Navigate to News section

The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling!

A reanalysis of last year’s important Pew Study contradicts persistent alarmism about ‘vanishing’ American Jewry

Leonard Saxe
December 03, 2014
(Tablet Magazine)
(Tablet Magazine)

Fifty years ago, Look magazine—the second most widely circulated magazine in America at the time—featured a cover story, “The Vanishing American Jew.” The headline screamed “[n]ew studies reveal loss of Jewish identity, soaring rate of intermarriage,” and readers were told “Judaism may be losing 70 percent of children born to mixed couples.” The now iconic title and headlines notwithstanding, buried in the story was that membership in Jewish congregations and enrollment in Jewish religious schools had reached record levels. But the narrative was unequivocally bleak. A half century later, dire forecasts are again front and center. The release last year of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans has unleashed a tsunami of doom and gloom punditry. With headlines that could have been cut and pasted from “The Vanishing American Jew,” shrill warnings about the dangers of intermarriage and the decline of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism have given rise to a refreshed narrative of a dismal Jewish future. But it is a distorted story.

Ironically, Look magazine folded less than 10 years after “The Vanishing American Jew” appeared. In contrast, the Jewish population has grown and today is expanding at a rate that matches growth in the overall American population. There are now more than 7 million Americans who have Jewish parentage or who converted to Judaism and identify as Jewish. Moreover, the expansion of the Jewish population has been accompanied, particularly over the past 25 years, by substantial growth in the number of Jews who are engaged in Jewish religious life and/or have visited and are involved with Israel.

The size and vibrancy of the community notwithstanding, concerns are not baseless. As much as the Jewish population has grown, it should have grown significantly larger. The losses in population have been replaced, in part, by immigration; even so, American Jews are a declining share of the overall U.S. population. The Pew data suggest that there are at least 3 million individuals of “Jewish background” who no longer identify as Jews and/or are children being raised by individuals who no longer identify as Jews. If one or two generations ago, the Jewish community had retained all those born as Jews and those individuals had gone on to raise Jewish children, the Jewish population would now stand at more than 12 million. The rejection of Jewish heritage by large numbers should motivate us to understand why Judaism has lost meaning for so many. In addition, the data make clear that there is pervasive Jewish illiteracy, even among those who identify as Jews.

But losses in numbers, alongside the need for greater literacy, should not obscure the fact that most Jews are continuing to identify as such and many others seek to join the ranks of the Jewish people. At the center of discourse about the state American Jewry is intermarriage. Seen by some as the central threat to Jewish continuity, intermarriage has fueled hysteria about the Jewish future. But we may be at a moment in time when intermarriage, while a challenge, is actually promoting the expansion and renewal of American Jewry. How this will evolve is not primarily a function of demography, but of the community’s response.

The present counter-narrative addresses some of the alarmist fears about the Jewish future and provides a perspective based on available socio-demographic data about how Jewish continuity can be maintained. The picture of American Jewry presented here is both more complex and optimistic than conventional wisdom. The data for this sketch are drawn from the Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, as viewed through a reanalysis conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University (SSRI). It is an attempt to apply objective criteria to understand the state of the American Jewish population. The findings make clear that American Jewry is expanding. Although the population increase is proportionally larger for those who identify in non-religious ways, the numbers who identify by religion and engage in religious behavior have also substantially increased. The overall narrative is one of growth, not decline.

Are there really 7 million U.S. Jews?

How reliable are current population estimates, and do they matter? The size of the U.S. Jewish population is certainly not the most important descriptor of the community, but it provides a benchmark for assessing needs and trends. As well, for a community traumatized and decimated by the Holocaust, growth or decline in the population has symbolic meaning over and above its utility in aiding communal planning. Pew’s 2013 estimate of 6.7 million adults and children, although treated by some as a new finding, corroborates prior estimates. Pew confirmed our SSRI estimates, which are based on syntheses of hundreds of surveys that include information about religious identity, as well as estimates derived from studies of local Jewish communities (conducted by Arnold Dashefsky and Ira Sheskin).

