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The Challenges Facing Us

What the latest Pew report, and the muted response to it, actually reveal about the state of the American Jewish community

Jack Wertheimer
January 11, 2022
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

Last May, the Pew Research Center issued a report on “Jewish Americans in 2020” based upon a wide-ranging survey. Anticipating the report’s imminent release, one journalist predicted: “If history is any guide, the results will launch a thousand internal Jewish debates about who is a Jew, who gets to decide, and what’s the future for a diverse, splintered, assimilated, and persistent community of communities.” Yet nothing of the sort has happened, as a simple Google search makes plain: In quantitative terms there are four times as many web entries for the previous national survey of American Jews as compared to the new one. Rather than stimulate debates, “Jewish Americans in 2020” has received only muted attention from communal policymakers.

The commentariat, though, has not been silent about the report, and what it has said is quite remarkable. To read op-eds and listen to Zoom discussions about the meaning of Pew’s findings is to be transported to a never-never land where all is well and even distressing news is magically transformed into something positive. Here are a few examples of the general direction taken by commentators: American Jews overall participate considerably less in all forms of Jewish life than a generation or two ago, but the good news, we are told, is that the youngest adults do engage with a few aspects of Jewish life at roughly the same rates as their elders—meaning there is no cause for concern about a generational decline in Jewish engagement. Or take the condition of non-Orthodox synagogues, which are hemorrhaging members, aging, merging, and closing; all that’s somehow offset, it is said, because cultural Jews enjoy sampling traditional Jewish foods and visiting Jewish websites. As for the rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, we can breathe a sigh of relief because it has not increased since the 2013 study, holding steady at a “mere” 72% for those who wed between 2010 and 2020. The good news, according to some observers, is that nearly three-quarters of American Jews regard “leading an ethical and moral Jewish life” as essential to their Jewishness; never mind that only one-third regard “being part of a Jewish community” as essential. Overall Jewish fertility rates hover only slightly below replacement levels, we are informed; but that is possible only because the small population of Orthodox Jewish families averages three times as many children as the non-Orthodox.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that interpreters of the Pew study are working overtime to make lemonade from lemons. Minimizing or ignoring evidence of internal weakness in Jewish communal life seems to be the preferred response to the study. But is all the upbeat talk helpful if the goal is to strengthen Jewish life and secure the American Jewish future? Or to put it differently, might communal policymakers and funders act with greater wisdom—and possibly reprioritize—if they contended with the serious challenges facing American Jewish life rather than be lulled into complacency with happy talk?

An examination of trend lines may prove clarifying. “Jewish Americans in 2020,” follows on the heels of a survey conducted just seven years earlier, titled “Portrait of Jewish Americans” (2013). A brief comparison of data reported in those two studies may serve as a mirror for the American Jewish community to see its own reflection.

Between 2013 and 2020, according to these two national studies, shrinking proportions of American Jews identified strongly and participated actively in Jewish life. Take the religious sphere: Seder attendance dropped from 70% to 62%; fasting on Yom Kippur was down by 7%. Five percent fewer American Jews claimed to keep a kosher home. And the percentage of Jewish adults who claimed to attend synagogue seldom or never rose from 41% to 52%. Religion was deemed very important by 26% of the adult Jewish population in 2013; seven years later that figure dropped by 5%.

Maybe it’s organized religion that has fallen into disfavor among Jews, just as it has among many different faith communities in America. We know that the “Nones,” those who eschew a religious identification, are on the rise everywhere, especially among younger adults. So, let’s look at other types of Jewish connection. Giving to Jewish causes now is the province of a minority of Jews, having slid from 56% in 2013 to 48% in 2020. Only 42% of Jewish adults consider their Jewishness—no matter how they define it—to be a very important part of their lives, down from 46%. Thirty percent of American Jewish adults claimed to feel very attached to Israel in 2013; seven years later that figure dropped by 5%. Close friendship with other Jews is no longer as common: One-quarter of Jewish adults claimed they have hardly any or no close Jewish friends, an increase of 4%. Even if we remove religious participation from the discussion, Jewish secular, cultural, or what used to be called “peoplehood” engagement is also weaker. Taken together, these figures suggest declining commitment to specifically Jewish causes, distancing from the Jewish state and its people, and the fraying of Jewish social networks so necessary for anchoring Jews to their people.

