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
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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