The Pew Center’s survey was simultaneously state-of-the-art and, like any research endeavor, imperfect. It was a telephone survey that employed a sophisticated sampling design including both landline and cell phone frames. Nearly 70,000 individuals were screened in order to identify slightly more than 3,000 Jewish respondents. The overall response rate was 16 percent, better than many current surveys, but significantly lower than past norms. Despite these limitations, on the measure that is most directly comparable, the number of adults who identify as Jews by religion, Pew’s estimate closely matches SSRI’s synthesis.

Furthermore, a detailed reassessment of Pew’s classification procedures indicates that they got the basic story correct. The reassessment identified incorrect classifications, but to the extent there were errors, Pew underestimated the size of the population and overall level of Jewish engagement. The key problem with Pew’s classification of Jews is that they only used answers to closed-ended questions, and they ignored respondents’ comments as well as whether the respondent had converted. The most significant resulting errors had to do with persons of Jewish background (i.e., individuals born to Jewish parents and raised as Jews) not being counted as Jewish because they claimed their religion was something other than Jewish or “atheist, agnostic, or nothing at all” even though the other responses indicated no affiliation with another religion, such as spiritual, secular, not practicing, or generalized expressions of belief in God. There were also cases of individuals classified as Jews incorrectly; for example, because they were married to a Jew, although they had not converted.

If respondents’ comments are used, the total estimated 2013 Jewish population increases to 6.9 million, of whom 5.5 million are adults and 1.4 million are children. Our most recent data indicate that the U.S. Jewish population continues to grow and is now more than 7 million individuals. That compares to 5.5 million Jews estimated by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), the most comparable data from a prior study. In less than 25 years the Jewish population has increased by nearly 30 percent. Whether or not growth will continue—the focus of a recent essay by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer—is unclear, but it is unequivocal that present-day American Jewry is not in decline.

(Tablet Magazine, Brandeis University, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies)

Who are Pew’s Jews?

The Pew study identified two broad categories of adult Jews: those who identify as “Jewish by religion” (JBR) and those who are atheist, agnostic, or no religion but consider themselves to be all or partly Jewish (“Jewish not by religion” [JNR]). To be counted as an adult JBR or JNR, the individual had to indicate that their religion is Jewish or they consider themselves to be Jewish, and that they either have Jewish parentage (mother, father, or both), or their childhood religion was Jewish, or they considered they had been raised Jewish for any reason whatsoever. For children (under 18 years of age), the estimate was developed by asking parents how they were raising their progeny: The child was counted as Jewish if he or she was being raised fully or partly as a Jew, by religion or otherwise.

There were additional categories, most important being “Jewish background” (JB), but these individuals were classified as non-Jewish. JB was the designation for individuals of Jewish parentage or background who identified with another religion, in some cases even if they also considered themselves Jewish. Pew’s classification system is relatively conservative and excludes some individuals who are halakhically Jewish. For purposes of SSRI’s reanalysis, we retained Pew’s criteria but used all available data from the survey. Our resulting estimate of the number of adult JBRs compared to Pew’s is reduced slightly (to 4.1 million) and the number of JNRs is increased to 1.4 million. In addition, we estimate that there are 1.4 million children (out of 1.8 million children in Jewish households).

Are JNRs truly Jewish?

A second source of confusion and the focus of debate concerns the nature of JNRs’ Jewish identity. “Secular Jews” is one characterization, although that description is inadequate and fails to distinguish them from many JBRs who, when asked about denominational identification, indicate “secular” or “just Jewish.” Note that JNRs, in the way that Pew defines them, have always been counted as part of the Jewish population, but understanding them has become more important because they now constitute nearly 25 percent of the total Jewish population. This number represents a 70 percent increase since the 1990 NJPS. JBRs have increased as well (by 17 percent), but this increase is obscured by the tremendous growth of the JNR population.

The dramatic growth in the JNR population reflects a shift, but part of the change is simply in how individuals express their identity. There have always been a substantial number of Jews who identify culturally and do not participate in religious Judaism. The Pew findings suggest that it may now be more socially acceptable to express identity in this way. But there is substantial variation within the group— including those who are fully Jewish and those who are partly Jewish, as well as those who are engaged in Jewish life (e.g., are synagogue members or involved culturally) and those who are not. As has been pointed out by Cohen and Wertheimer, JNRs as a group—compared to JBRs—have weaker Jewish educational backgrounds, are more likely to have come from intermarried homes, and are less engaged in the Jewish community. But the exceptions are important and illustrate the problem of using statistical averages to describe a population.

