The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.
This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.
To acknowledge the dismal future that this charts for the community should not be confused with exaggerated claims about American Jewry disappearing. There are still an estimated 5.3 million people who claim Jewish identity and a critical mass of them are still raising Jewish children, many of whom will affiliate with religious denominations and have an affinity for Israel. But the breakdown of the data shows that among the non-Orthodox majority in the United States—a group that composes approximately 90 percent of the community—most are not marrying Jews or giving their kids a Jewish education. Indeed, the two elements of American Jewry that seem to be growing at the most rapid rates are the Orthodox and those who consider themselves to be Jewish in some way but have no religion, a group that makes up 22 percent of those polled. While, as Pew points out, secularism has always been part of American Jewish culture, most of those with no religion are not raising Jewish children or participating in or supporting Jewish institutions. Moreover, more than half of non-Orthodox Jews are also marrying non-Jews with the overwhelming majority of these families also giving their children no Jewish education.
The problem here is not just the absolute numbers of those Jews drifting away. It is the survey results that make it clear that an increasingly large number of Jews have notions of Jewish identity that are based on values not likely to promote future generations of Jewish life on these shores.
For example, “leading an ethical or moral life” or “working for justice or equality”—elements that 69 percent and 56 percent of Jews say is what it means to be Jewish—are integral to Judaism. But they are beliefs that are also integral to other faiths and even compatible with being non-religious. Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew. Remembering the Holocaust—a point embraced by 73 percent of those surveyed—is also important. But as vital a lesson as the Holocaust is, it is not a positive vision of Jewish life that can serve as a paradigm for the future. Ideas such as being part of a community or observing Jewish law have far less support, but it is those notions upon which a community is built. For all of the popularity of secular and purely cultural Judaism, the survey indicates that in a nation where Jews remain a small minority and where all are free to assimilate, these concepts are halfway houses to assimilation, not a path to a viable future.
The only theological point upon which the majority of those polled agree is that believing in the divinity of Jesus means you are not a Jew. That’s understandable given that this is still an overwhelmingly Christian nation. But again, this is hardly a factor that can serve as a building block for Jewish identity. If Jewish denominations are all suffering record levels of dropouts, it can be traced to the fact that a community in a free society that is based on such loose notions rather than the strong bonds of faith cannot hope to retain much of its membership.
Israel remains important to most Jews and that is a hopeful sign since it remains the vital center of Jewish life in our time. But here again those numbers are skewed since the rates of interest in Israel are far higher among the Orthodox and lower among the growing numbers with no religion and affiliation. Critics of Israel will point to the fact that pluralities disapprove of settlements and think the government of the Jewish state isn’t doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians. Those are debatable notions, but the far smaller number of American Jews who think the Palestinians are sincere about wanting peace shows that the majority is not completely detached from the reality of the Middle East.
As for domestic political considerations, like other polls of American Jewry, the survey shows the overwhelming majority are liberals and loyal to the Democrats. Since those numbers are reversed among the Orthodox, one should expect a gradual rise in the total of those who vote for the Republicans. Yet even with the Orthodox population growing far more rapidly than the rest of the community, it may take several decades for the GOP to make up that ground if at all.
Overall, the survey tells us that the falloff of Jewish affiliation among the young and the non-Orthodox is already considerable and will only grow in the future. If Jewish organizations want to have any sort of impact on these numbers, it will require them to cast off their illusions about the value of outreach, which has clearly failed. A community that is primarily defined by being inclusive or by values that are not specific to Judaism is dooming itself to irrelevance. Instead of accepting assimilation, Jewish groups must resist it whenever possible and concentrate their efforts on encouragement and investment in those elements that produce Jews rather than people with only a dim grasp of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Only with major investments in those institutions that build Jewish identity such as schools, synagogues, and camps as well as trips to Israel can American Jewry stop or even lessen this demographic slide. The numbers show us that a largely secular, non-religious American Jewish community is well on its way to assimilating itself into a marginal group with only a vestigial memory of Jewish life as well as notions about food and humor that should not be mistaken for communal values.
If these trends continue or worsen, Jewish life and Judaism will not die in America. But it will be smaller, less diverse, and be increasingly unable to support the institutions that have been built here. That is not the same thing as disappearing, but for the majority of those who are not committed to a community of faith however they choose to define it Jewishly, it will be a distinction without a difference.