Commentary Magazine


Loving Us to Death

In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.

Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.

There has been a startling increase over the past quarter century of Jews who say they regard themselves as having “no religion.” Intermarriage rates in that group are now at 70 percent. And the proportion of families raising their children as Jews by religion is 59 percent, while only 47 percent are giving them a Jewish education. Jews are not being driven from Judaism due to social difficulties. Fewer than 20 percent claimed to have experienced even a snub in a social setting, let alone an anti-Semitic epithet, in the last year. Such numbers are not only without precedent in American history; they are without precedent in the millennia-long history of the Jewish people. The Pew survey paints a portrait of a group that feels none of the shame or fear that once played a major role in defining Jewish attitudes toward other Americans. But this loss of shame, and the concomitant growth of pride when it comes to having a Jewish heritage—these have come at a heavy cost, it appears. It is now inarguable that American Jewry, or at least the 90 percent that does not hew to Orthodox practice, is rapidly shrinking, and the demographic trend lines are stark.

The same American Jewish community that is bursting with pride also now regards Jewish identity as a matter of ancestry and culture almost exclusively. Forty-two percent think a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish; almost exactly the same number, 43 percent, think it means supporting the State of Israel. When asked about the fundaments of Judaism itself, Jews speak of values and qualities that apply equally to other faiths and are followed just as readily by those who have no faith at all. After all, there is nothing distinctively Jewish about believing one should lead an ethical and moral life or about working for justice. And yet these are the defining characteristics of Judaism for American Jews. Only 28 percent think being Jewish has something to do with being part of a Jewish community. Only 19 percent think it means abiding by Jewish religious law.

This is what happens after several generations of the most highly educated minority group in the United States have allowed themselves and their children to become functionally illiterate about Judaism itself, its belief system, its history, and the obligations of Jewish peoplehood. The Pew data make it abundantly clear that the cultural values of secular Jews have proved to be perfectly portable—they can carry their liberal political and cultural beliefs everywhere without having to carry the Jewish trappings that go with them.

The increasing Jewish desire to give up what is distinctive about Jewish faith and practice while maintaining mushy positive attitudes about their colorful backgrounds and the social-justice aspect of the tradition is more than a recipe for self-extinction. The ingredients have been assembled and mixed, and the dough has begun to rise. American Jewry is on the brink of a demographic catastrophe. And yet here is the paradox: This catastrophe is also a triumph—a triumph both for American Jews and for the American experiment.

The existential crisis that threatens the future of American Jewry has only been made possible by this nation’s embrace of the Jewish people. There is no social or economic penalty to be paid in this country for making an open showing of Jewish identity. Jews face almost no difficulty making friends with non-Jews, working with non-Jews, playing with non-Jews, socializing with non-Jews—or marrying non-Jews. A quarter century ago, a White House aide named Richard Darman desperately offered to provide scoops and inside information to a Washington reporter if she would agree not to reveal he’d been born a Jew and had actually received a bar mitzvah. A few years later, the newly appointed secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, professed herself astounded to discover her parents were Jewish. Albright and Darman, born in 1937 and 1943 respectively, were the last American Jews who would ever imagine the need for such disreputable subterfuges and denials. Consider: Darman served as head of the Office of Management and Budget in 1989. Two decades later, that same post was filled by Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew who later became White House chief of staff—itself a position previously held by a Jewish day-school graduate (and son of an Israeli immigrant) named Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago.

The transformation of the fearful, largely passive community into the more assertive ethno-religious group that throws its weight around on national issues is primarily the function of the marginalization of anti-Semitic attitudes that were once part of the American mainstream. In public affairs, that marginalization enabled the creation of the so-called Israel Lobby that inspires fear and loathing from the Jewish state’s opponents. To their frustration, they find themselves opposed by a group that inspires support across the entire spectrum of American politics. A figure such as former Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who observed the Sabbath even when he was the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2000, was admired for his faith, not abused for it.

Thus, even as a rising tide of anti-Semitism calls into question the future of Jewish communities in Europe, and as hatred for Israel becomes a thinly veiled substitute for traditional Jew-hatred around the globe, the acceptance of Jews at every level of American life might be the ultimate proof of American exceptionalism. America is not insisting in any way that Jews assimilate, give up religious practice, or do anything differently. It is Jews themselves who are choosing this path.

