Last month, the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project released A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the first major study of the American Jewish population in more than a decade. For the Pew researchers, the big news was an increase in the portion of the population that describes itself as “atheist, agnostic, or having no particular religion”—specifically in the younger generations. They highlighted this finding in the report and press briefings and stressed its similarity to a parallel development in the broader American society. “Americans as a whole—not just Jews—increasingly eschew any religious affiliation,” the authors explained.
The message resonated throughout the national media. “The trend toward secularism is also happening in the American population in general,” Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times, alongside Pew’s table illustrating the generational decline in religious identification among Jews, “with increasing proportions of each generation claiming no religious affiliation.” A few weeks later, the Times published a “Room for Debate” exchange among Jewish and Christian contributors under the headline, “If Jews skip synagogue and Christians skip Church.”
But by filtering the survey’s findings through the prism of general American religious trends, Pew missed a dramatic new development particular to the American Jewish community, one that both explains the increase in the religiously unaffiliated population and suggests a profound challenge for Jewish institutions: the rise of the first generation of American Jews among whom half are adult children of intermarried parents.
By neglecting the role of parental intermarriage, the report contributed to the erroneous impression that young adult Jews had somehow abandoned Jewishness. “Where have the Jews by religion gone?” the Pew report asked. “[M]any have become Jews of no religion.” But Pew’s own data show that the growth of the unaffiliated population 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.
New analyses prepared by the Pew Research Center show how the growing rate of intermarriage in the 1970s and 1980s gave rise to the growing religiously unaffiliated population today. Generously provided following my discussions with the authors of the Jewish population survey, they are published and discussed here, with the permission of the Pew Research Center, for the first time.
On the first page of its introductory overview, the Pew report draws out its key assessment of how American Jewish affiliation is changing across generations:
The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93 percent of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7 percent describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion.”) By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults—the Millennials—68 percent identify as Jews by religion, while 32 percent describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
But looking at the data on intergenerational change separately for respondents with in-married and those with intermarried parents reveals a striking degree of stability in religious identification in each of those groups across generations. Figure 1 reproduces Pew’s data on religious identification, with respondents segregated by whether they had one Jewish parent or two. From the Boomers to the Millennials, the proportion of Jews by religion just about held steady for both adult children of in-married parents (88 to 85 percent) and intermarried parents (47 to 49 percent). When viewed in this fashion, the data show no decrease in the “Jews by religion” share of the population—or, it follows, no increase in the “Jews of no religion” population. The trend reported by Pew must therefore be the result of the changing internal composition of each generation in terms of parental marriage type.
That this is so is evident in Figure 2, which shows the composition of each generation by parental marriage type. The proportion of Jews with intermarried parents increases from older to younger generation, from 6 percent for the Silent generation, to 18 percent for Boomers, to 24 percent for Generation X, to 48 percent for Millennials. (Millennials with in-married parents are also 48 percent of the population; the remaining four percent do not have any Jewish parent.)
What accounts for the increasing proportion of adult children of intermarried parents? The first cause is fairly obvious: The rate of intermarriage, as reported by the Pew survey and other studies, increased steadily from below 20 percent in the 1960s to about 35 percent in the 1970s, and to nearly 50 percent in the 1980s and early 1990s when the Millennials were born. At that rate, the parents of Millennials formed roughly two intermarried couples for every one in-married couple, dramatically increasing the potential number of Jews with intermarried parents in the next generation.
The second driver is evident in Figure 3. From the oldest to the youngest age groups, the propensity of adults with intermarried parents to identify as Jewish steadily increased, from 25 percent in the 65-and-older group, to 37 percent in the 50-64 age group, to 39 percent in the 30-49 group, to 59 percent the 18-29 group. (Among the Jews, the split is fairly even between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion.)
The increasing proportion of Jews of no religion from the older to the younger generation is therefore explained by the increasing rates of intermarriage during the 1970s and 1980s and the increasing tendency of young adults from intermarried backgrounds to identify as Jewish.
Understanding how intermarriage has reshaped the Jewish community clarifies the Pew survey’s core findings on trends in population size, religious observance, and attachment to Israel.
Population Size. Drawing on a variety of sources, Pew estimated the current Jewish population of the United States to be 6.7 million, including 4.2 million Jewish by religion adults, 1.2 million Jewish adults of no religion, and 1.3 million children being raised as Jews or partly as Jews. Pew’s figures are very close to those reported, also in October, by the Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute, which constructed estimates from hundreds of national surveys. The SSRI estimate of a total population of 6.8 million is a bit higher than Pew’s mostly because SSRI included all children belonging to Jewish households rather than only those whose parents indicated were being raised as Jews. (I am affiliated with the SSRI, although not with the demography project.)