The same trends are even more pronounced among the youngest Jewish adults. In the 18-29 age group, the percentage who claimed that their Jewishness is not too important or not at all important rose from 22% to 33%. Those stating they have hardly any or no Jewish friends rose from 26% to 35%. Giving to Jewish causes dropped from 39% to 33% over seven years. And in this age group, feeling very or somewhat attached to Israel slid from 60% to 48%. One way these trends have been understood is as artifacts of the respondents’ life stage: Younger Jewish adults are living through a particularly unsettling time in their lives—leaving home for the first time, learning about their interests and strengths, deciding on a career path and possibly seeking mates. Perhaps, then, their Jewish involvements will deepen once they have resolved some of these important matters. One hopes so, but why were those in the 18-29 age group more invested in Jewish life seven years ago?

Some will claim, perhaps, that the new Pew findings were distorted by altered patterns of behavior due to the pandemic, which had begun to rage in the U.S. during the final three months of the survey. Fortunately, we have other studies conducted in local Jewish communities that may serve as a way to test the validity of “Jewish Americans in 2020.” Between 2015 and 2021, a number of Jewish communities of varying sizes and in different regions of the country conducted population studies. Eleven of them had also been surveyed between 10 and 15 years earlier with comparable questions and methods. We can identify trends over time in those communities—including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the Twin Cities, South Palm Beach, and West Palm Beach, locales where a total of one-and-a-half million Jews reside.

Tablet Magazine; original image: Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images

Comparing the community studies conducted in the first decade of the current century with their counterparts in 2015-21, we find the same patterns repeated: declines in Jewish religious observances such as Seder attendance, lighting Shabbat candles, maintaining a kosher home, and attending synagogue at least once a month. The studies also registered shrinking day school, part-time Jewish schooling, and early childhood enrollments. Strong attachment to Israel was down, as was the percentage giving to Jewish causes. Which indicators showed dramatic increases? Rates of intermarriage, the percentage of Jews living in the same household with non-Jews (spouses, partners, or children), and the number of Jews living alone. Denominationally, the Orthodox proportions grew, those who identified as Conservative and Reform declined, and the Nones increased. Notably, the number of Jewish children declined. All these findings are consistent with data in Pew’s “Jewish Americans in 2020.”

Several of the communities where paired studies are available have long and distinguished histories of intense Jewish communal participation. All the more shocking then is evidence of their decline. To take one of the more dramatic examples: The Chicago Jewish community has long enjoyed a reputation as highly cohesive and supportive of the local federation of Jewish philanthropy. But in the latest study, only 11% of households contributed to the federation campaign, compared to 44% just one decade earlier. Overall giving to any Jewish cause slid from 65% to 51%. In Chicagoland, synagogue membership dropped by 10% and belonging to a Jewish organization by 7%. The percentage of Jews feeling very attached to Israel also decreased by 10%.

Or take the Denver Jewish community, which was studied in 2007 and again in 2018-19. Donors to the federation actually increased sharply from 23% to 48% in those years, as did Seder attendance (from 57% to 70%). But in this model Western community, with its strong support from the Rose Community Fund, membership in a synagogue was halved (from 32% to 16%), as was the percentage who attended services at least once a month. The population claiming that being Jewish is very important dropped from 61% to 47%, coupled with a significant drop in those who felt it very important to be part of the local Jewish community. Jews who felt very attached to Israel also declined by 9%.