In choosing it, they are following the pattern of American society as a whole. The number of Americans who say they have no religion is 22 percent; that is exactly the same number among American Jews. But it is one thing for Americans as a whole to fall away from religious observance—it is still the case that 74 percent of the American people define themselves as Christian. It is quite another for Jews, who constitute only 2 percent, to do so. While unaffiliated American Protestants and Catholics who don’t stick with their church still fit comfortably within a cultural milieu that is Christian, Jews of no religion cannot be said to have the same opportunity. For one thing, Jews are far more secular than other Americans in the broad sense of the term; only 34 percent of Jews are certain of God’s existence as opposed to 69 percent of the general population.

Secular Jews are content to think of themselves as belonging to an ethnicity instead of a faith tradition—but without the faith tradition, the historical reason for the existence of Jews as a distinctively separate entity, there will be no Jews. The overwhelming majority of Jews who have married in the last decade are marrying non-Jews—58 percent since 2005, 55 percent since the late 1990s, and overall, 71 percent for the 90 percent who are not Orthodox. Of these, only 20 percent are raising their children as Jews by religion. In other words, among those who intermarry, only one-fifth of their children are leading a Jewish life. (Among the intermarried, only 18 percent are being Jewishly educated.) Meanwhile, 37 percent of the intermarried say that they are not raising their children to think of themselves as Jews at all.

The Pew authors could not say with certainty whether being intermarried makes Jews less religious or whether being less religious makes Jews more inclined to intermarry: 

The survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage. In some ways, the association seems to be circular or reinforcing, especially when child rearing is added into the picture. Married Jews of no religion are much more likely than married Jews by religion to have non-Jewish spouses. Jews who have non-Jewish spouses are much less likely than those married to fellow Jews to be raising children as Jewish by religion and much more likely to be raising children as partially Jewish, Jewish but not by religion, or not Jewish at all. Furthermore, Jews who are the offspring of intermarriages appear, themselves, to be more likely to intermarry than Jews with two Jewish parents.

Clearly, the erosion of belief in Judaism as a religion enables intermarriage and the consequent raising of children who are either not Jewish or so lacking in Jewish literacy that they are unlikely to adhere to it in the future.

Who are the intermarried? According to Pew, 79 percent of Jews of no religion and 69 percent of those who espouse no affiliation with a Jewish religious movement are intermarried. Of the children of intermarriage, 83 percent have followed the practice and have married non-Jews themselves. Meanwhile, we learn that half of those who affiliate with the Reform movement, the largest denomination of American Judaism, are intermarried. The math is inescapable. In three or four generations, absent some staggering reversal on the other side of a great religious awakening, few of the descendants of these people will be Jewish.

What will they be instead? Much in the manner that some Americans now seek to claim even the most minute percentage of Native American ancestry—something that 19th- or even early-20th-century Americans would have sought to cover up because of prejudice—they will probably invoke their remote Jewish roots with pride. It will give them a bit of welcome ethnic color to spice up their plain-vanilla backgrounds and some vague connection to matters both great (the Ten Commandments) and monstrous (the Holocaust).

_____________

The Jewish experience in America raises fascinating and heretofore unexplored issues about Jewish identity. Once, being a Jew was not a choice. People were who their parents had been. Judaism featured barriers—among them a special legal code and dietary restrictions—that kept Jews apart from non-Jews. Non-Jews returned the favor for millennia and still do across the globe; they did not want to mix with Jews and placed all manner of obstacles in the paths of Jews when they weren’t forcing Jews behind walls, chasing them, or committing acts of genocide against them.

Even in the United States, where the worst that anti-Semitism produced was employment and academic discrimination, the non-religious tended not to intermarry because non-Jews did not want a Jewish spouse. When those barriers fell, when Jews could attend college freely with non-Jews and work alongside non-Jews, the social separation created by anti-Jewish hostility no longer appertained. “They don’t want to kill us,” the late Irving Kristol once cracked about American Gentiles. “They want to marry us.”