Consider the example of a very public and influential contemporary Jew, Michael Steinhardt. Over the last 20 years, Steinhardt has emerged as one of the Jewish community’s most important philanthropic voices, investing much of his wealth in the Jewish community and initiating dozens of transformative initiatives. Steinhardt was not interviewed by Pew, but if he had been, he would have declared himself an atheist who considers himself a proud Jew. In Pewspeak, he is a JNR. Like many others, his way of being Jewish, despite his irreligious stance, reflects his understanding and commitment to Jewish values.

Some JNRs—less than 20 percent of the total number—consider themselves only partly Jewish. In some cases, this reflects their knowledge that some parts of the Jewish community do not consider them “full Jews” without a Jewish mother. In other cases, the “partly” designation reflects their distance from knowledge and practices of Judaism, despite a familial link. In fact, nearly one-third of JNRs have two Jewish parents but still consider themselves only “partly” Jewish. The numbers of these individuals are, however, small; even if excluded, they would not dramatically alter the overall estimate. Interestingly, if the data were to be analyzed using halakhic rather than sociological criteria, more individuals would likely be added than dropped. Although doing so would exclude some partly Jewish JNRs along with children of non-Jewish mothers, such an analysis would result in the reclassification of many individuals who, despite having Jewish mothers, do not consider themselves Jewish or engage in other religious practices such as Buddhism.

How many Jewish children? SSRI’s reanalysis of Pew indicates that there are slightly more Jewish children than initially estimated by Pew. But, if anything, Pew’s numbers underestimate the size of the child population. Pew’s criterion for identifying a Jewish child was that the adult respondent indicated that the child was being raised as a Jew. Pew included in the Jewish population those children being raised solely by Judaism as a religion, without religion but only as Jewish, or being raised Jewish and another religion. They excluded children, even of two Jewish parents, whom the parents reported were not being raised Jewish. At the same time, some children being raised Jewish by religion, by JB parents were not included.

Of 1.4 million Jewish children identified in SSRI’s reanalysis, the largest segment of the population are 925,000 children being raised by religion as Jews; in addition, 92,000 are being raised without religion as Jews; also, 361,000 are being raised Jewish and another religion. What this last designation meant to parents is not clear, although the assumption is that these children are being exposed to both parents’ religious traditions. Note also that among the 400,000 children not considered by Pew to be Jewish, most are halakhically Jewish (i.e., have Jewish mothers) and would be accepted as Jews throughout the Jewish community.

How Jewish are Pew’s Jews?

It is possible that population statistics reflecting growth in the community obscure weakening Jewish commitments and suggest a fundamental shift in what it means to be Jewish. A close examination of Pew’s data about the attitudes and practices of their Jewish respondents suggests two parallel narratives. The first is that both the level of engagement in traditional Jewish activities and the number of people who engage in Jewish religious life has increased. At the same time, there are many more Jews uninvolved in Jewish religious or even cultural life. The two developments—an increase in the number of Jewish engaging in traditional Jewish behaviors, along with a parallel increase in the number of non-engaged—are not incompatible, but they may be confusing.

Comparing 1990 levels of Jewish engagement with those found in 2013, perhaps the most surprising finding is that there has been a substantial increase in the number of synagogue-affiliated households. Jewish households with a synagogue member have grown from 842,000 (NJPS 1990) to nearly 1.1 million according to Pew. When one includes both JBRs and JNRs, the rate of synagogue affiliation—around one-third of the population—is essentially unchanged, but because the population is significantly larger, the result is a nearly 30 percent increase in the number of affiliated Jews. Although many synagogues have experienced substantial loss of membership (in particular, those affiliated with the Conservative movement), the landscape of worship communities has been altered, with minyanim and chavurot becoming increasingly important.