And then, to cite one more locale, let’s note what happened in Boston between 2005 and 2015. In this community, widely regarded with justification as an intellectual and policy leader, some measures of religious engagement, such as Seder attendance and Hannukah candle-lighting, saw increased participation. But synagogue membership and monthly synagogue service attendance declined significantly. So, too, did identification with any of the non-Orthodox religious denominations. Over 20% fewer people claimed a strong attachment to Israel. And the intermarriage rate for Jewish individuals jumped by 35% in one decade. In Boston and other communities, any modest increase in participation in one sphere of Jewish life was matched by significant declines in several others.

There is ample evidence from local community studies, then, that Pew got it right in its national survey. In fact, where communities engaged in two self-studies separated by 10 or more years, levels of decline were even more pronounced than in the Pew studies.

What are we to make of the downward trajectory tracked by these recent surveys? A popular explanation avers that what we are seeing is not a weakening of Jewish life, but merely a transition to new forms of Jewish identification. Rather than express their Jewishness through religious participation or support for Israel and other peoplehood causes, or socializing with Jews, more Jews now are participating in Jewish cultural activities, such as attending Jewish film festivals, viewing Jewish museum exhibits, eating traditional Jewish foods, reading Jewish-themed books, and visiting websites with Jewish content. Some observers have gone so far as to declare that the present moment represents a veritable renaissance of Jewish cultural life, even as other forms of Jewishness are in decline.

As it happens, findings in the Pew 2020 study cast serious doubt on that theory. By any measure, it’s a stretch to say that cultural activities are replacing religion and peoplehood as vibrant modes of Jewish expression for the vast majority of American Jews. To the contrary, active participation in religious life correlates with Jewish cultural engagement. The reverse is also true: Few who do not partake of religious life participate often in Jewish cultural activities. Overall, nearly half (48%) of American Jews claim they do not engage often in any Jewish cultural activities and only 18% participate often in four or more such cultural activities. This is also true for younger Jews who are less avid consumers of Jewish culture than their elders. (The one notable and understandable exception: participation in online conversations about being Jewish.) Cultural Jewishness is not picking up where religious Judaism is leaving off.

And yet, conventional wisdom dismisses concern about the turn away from religious and Jewish peoplehood connections as mere nostalgia for 20th-century Jewish life. Here’s how the argument goes: Just because religious participation and support for the Jewish people moved Jews in the 20th century that is no reason to fixate on these forms of involvement in the current century. We’re living in a new era and previous ways of doing things are passé. One could note in response that religious expression and responsibility for fellow Jews have a history dating back more than 2,000 years. They hardly were inventions of 20th-century American Jews. The triad at the core of Jewish theology, after all, refers to God, Torah, and Israel. Distancing from the latter two would seem to represent an epic shift away from what Jews have long held sacred.

What we are witnessing is the abandonment by significant portions of the Jewish population of the twin pillars that supported Jewish communal life: adherence to a set of common religious practices and a commitment to care for Jewish needs at home and abroad. Large majorities of Jews used to celebrate a Seder, fast on the Day of Atonement, and attend synagogues at least on the High Holidays. Increasing numbers of Jews today no longer do so. And the desire to belong to a Jewish community, support its institutions, and feel a strong kinship with fellow Jews, especially in Israel, is also waning. Little wonder that unified action seems such a remote possibility in today’s Jewish community.

To aggravate the situation further, new rules concocted by a small fringe of self-styled progressives dictate what may or may not be uttered in public, making it even more difficult to face current challenges. In the name of inclusion, it is now impermissible to speak of declining fertility rates, spiraling intermarriage numbers, plummeting levels of Jewish literacy, and increasing assimilation. Public discussions of these developments must be banished from communal discourse, some contend, because they may cause offense to individuals who will take personal umbrage. Whether by design or happenstance, this campaign has further stifled serious policy debates about how to confront the realities of American Jewish life.

