Some Takeaways from the Pew Study of American Jewish Life

The study is getting a lot of commentary, and there is much that one can say. But my top takeaways are that Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Orthodox outreach are, all things considered, overall failures, which implies that American Judaism is a failure. Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Jews were always rather irreligious, the pious Jews generally stayed in Europe. Going back to the early 1900s, socialism, Communism, and Christian Science(!) were rampant in the Jewish community. Few Jews belonged to synagogues, and the center of world Jewish life was firmly in Europe, where the great centers of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox learning were. After WWII, with those centers destroyed, and an absence of traditional European Jews to replenish the community, one could have expected imminent disaster. Instead, a sociological surprise happened–Jews joined synagogues, in-married, and otherwise became much more religiously involved than sociologists would have expected. But perhaps that period, and not ours, was the anomaly. Anyway:

(1) Modern Orthodox Judaism is a failure. Modern Orthodoxy has a lot to be proud of. It’s built a strong network of day schools and Summer camps, it has very low rates of social pathology (if you want to keep your kids away from sex and drugs in high school, sending them to a modern Orthodox day school would improve the odds dramatically), and its adherents are full and successful participants in American life, including a recent major party Vice-Presidential candidate, a U.S. attorney general, and a White House Chief of Staff. Yet, only 3% of American Jews identify as modern Orthodox. This means that the modern Orthodox are not drawing from the large pool of older people who were raised Orthodox but drifted away, is not attracting young Conservative or Reform Jews to its brand of Judaism, and is not getting much inflow from the ultra-Orthodox. Judging from a different study I read, modern Orthodoxy seems to be holding its own or even growing a bit based on day school attendance statistics, despite some outflow to more liberal movements (or to nothing) and a fair amount migration to Israel, but given how appealing modern Orthodoxy could be, staying at around 3% of American Jewry isn’t anything to write home about.

(2) Conservative Judaism is a failure. Conservative Judaism had its boom years in the early post-World War II decades, when newly suburbanized Jews, many of whom had been raised in nominally Orthodox but irreligious households, joined Conservative synagogues en masse. I don’t have exact statistics handy, but it wasn’t long ago that a clear plurality of American Jews identified themselves as Conservative. Now, about twice as many identify as Reform. And according to Pew, the outflow from Conservatism is almost entirely to the more liberal end of the spectrum; very few Jews raised Conservative become Orthodox, which suggests that Conservatism–which in its “official” doctrine is very close to modern Orthodoxy–isn’t doing a great job with its youth.

(3) Reform Judaism is a failure. 35% of American Jews identify as Reform. That sounds good, but it turns out that Reform is getting a lot of people who were raised Conservative, and meanwhile is losing almost 50% of those raised Reform. Again, the trend is almost entirely to even more liberal movements like Jewish Renewal, or more often to nothing. Very few Jews raised Reform become Conservative, and even fewer become Orthodox. Not that the point of Reform is to make Conservative Jews, but the more “serious Jews” it makes, the more likely one is to find formerly Reform Jews who find Conservatism more congenial. Despite efforts to increase observance and tradition among Reform Jews, it seems to remain the default for those who want to keep their ties to the Jewish community and religion, but want to ensure it doesn’t intrude too much into their lives.

(4) Orthodox Jewish outreach is a failure–at least if the point is to make people Orthodox. There are many “outreach” organizations every year trying to encourage non-Orthodox Jews to become Orthodox. The most prominent is Chabad Lubavitch, which has centers through the U.S. (and the world), but there are many others. Despite these efforts, only a tiny fraction of those raised non-Orthodox now identify as Orthodox (something of a surprise to me, as I have several relatives and some friends like this). Pew did not study to what extent such outreach efforts are influencing non-Orthodox Jews to be more observant, if not Orthodox.

(5) “Cultural Judaism” is a massive failure from a continuity perspective. Over the generations, many Jewish groups have tried to maintain Jewish identity via cultural, non-religious mechanisms. This was especially true when Yiddish was a more or less common language and culture, but it’s never completely died out. It turns out, though, that American Jews who consider themselves Jewish but don’t identify as Jewish-by-religion overwhelming don’t marry other Jews, aren’t involved in Jewish communal life, and don’t raise Jewish children.

(6) The intermarriage rate is extremely high among non-Orthodox Jews, though it’s basically been stable for a while. Is stability good news are bad news from a communal perspective? Stable is good news, because the data include increased numbers of people who identify as Jewish or partly Jewish, but whose marginal ties to Judaism would lead one to expect intermarriage. This implies that among “core” Jews, the intermarriage rate may have declined a bit. It’s bad news because it’s easier than ever to find a Jewish spouse thanks to internet sites like JDATE. Twenty years ago, if you didn’t have a lot of Jewish friends and weren’t involved in Jewish communal life, it was hard to meet a Jewish spouse except by happenstance. Now, there are prospects just a mouse click away. But apparently, that’s not enough to “bend the curve” on intermarriage rates.

(7) Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Judaism is up to 6% of American Jews, from almost non-existent before World War II. That’s the good news from their perspective. The bad news is that these Jews are overwhelmingly descended from Holocaust refugees, and ultra-Orthodoxy, beyond Chabad, has made almost no impact on the rest of Jewry. The growth rate comes from large families, minus some attrition. Attrition would be higher but for discouraging of education in secular subjects, especially higher education. The result is a high rate of poverty and dependence on charity and government aid. Time will tell if this is sustainable.

(8) One group surveyed by Pew consists of people who have some Jewish background, but don’t consider themselves Jewish, by religion or otherwise. Unlike Jews who identify as secular Jews but not Jews by religion, who are even more liberals than Jews in general, the Jewish-background-but-don’t-identify-as-Jewish group, many of whom identify as Christian, has political views that are well to the right of the Jewish community. This raises an issue that I’ve wondered about, but haven’t seen any studies on: to what extent does the strong liberalism of the non-Orthodox Jewish community drive away those who are either politically conservative, or who would prefer a more small-c conservative religious experience, with more of a focus on God, traditional values, etc.? One often sees hand-wringing in the Jewish media about whether the Jewish community is turning off young leftist Jews by not being leftist enough, but I don’t recall EVER seeing anything about the opposite problem, nor do I ever recall seeing any academic literature on the subject.

(8) The Jewish birthrate is up. In my college course on American Jewish sociology, I learned that the Jewish birthrate was well below replacement level, something like 1.4. Now it’s 1.9. Among the 78% of Jews who identify themselves as Jews by religion, the birthrate is 2.2 per couple.