Other comparisons of data from NJPS 1990 and Pew validate the conclusion that more individuals are engaging in religious Judaism and Jewish life, more generally. Again, in comparison to NJPS 1990 data, synagogue attendance and fasting on Yom Kippur show increases at least as great as those for synagogue membership. As well, there is an increase in the extent to which being Jewish is regarded as important in respondents’ lives. Nearly half of Pew’s Jewish respondents (both JBRs and JNRs), corresponding to 2.5 million Jewish adults, said that being Jewish is “very important.”

Along with Jewish religious practices and attitudes about being Jewish, attachment to Israel is another indicator of Jewish commitment. So-called “distancing from Israel” has been described as rampant, but the Pew data with respect to Israel highlight striking and positive changes. A direct comparison between Pew and NJPS 1990 is not possible (because questions about Israel were slightly different), but a comparison of JBRs interviewed by NJPS 2000-01 and Pew 2013 respondents shows a dramatic increase in the number of adults who say that they are “somewhat” or “very” attached to Israel (from 2.2 to 3.1 million). The 40 percent increase in number of adults who are “attached to Israel” is paralleled by a modest increase in the proportion of JBRs who are attached (from 71 percent to 76 percent). The results should not be surprising: There has been more than a dramatic shift in the proportion of JBRs who have been to Israel over the last 25 years, and almost 50 percent of the current JBR population has been in Israel.

What about intermarriage?

At the heart of foreboding about the Jewish future is the rate of intermarriage. The assimilation narrative rests on assumptions not only about population trends, but also about the demographic effects of intermarriage. Our reanalysis of the Pew data, however, suggests that such effects are dynamic. Particularly for the millennial generation (those born after 1980) intermarriage has manifested itself differently than for earlier generations of American Jews. Yes, as has been repeatedly noted, the rate of intermarriage increased from about one-third in the 1970s to more than half in the 1990s. As a result, during the period in which parents of millennials were married, roughly two intermarried households were formed for every inmarried household.

But the intermarriage rate does not directly affect the future shape of the Jewish population; rather, the key determinant is whether children raised in those households will be Jewish. This is especially important given their potential impact: Whereas 19 percent of Baby Boomers and 25 percent of the next generation (Gen Xers) are adult children of intermarriage, the proportion rises to 50 percent among millennials. Perhaps surprisingly, Pew’s data indicate a dramatic shift in the number of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jewish. Although in earlier generations only a minority of children of intermarried parents identified as Jews (c. 40 percent), Pew’s data indicate that a substantial majority of millennials (c. 60 percent) raised in intermarried households identify as Jewish, and this is one explanation for population growth.

What accounts for the increase in Jewish identification of Jewish millennials? Is it, perhaps, identification “in name only”? The evidence suggests it is not. Millennial children of intermarriage—regardless of their Jewish self-identification—are more likely than older counterparts to have a Jewish religious background. They are more likely to have been raised Jewish or partially Jewish by religion, to have been exposed to Jewish education, and to have celebrated a bar/bat mitzvah. As adults, they are more likely than their older counterparts to be religiously engaged.

The increasing tendency of children of intermarriage to have had at least some Jewish education and to identify Jewishly in young adulthood likely reflects several developments. One is that as the rate of intermarriage increased, Jewish partners in interfaith marriages increasingly came from the ranks of the more highly affiliated and connected segments of the population. At the same time, concern about intermarriage led to new thinking and investments in Jewish education.

Nonetheless, while millennial-generation children of intermarriage are more likely than earlier generations to identify as Jewish and have had Jewish education, there is a substantial gap in the Jewish identity of children of intermarried and inmarried parents. Nearly all millennial children of inmarried parents identify as Jewish, whereas only 60 percent of children of intermarried parents identify Jewishly. Moreover, millennial children of intermarriage who are Jewish are more likely to identify as Jews of no religion (and to be less involved in Jewish life) than other millennials who are the children of inmarried parents. These findings support the fears of some about the negative impact of intermarriage and its potential to dilute the Jewish identity of the next generation of American Jews.

