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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

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
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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.

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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.

Pew figures

Left: Figure from the 2012 Pew report Nones” on the Rise, from aggregated data conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, January–July 2012. Right: Figure from the 2013 Pew report A Portrait of Jewish Americans, from data from the Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, Feb. 20–June13, 2013. (Pew Research Center)

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.

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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