The remarkable thing about these figures is how much larger they are than previous estimates, including the well-regarded 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by the Federation movement, which set the Jewish population at 5.5 million. The Pew Research Center’s report alluded to the population increase, albeit obliquely. Drawing on annual surveys conducted by a variety of research outfits, including Gallup and the American National Election Survey, the report shows a “long-term decline” in the Jewish by religion share of the adult population beginning in 1948. However, the report notes—almost as an aside—that “the Jewish share of the adult population appears to have held fairly steady in the past two decades.”
How is it possible that, during a period of massive immigration from Latin America and Asia—and notwithstanding average fertility and the high rate of intermarriage—the Jewish population grew at the same pace as the American population? Some Jewish population growth is due to immigration from the Former Soviet Union and some to the growing Orthodox population—but clearly not all of it. The analysis sketched above suggests that over the past two decades intermarriage did not suppress—and may have contributed modestly to—a Jewish population increase. Indeed, the age distribution reported in the Pew study actually skews young (although not as young as the American population as a whole) suggesting the possibility of further population growth in the years ahead.
Religious Observance. The rapidly increasing proportion of children of intermarriage in the overall Jewish population also clarifies the modest decline in observance from a decade ago. Comparing the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 to the new survey, Pew reports a decline in attendance at a Passover Seder, from 78 percent to 70 percent, and a decline in observance of the Yom Kippur fast, from 60 percent to 53 percent. It is now evident that these declines are not the result of abandonment of Jewish practice by those who had once embraced it (or their children). Rather, the modest declines reflect the increasing proportion of adult children of intermarriage in the younger generations. Notably, the declines would have been steeper had that population identified exclusively or mostly as Jews of no religion (instead, they divided evenly between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion).
Attachment to Israel. Recognizing the growing share of the Jewish population made up of adult children of intermarriage makes the Pew study’s findings about emotional attachment to Israel all the more remarkable. Scholars who more than a decade ago began ringing the alarm bells about “distancing from Israel” identified intermarriage as the leading cause. But notwithstanding a steady increase of the intermarried and the children of intermarriage, the Pew study reported that “emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the last decade.” To be sure, the Jews of no religion (composed mostly of adult children of intermarriage) are much less attached to Israel, and their ranks are growing. The stability of overall attachment to Israel over the past decade (and longer, if we go back to earlier estimates) must therefore mean that Jews by religion became more attached even as their portion of the Jewish population shrank.
The Pew Research Center’s focus on disaffiliation among Jews, rather than on the tendency of children of intermarriage to identify Jewishly, has a direct antecedent in a different Pew study. In October 2012, the Pew Research Center issued “Nones” on the Rise, a report on religious disaffiliation in the American population. What it found was that, between 2007 and 2012, the share of Americans who do not identify with any religion increased from 15 to nearly 20 percent, mostly at the expense of the Protestant denominations. (Catholic affiliation was stable.) Although some religious Protestants apparently dropped out, most of the change resulted from generational turnover.
The “Nones” on the Rise report offered four possible explanations for religious disaffiliation in American society: political backlash in the younger, more politically liberal population to what they perceived to be the mixing of religion and conservative politics; an increasing tendency of young adults to delay marriage and parenthood and the religious commitments that these often entail; broader social disengagement as described in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone; or the long process of secularization that has already reshaped other rich societies with the United States now catching up.
In February, four months following the publication of its report on the “nones,” the Pew research team fielded the survey of the American Jewish population. Headed by Alan Cooperman and Greg Smith, the authors of the just completed study of the rise of the “nones,” the Pew team adopted the same basic approach used in earlier Jewish population surveys conducted by the Federation movement in 1970-1971, 1990, and 2000-2001. To screen for Jews, respondents were asked the Pew Research Center’s standard question about religion: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?” Respondents who answered “Jewish” were classified as “Jewish by religion.” Respondents were next asked whether, “aside from religion,” they consider themselves to be Jewish or partly Jewish, and whether they have a Jewish parent. Respondents who affirmed a Jewish identity and a Jewish parent—and also answered “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular” in response to the religion question—were classified as “Jews of no religion.”