The potential problem is exacerbated by the arithmetic of intermarriage. Even if the rate of intermarriage was reduced by half to only one-third of all marriages, half of all Jewish households would be intermarried homes. Based on current rates of identification, this would mean that the majority of Jewish children would be the product of intermarriage. The positive news under this scenario is that the Jewish population would continue to expand, but proportionally it would be a less Jewishly educated and identified population. The situation, however, is dynamic and the Jewish identity of the next generation is partly a function of how intermarried families interact with the community.

Can education alter demographic patterns?

As suggested by the Pew findings on intermarriage, one of the key changes over the last several decades is much broader participation in Jewish education. It is not only the rates of exposure to Jewish education that have changed, but the character of this education. In every sector—pre-school, day school, supplementary school, day and overnight camps, youth programs, and Israel experience programs—there have been substantial changes in how Jewish education is delivered, particularly for non-Orthodox populations. The expanded reach and reimagined execution of Jewish education deserves its own essay, but one example is Taglit-Birthright Israel. Although unique by dint of its size, focus on young adults, and application of informal educational methods, it represents a paradigmatic shift with broad implications.

Taglit emerged as response to the now-famous 1990 NJPS finding that, among recently married Jews, more than half (52 percent) had married non-Jews. Since 1999 when the program was launched, more than 400,000 young Jews (18-26) from around the world have accepted the “gift of Birthright” and participated in 10-day Israel education programs. The majority of participants are from the United State and, unlike virtually every other Jewish education program, the target audience is the entire population. More than 20 percent of the U.S. participants had no prior formal Jewish education, most had limited prior Jewish education, and some had substantial Jewish education.

Because demand for participation in Taglit has outstripped supply, it has been possible to compare alumni with similar others who have not participated. What is clear is that Taglit has a transformational impact on participants. It is evidenced both by how participants describe their experience, but also by their trajectory of engagement with Jewish life. Mostly important vis-a-vis concerns about the Jewish future, participation results in an increase of almost 50 percent in the rate of inmarriage among those raised non-Orthodox. The impact is most dramatic for participants who are the children of intermarried parents and those with the least Jewish education, but the program’s positive effects are experienced by all who participate. Although only a minority of Taglit’s alumni are married and/or have children, they are already altering the overall demographic make-up of the Jewish population.

The Jewish future

The great Judaic scholar Simon Rawidowicz characterized Jews as the “ever-dying people.” The secret to Jewish survival over three millennia, he opined, was concern for survival. It made the Jewish people resilient and motivated them to preserve Jewish tradition and culture in a host of foreign settings. Perhaps belief in the “vanishing American Jew” is a way to provoke contemporary Jews to survive the latest wrinkle in Jewish history: an era in which, along with the existence of the State of Israel, life in the United States is so comfortable for Jews that assimilation has become the greatest threat. Now seems an opportune moment to confront who the Jewish people are, what they have become, and what their future aspirations should be.

The current state of American Jewry is neither as dire as some suggest, nor is it unequivocally positive. On the one hand, the anticipated demise of non-Orthodox American Judaism has not occurred, and there are many positive developments regarding Jewish attitudes and behaviors among the large majority of Jews who describe themselves as non-Orthodox. On the other hand, as predicted, Jews are a smaller proportion of the American population and there are growing numbers of non-Jewish individuals of Jewish background. These trends, both positive and negative, can be ignored only with peril. Jewish communal policy makers and educators, as well as members of the community, have much to learn by understanding the current situation, as well as by comparison to other eras.

Understanding population growth

Demographic findings are sometimes treated as if they prescribe a destiny. But we live in a society, and in an era, in which ethno-religious identity is as much a choice as an ascribed characteristic. One lesson for the community is that it has the capacity to affect its growth and evolution, both through understanding the character of the Jewish population and by using this information to enhance communal life. In this vein, socio-demographic studies such as Pew’s survey have much to teach. Although they are complex and often controversial, they can spur rethinking about how the community functions.

Thus, for example, the 1990 NJPS finding about intermarriage sparked not only Birthright Israel, but a host of initiatives that reshaped Jewish education writ large. At the same time, learning from cross-sectional population studies like Pew or the NJPS investigations has limits. They necessarily capture the dynamic development of the community. Again to use the example of intermarriage, the Reform movement’s 1980-era policy changes which promoted acceptance of intermarriage and the integration of intermarried families in Jewish life has taken a full generation to have demonstrable impact. We now know that patterns of child-rearing among intermarried families alongside the Reform movement’s policy shift, but we do not yet know how these policies will affect the next generation.