And yet staring us in the face are Pew’s own data, which tell us that the expanding sector of the Nones plays a major role in declining participation. And who are the Jews of no religion? As the historian Jonathan Sarna points out, nearly 80% of the Nones—a group constituting roughly one-third of the American Jewish community—are married to a non-Jewish spouse. “The chasms illuminated by the Pew survey between religious Jews and nonreligious ones, and between Jews who have married within their faith and those who have not, increasingly divide Jews once brought together by a common set of beliefs,” Sarna writes. True, a small minority of the Nones do engage in Jewish rituals and support Jewish causes. And yes, a minority of intermarried families is working tenaciously to raise its children as Jews. Of course, those families should be welcomed and encouraged. And according to the Pew data, they overwhelmingly do feel welcome. But large majorities in both groups (and they overlap heavily) are disengaged and by their own admission do not want to participate in Jewish life.

A question in the latest Pew study perhaps best captures the challenge facing American Jewry today: When asked how important it is that their current or future grandchildren will be Jewish, 45% of Jews by religion answered very important, compared to merely 4% of the Nones. Notably, among the intermarried who constitute nearly three-quarters of recently marrying non-Orthodox Jews, just 12% say it’s very important that their grandchildren identify as Jews. The question probes how committed the respondent is to the Jewish future. If only minorities of American Jews—and hardly any of those among the fast-growing Nones—are invested in ensuring the Jewish future in their own families, how can we continue to pretend that American Jewish life is sound?

Some communal leaders believe that highlighting these symptoms of weakening Jewish commitments is the last thing we should do if the goal is to revitalize American Jewish life. Those who care, they contend, will find the news demoralizing. Besides, why would philanthropists want to invest their resources in a floundering enterprise? They are looking for winners, not losers. Better to emphasize the positive.

Curiously, the same people undoubtedly would reject this mindset when it comes to worrisome findings not directly connected to Jewish life. Imagine how they would have reacted if physicians in the closing decades of the 20th century had decided to minimize undeniable evidence linking cigarette smoking to health hazards. Or if more recently, scientists had downplayed the baneful consequences of climate change. Would Jewish policymakers or any thinking people tolerate such an ostrichlike approach or would they demand honest reporting about impending threats? To ask the question is to answer it: Sounding a tocsin to warn of a crisis is both the responsible course of action and most efficacious means to rally forces to confront challenges.

Tablet Magazine; original photo: Chaim Zvi via Flickr

A very different calculus motivates another sector of policymakers who also are not interested in broadcasting unpalatable news. “What’s the point?” some ask. Large swaths of American Jews are on their way out of Jewish life. They may identify vaguely as being Jewish but do little to act upon their Jewishness. Their departure from the Jewish scene is inevitable. Ignore them and let’s focus instead on the hardiest sector of the Jewish population. As one op-ed headline advised, “Forget ‘Outreach.’ Pew 2020 tells us we should be investing in the Orthodox.” That’s where, some are convinced, the only realistic future of American Jewish life is to be found.

Survey data surely have detailed the strength of Orthodox Jews—their strong commitments to Jewish living, study of Jewish sacred texts, family formation, and raising well-educated Jews deeply knowledgeable about their religious tradition. Yet it’s precisely within the Orthodox camp that we find the most active outreach efforts aimed at helping all kinds of Jews find their way to heightened Jewish engagement. Based on the principle that no Jew should be written off, that every Jew contains a spark that, if properly ignited, will transform into passion for Jewishness, thousands of Orthodox Jews devote their lives to outreach. Their dedication is the best response to those eager to write off everyone who is not Orthodox.

