New Analysis of Pew Data: Children of Intermarriage Increasingly Identify as Jews
And half of Millennials who identify as Jews come from mixed families—a story of retention, not assimilation
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.”
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