In the case of immigration, the other force underlying population growth, the most significant group of immigrants in terms of numbers are those from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Had FSU Jews not come to America, the population estimate would be significantly less, but still more than 6 million. Note, however, that it was not a “given” that new immigrants would identify as Jewish once they came to the United States. Many, particularly those from the FSU, came with very little Jewish education and enacted their Jewish identity only once they arrived in America. Opening the doors to Jewish immigration from the FSU is one of the American Jewish community’s great success stories, but so too is the way in which they were welcomed. That so many continue to identify as Jews is a testament to the community’s efforts to embrace this population.

Future population decline

The fact that there has been growth in the Jewish population should be unassailable, but one cannot fail to note the large non-Jewish collective of Americans who were born as Jews but now identify with another religion or reject their Jewish identity. Over the long term, population loss due to disaffiliation and decreased immigration might also lead to a smaller and less engaged Jewish community. Rather than dwell on bleak prognostications about the future of American Jewry, the task at hand is how to use our knowledge to ensure a different kind of future.

Two phenomena—the increasing number of intermarriages and the expanding JNR sub-population—are central to future prospects. The issues are interconnected because the probability of being a culturally identified Jew is associated with being intermarried or the child of intermarriage. JNRs are significantly less likely to be Jewishly educated and to be involved in the Jewish community. Another way to view the data, however, is to focus on the increased levels of education among the current generation of children of intermarriage. If these levels of increasing educational are sustained, we should expect that the next generation of adult children of intermarriage will be better Jewishly educated than the current generation and better able to participate in Jewish life.

On being blinded

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate psychologist and guru of cognitive biases, has said that we are “blind to our own blindness.” We make snap judgments—we think “fast” not “slow”—and privilege personal experience over systematic data. Those of us involved in study of the Jewish community are not immune to being blinded. Over time, we see more individuals who are intermarried, and based on our past experience where exogamy was like an exit visa from the Jewish community, we assume that it will inevitably lead to dissolution of the American Jewish community. Look magazine may have disappeared, but the image of the vanishing Jew has remained.

The persistence of an image of decline, and our decades-old experience, does not fully explain why the assessments of the Jewish population and our trajectory have been so bleak. Nor does our predisposition to view ourselves as an “ever-dying” people fully explain reactions to the Pew survey and other systematic data about American Jewry. To be sure, such opinions have some positive value in promoting and mobilizing discussion. In addition, there is some truth to the dark assessments of the Jewish future in America, even if the data are being misinterpreted and concerns are overblown.

Perhaps the fairest summary of social scientific data about contemporary American Jewry is that there is no simple narrative. Jews in America have not vanished as predicted by Look magazine’s article and the eponymous book by Alan Dershowitz. The population is, in fact, larger and more engaged in Judaism than in previous eras. At the same time, an increasingly large segment of the population now identifies in non-traditional religious ways. Jews could bemoan their fate and look wistfully at the past. But it turns out the past was not all that positive and that, in some respects, the newly discovered ways to provide education and support for Jewish identity development are more powerful. The challenge is to build on successful strategies and to discard those that are not working.

There is much that is positive about contemporary Jewish life in the American diaspora, even as assimilationist pressures have led many Jews to disengage. The evidence suggests that is not a time for panic, nor a time for harsh judgments. Rather, it is a moment to assess the successes and failures of the community and to use this knowledge to make Jewish life richer and more engaging. The present perspective emphasizes the positive, not only because specific findings suggest such a narrative, but because the meta-narrative is that the community has the capacity to alter trajectories of Jewish engagement. A great deal is known, and practiced, about how to engage American Jews with their ethno-religious identities and the evidence suggests that the community has been modestly successful. But a vibrant future is not guaranteed. New knowledge will need to be created, along with the political and social will to employ this knowledge to ensure a Jewish future.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Leonard Saxe is professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and directs the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.