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Looking at the Pew Study Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Reactions to the Pew Study on American Jewish life that I discussed in the cover story of COMMENTARY’s November issue are still pouring in. They run the gamut from sensible dives into the numbers, such as the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis’s pessimistic analysis of the future of the Conservative movement in the Jewish Review of Books and former Reform movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s thoughtful criticism of the rise of secularism in Haaretz, to the extremely foolish, such as that of columnist J.J. Goldberg’s attempt to claim that the acclaimed study was fundamentally incorrect in its analysis and conclusions. Goldberg’s piece was subsequently given a thorough fisking by two of the study’s authors. But given the investment that many Jews have in the idea that the rise of intermarriage is an opportunity rather than a calamity, there wasn’t much doubt we would see more such efforts to turn the lemons delivered by Pew into lemonade for the organized Jewish world. And that’s exactly what we have now received from Tablet magazine in the form of a piece by Middlebury College’s Theodore Sasson claiming that the lesson we should derive from the numbers showing the vast increase in the number of Jews intermarrying is that most of them are becoming Jews.

Sasson asserts that if we add up the number of millennials who are children of intermarriage who are Jewish by religion or say they have no religion but identify as Jewish or as partly Jewish, it adds up to 59 percent. Since anything over 50 percent would mean a net population gain for the Jewish people, he says that accounts for the fact that total number of Jews by any definition hasn’t gone down in the last 20 years. That leads him to conclude that not only is pessimism about the future unwarranted but that this should motivate Jewish groups to concentrate more of their efforts on outreach toward this population. But this is not only a misinterpretation of these numbers; it is a fundamental misreading of what this means for the future.

Let’s first take apart that 59 percent number. Including people who are raised in more than one religion or who identify as “partly Jewish” in the number of total Jews is somewhat suspect. That means the confidence that intermarriage is increasing the Jewish population is a myth. Even more important, by taking these numbers in isolation without looking at them alongside the other data in the study about the behavior of the intermarried and their children, it’s easy to see that this optimistic reading misses the real story in the study. Since the overwhelming majority of intermarried Jews are not raising their children as Jews or giving them any sort of Jewish education, that means most will not have any meaningful Jewish identity in terms of affiliation or behavior no matter what they call themselves at the moment. Moreover, since even Sasson agrees “most of the younger Jews in this category will probably marry non-Jews,” there is simply no way to see this as anything but a trend that will lead to more assimilation, not greater affiliation. Thus to claim the growth in this group is a positive trend is to look at the numbers through the wrong end of the telescope.

The problem with the rise in intermarriage for the Jewish community is primarily because it is the product of trends that reflect that lack of religious faith or identification with the Jewish people by those who intermarry. The Pew authors could not determine whether being intermarried made Jews less religious or whether being less religious made Jews more likely to intermarry, but the connection is not in doubt.

Going beyond the raw population numbers, Pew’s data informs us that the growth in intermarriage must be viewed in the context of a web of attitudes about Jewish life that are indicative of the decline of faith and affiliation. That’s why expecting those who come from backgrounds where both of these factors are not considered important to latch onto Judaism or Jewish affiliation as adults is not justified by any reasonable reading of the numbers.

It is true that more children of intermarriage are willing to admit to ties to the Jewish community in previous generations leading to the increase of Jews of no religion. But that is a function of the general decline in anti-Semitism that has helped break down barriers between Jews and non-Jews that has led to more intermarriage. But, as Pew’s numbers show, the idea that this is a meaningful measure of affiliation or future behavior is more than a stretch.

The most lamentable part of this argument is the conclusion he draws from it about the large number of younger Jews with some ties to the community but no religious faith or belief in the value of taking part in Jewish life. Sasson claims the sheer numbers of the people in this group justifies a major investment on the part of the organized Jewish world in programming and outreach toward them. But if there is anything we have learned in the past 20 years it is that such efforts have done nothing to stop intermarriage or increase affiliation among groups that have already demonstrated a lack of interest in faith or any other aspect of Jewish life. Indeed, the Pew numbers demonstrate exactly this point as intermarriage goes up and the numbers of the intermarried who have embraced Jewish education for their kids has remained low.

As Jack Wertheimer persuasively argued in Mosaic magazine, the outreach industry is predicated on the idea that the Jewish community can do nothing about intermarriage and should give up encouraging endogamy. While the Jewish world should welcome anyone who wants to join, for the past generation the community has squandered scarce resources chasing unaffiliated Jews who don’t care about Jewish life on the margins while doing little if anything to make it easier for people who are still part of the community to stay there. While the community’s doors must stay open, its focus must be on helping those still inside the tent, not chasing a fool’s errand outside of it.


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