So, too, are the multiplying efforts by long-established Jewish institutions and recent startups to reach Jews who are only minimally involved or not at all participating. Birthright Israel, which sends college students and those somewhat older on 10-day free trips to Israel, has a 20-year history of turning that experience into a springboard for many participants to become more actively involved in Jewish activities when they return home. New types of study programs are exposing Jews to sacred Jewish texts for the first time. The largest so-called “legacy” organizations have divisions dedicated to involving younger Jews in efforts to combat antisemitism, learning how to allocate Jewish communal grants and organizing events in support of Israel. To their great credit, highly creative and thoughtful members of the Gen X, Millennial, and, most recently, Gen Z cohorts are working to entice their age peers to participate in religious activities (often held in unconventional settings), social programs and cultural exploration. Previously uninvolved Jews are participating, often for the first time. The problem is that those who do attend are dwarfed numerically by the many who remain aloof.

What, then, is to be done? A good place to begin is by jettisoning the odd notion that individuals lacking Jewish literacy are likely to become active participants in Jewish religious and communal life. Perhaps, some instinctual sense of belonging drove an earlier generation of poorly educated Jews to join, but that is no longer true in most cases. By their own admission in 2020, 36% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 conceded that what keeps them away from synagogue services is their belief that they “don’t know enough to participate.” We can only speculate about the numbers who are uninvolved in other Jewish activities for the same reason. Large numbers of Jews stay away from Jewish settings because they lack basic Jewish literacy and skills.

In contrast to this downbeat message, a vast trove of research about the impact of high-quality Jewish education provides an upbeat lesson. Exposure to a combination of Jewish day school education, overnight camps with Jewish content, youth group involvement, and Israel travel produces adults who are the most likely to become active participants, if not leaders, in their Jewish communities. When young children are enrolled in Jewish early childhood programs and day camps, they enter portals leading to other forms of Jewish education. Studies also suggest positive effects of part-time Jewish education when combined with informal Jewish education. Though recent initiatives aim to widen the pool of young people receiving a Jewish education, those opportunities are not available for large numbers of young Jews. Those who care about the Jewish future have a responsibility to ensure the availability of a serious Jewish education for every Jewish child.

The latest Pew study also makes abundantly clear that inquiring how Jews feel about being Jewish is far less illuminating than asking them what they actively do to demonstrate their identification. American Jewish life will become stronger when people enact their Jewishness by showing up in places where Jews gather, by attending, joining, giving, and volunteering. In the private sphere, families “do” Jewish when they introduce home rituals, celebrate Jewish holidays, discuss Jewish topics, and model for young people that their elders—parents, grandparents, and other family members—regard being Jewish as important and valuable. For good reason, Jewish tradition has long promoted deeds, fulfilling commandments (mitzvot), as the way Jews enact their commitments.

The new Pew study also poses an urgent challenge to Jewish leaders and communal funders: Will they confront the findings in a sustained and honest fashion? Judging by the soothing messaging about these reports emanating from communal institutions, this self-evident requirement is not being met. As a federation executive put it to me: “How we spin [findings] publicly seems analogous to a political party unwilling to criticize its constituencies, both because it would be self-defeating and is a reflection on itself.” But how else can self-correction come about if failings and their causes are ignored? Jewish philanthropy and communal funding flow to a broad range of causes. Surely, the data we have at our disposal point to the need for a through-going assessment of communal priorities.

Undoubtedly, such a reevaluation will elicit different recommendations. And the many disparate views, in turn, may well paralyze policymakers. Difficult conversations are inevitable because competing Jewish values will clash. Which needs are most deserving of priority at this juncture—involving Gen Z and millennials or caring for the elderly, support for nonsectarian causes or a sharper focus on Jewish needs, funding for Israel or for domestic Jewish programs, more investment in combatting antisemitism or educating Jewish children, intensifying the involvement of those already somewhat engaged or reaching out to the least engaged? Moreover, assumptions about what is necessary for Jewish life to thrive are in urgent need of rethinking. It’s time for the anodyne response to the latest Pew study to be replaced by serious reflection and action. Let the “thousands of internal Jewish debates,” predicted before “American Jews in 2020” appeared, begin at last.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary and co-author of the recently published Inside Jewish Day Schools: Leadership, Learning and Community.