said. “I’m very concerned about the rising rates of intermarriage, non-affiliation and non-attachment to Israel, particularly among younger Jews. … Assimilation is taking its toll — the more distant you get from matters Jewish, the more distant you will be from Israel.”
“It’s easy to be Jewish in America today, but that does not guarantee the Jewish future,” he added.
Jack Ukeles, who conducted the San Francisco Bay Area study along with Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said it found that only 21 percent of its 350,000 Jewish residents were “very attached to Israel,” compared with 44 percent of Jews in UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York.
“But the New York rate has probably gone down since because the level of attachment to Israel is getting weaker all over,” he said.
“If asked how people see their own expression of Jewish identity, you would be surprised at some of the answers — like through political activism and social action… Some demographers do not see this as an expression of Jewish identity, but those who are engaged in it absolutely see it as an outgrowth of their Jewish identity.
Danny Grossman, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, agreed, pointing out only half of Jews surveyed said they attend Passover seders, compared with 70 percent nationally, is “probably signaling something about what the future looks like.”
(As late as the 1990s, most surveys found that more than 90 percent of American Jews attended a seder.)
Also troubling is that the intermarriage rate in the Bay Area is 66 percent for those 18 to 34, a figure that includes those in partnership relationships. In New York, the intermarriage rate for those 18 to 34 was 39 percent.
But Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said she fears that these surveys are failing to “catch some of the new things that are happening in the Jewish community because they are not asking the right questions. Asking questions like, ‘Do you light Shabbat candles and do you go to synagogue’ are old ways of measuring Jewish involvement.
“If asked how people see their own expression of Jewish identity, you would be surprised at some of the answers — like through political activism and social action. These are values that we have been teaching children for generations and many people have really internalized them. Some demographers do not see this as an expression of Jewish identity, but those who are engaged in it absolutely see it as an outgrowth of their Jewish identity.”
In addition, Rabbi Sirbu said there is “a great interest in spiritual experiences — people want to connect spiritually but not necessarily in a suburban environment. … For instance, you see programs that are attracting young people to different kinds of Jewish events, such as music-based events and the sharing of experiences rather than sitting in pews. And a lot of younger Jews are interested in more interactive modes of being spiritual. One Table, [which encourages millennials to host Shabbat dinners by subsidizing them], fulfills that need. And for families, there is a group called Makom New York in which the rabbi hosts large Friday night dinners in her Woodbury, L.I., home, which allows people to get to know each other.”
The spiritual leader, Rabbi Debbie Bravo, said she calls what she does “a community,” not a synagogue.
“We do some things in my house and some in other’s houses and in public spaces and in the Bethpage Worship Center,” she said. “We have an innovative Hebrew school program that started three years ago with 22 kids and now has 150. … It’s all about creating community, building relationships, meeting people where they are and helping them to find their Jewish path. We say we want to help people flourish and we want Judaism to be the vehicle to that flourishing.”
Cohen insisted that his surveys have “many different measurements, and if the different forms of Jewish involvement do not result in participation in Jewish holidays, an increase in Jewish friends and more interest in Israel, then what do we have? If the new Judaism does not support the old Judaism, how good is it?”
“If you read between the lines, you will see its (Chabad’s) growing impact.”
Ukeles said the studies have found that the Northeast and Midwest have a “higher measure of Jewish engagement than the communities in the West.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis
University, said he was surprised to see references in the Pittsburgh study to the significance of Chabad because “most community studies have not paid a lot of attention to Chabad and sometimes they are not eager to participate. If you read between the lines, you will see its growing impact.”
He said the study found that although many Jews left Pittsburgh with the closing of the steel mills there, many young Jews are moving back as the city “moves to high-tech and is becoming a significant medical community.” Today, the City of Bridges has a Jewish population of nearly 50,000.
The survey of Metro D.C.’s nearly 300,000 Jews found that while many have been to Israel and follow developments there, few are members of a synagogue and only a fraction say Judaism is part of their lives. On the other hand, there is more program participation and synagogue attendance than membership in synagogues and institutions.
One of its authors, Len Saxe of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, said that consistent with the national average, 60 percent of younger Jews are intermarried. But since the 1980s when the Reform movement began welcoming intermarried Jews and considering their children Jewish if they were raised Jewish, the percentage of children raised as Jews in intermarried families has jumped from about 30 percent to 75 percent in the Washington, D.C. area.
The survey found also, Saxe said, a “huge increase” in the number of Jews in Northern Virginia after the metro system opened stations there, despite the fact that there are “relatively few Jewish institutions there.”
“Washington is a magnet city for Birthright and had the largest percentage of Birthright graduates.”
“Washington is a magnet city for Birthright and had the largest percentage of Birthright graduates,” Saxe pointed out, noting that he has been following 3,000 Jews who had applied for Birthright in 2008-9, most of whom were not accepted because the demand was too great.
“I have been following them to see how the 10-day Birthright experience impacted them,” he said. “We found that the in-marriage rate for men was over 70 percent.”
Cohen said he found that “most Jewish educational intervention works to increase Jewish commitment — overnight Jewish camps, trips to Israel, Hillel and Chabad involvement on campus, young adult communities after college, pre-schools that engage the parents in Jewish friendship circles and in raising their kids with Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The one possible exception is the congregational part-time school. It works only if it promotes teenage Jewish involvement like overnight Jewish summer camps.”
Grossman of the San Francisco Jewish Federation said the survey found that one-third of San Francisco’s 61,000 Jews said they will be leaving in the next two years largely because it is too expensive to live there.
“Knowing this we have to ensure that when they move it will be easy for them to reconnect,” he said. “So we have to promote collaboration between communities, which will make some institutions think how to invest in growth. They need to go where the people are, which is a trend that will probably accelerate.”