Cooperman and Smith described the Jewish case in terms of the broader American religious trend seen in their previous report. “This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public,” they wrote. “Indeed, the share of the U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22 percent) is similar to the share of religious ‘nones’ in the general public (22 percent), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32 percent of each).” In short, the churches are emptying too, and the Jews are just like everyone else.
The problem with this analysis is that the Jews are not like everyone else. As we have seen, the increase in the population of Jews of no religion derives from the high rate of intermarriage in the 1970s and 1980s and the tendency of children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish. The increase is not a result of backlash against the mixing of religion and conservative politics, delayed marriage and parenting, or any of the other trends identified by Cooperman and Smith as explanations for religious disaffiliation in America. Moreover, it is not the result of a tendency among nonobservant Jews to redefine themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”—a tendency Cooperman and Smith observed in the broader, mostly Protestant American population.
Indeed, according to the Pew findings, Jews by religion are not particularly religious. Just 31 percent describe religion as very important in their lives; 39 percent believe in God with absolute certainty; and 29 percent attend religious services at least once a month. By these measures of religiosity, the Jews by religion look more like the disaffiliated religious nones described in the 2012 Pew report. But respondents that grew up with in-married parents nonetheless identified as Jewish when asked about religion in the same high proportions across the generations. (I suspect that many respondents who answered “Jewish” in response to the religion question would have also liked to indicate “agnostic” or “atheist” but the survey forced a choice.)
Finally, although more weakly tied to religious observance and the Jewish community, the Jews of no religion still look fairly Jewish in terms of their demographic and political profile. They also express pride in their Jewish identities (83 percent) and hardly ever attend non-Jewish worship services (just 11 percent attend yearly or more, compared to 59 percent among the non-Jews of Jewish background).
What do the new analyses tell us about American Jewry’s demographic future? For more than two decades social scientists have tried to predict the future contours of the Jewish community by asking intermarried parents how they are raising their children. NJPS 1990 reported that 28 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children as Jews; NJPS 2000-01 estimated the figure to be 33 percent. Because these figures were well below 50 percent (the demographic threshold for breaking even), the general view was that intermarriage would drive down the Jewish population.
The Pew study offered respondents who were parents a wider range of possible responses. Among respondents with a non-Jewish spouse, 20 percent were raising their children Jewish by religion, 25 percent partly Jewish by religion, 16 percent Jewish not-by-religion, and 37 percent not Jewish.
But the Pew report overlooked much more valuable information than parental intent. For the first time, there is data on how the adult children of intermarriage actually turned out. As we have seen, among the Millennials, 59 percent identify as Jewish, roughly divided between those who say Judaism is their religion and those who say they have no religion but identify as either Jewish or partly Jewish.
Does this mean that American Jewry’s demographic future is secure? Perhaps, but not necessarily. The increasing tendency of the children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish, from the oldest to the youngest cohorts, may be related to stage-of-life. Most of the younger Jews in this category will probably marry non-Jews, and whether in the future they or their children will consider themselves to be Jewish is impossible to predict.
But we can derive some confidence from the failure of previous grim projections. Since the early 1990s, social scientists, making straight line extrapolations from a small number of data points, have warned about demographic decline and the alienation of American Jewry from Israel. Over the next two decades, the Jewish population increased by more than 1 million Jews, keeping pace with population growth in the broader American society, and attachment to Israel remained as strong as ever.
Admittedly, the secret of Jewish survival may be the propensity to panic about our fate. The grim predictions made in the 1990s may have proved wrong because Jewish organizations, federations, and private foundations did what they needed to do to turn the tide. They funded massive new investment in Jewish summer camps, Hillels, Taglit-Birthright Israel, and innovative startups—all programs that reach a fairly wide spectrum of Jewish children and young adults. And they grappled with the challenge of making intermarried families feel welcome in the Jewish community. These efforts may account for the fact that well over half of today’s young adults raised by intermarried parents nonetheless identify as Jewish.
A new round of panic will serve the community well if it addresses the real challenge we face going forward. It is not how to make Judaism relevant to a younger generation that rejects religion—or even how to connect committed secularists to the treasures of Jewish (secular) civilization. These are worthwhile aims, but to the extent they are meant to appeal to Millennial Jews of no religion they will miss the mark. Instead, the challenge is how to engage the growing population of young adults who grew up in intermarried homes. This is a population that feels itself a part of the Jewish world but typically knows little of it. How Jewish organizations address this challenge will determine—more than any inexorable laws of demography—the future character of American Jewry.
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