The freedom to be as Jewish as Joe Lieberman also means the freedom to abandon your identity. And with so many Jews lacking religious faith, or lacking any belief system that requires them to stick to their community, that is what large numbers of them are doing. Those charged with the responsibility of maintaining liberal Jewish religious movements and communal institutions that still retain the fraying loyalty of the bulk of the population are left with choices about what to do about these frightening statistics. Unfortunately, some of the choices they have made leave little doubt that the current trends will not be halted, let alone reversed.

_____________

The Pew Study is hardly the first wake-up call American Jews have received about their future. First, it is in keeping with a 2011 survey of the New York metropolitan area (constituting nearly 40 percent of all American Jews) undertaken by the UJA-Federation of New York City. More broadly, it confirms the trends first seen in the last two major national surveys—the 1990 National Jewish Population Study and the more controversial 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey. That is particularly true with respect to the 1990 finding that 52 percent of Jews who had married since 1985 had a non-Jewish spouse.

At the time of that 1990 survey, the organized Jewish world went into full-blown panic about the prospect of its rapid diminishment. Very quickly, the Jewish federation movement—the umbrella philanthropies that served as the chief fundraisers for both domestic and Israeli Jewish causes—became focused on what was dubbed the “continuity” issue.

A great deal of what followed was productive. After decades of focusing on the memory of the Holocaust and the need to defend Israel, the 1990 study gave new impetus to those who had long pointed out that these matters were not enough to help form a stable sense of Jewish identity for new generations that did not remember the 1940s or the plight of the beleaguered pre-1967 Israel. What was needed was a new emphasis on Jewish education, both the comprehensive day-school movement and synagogue Hebrew schools as well as summer camps. Trips to Israel (a place that Pew tells us the majority of American Jews have still not visited) were also rightly seen as a potential incubator of Jewish identity. That led to the creation of Birthright, a program that offered free trips to Jews in their 20s to get a taste of Israel in the hope that this would trigger greater commitment from them in the future.

The early returns from Birthright are positive and, combined with the proven impact of day-school education and camps on the future of Jewish youth, these programs point to a formula for ameliorating the impact of assimilation. But since the population profiled by Pew—which drew upon the broadest possible definition of who is a Jew—is increasingly apathetic to institutions that are primarily religious in nature, it’s far from clear whether most Jews would avail themselves of these schools and camps for their children, even if they were free of charge instead of ruinously expensive. As Pew’s data explains, a growing proportion of Jews lack interest in parochial Jewish concerns.

But the real enthusiasm of much of the organized American Jewish world was for a different response to the “continuity” problem: They called it “outreach.” If the statistics offered lemons, in the form of high intermarriage numbers and the lower rates of affiliation that went with them, many preferred to see them as an opportunity to make lemonade—by transforming the community into a place where those on the margins would feel welcome.

As the sociologist Jack Wertheimer, a frequent contributor to these pages, wrote in the online publication Mosaic this past September, most non-Orthodox rabbis as well as those tasked with running Jewish agencies have come to believe that seeking to turn back the tide on intermarriage is as futile as complaining about the weather. And many Jewish professionals are worried more about stigmatizing the intermarried than about the impact of the normalization and acceptance of assimilation. So instead of fighting it, they built an outreach movement. Its purpose was to make both Jewish and non-Jewish spouses feel accepted and thus more likely to affiliate with Jewish institutions and raise Jewish kids.

The result has been almost complete failure, as the Pew numbers on intermarriage and Jewish identity show. Advocates of such programs argue that they have not been as fully tried or funded as they would have liked, but the Pew study’s data validates the conclusion that for those without religious faith or any coherent Jewish belief system, there is little reason to affiliate. No matter how welcomed they are made to feel in synagogues and at federation fundraisers, the investment in families that will probably not be Jewish in another generation is a dead end. Outreach is based on a paradigm of Jewish community that is primarily defined by its inclusiveness. The inclusivity doctrine asks nothing of those at whom it is aimed except good will. But the good will, as the survey attests, is already there.

Outreach, in other words, is an opportunity cost, both financially and spiritually. First, it diverts scarce resources to a failing cause. Second, and more important, it wreaks havoc on the approach the non-Orthodox denominations must take if they are to sustain their own connection to Jewish identity. Whatever else it is, Jewish identity is by definition exclusive. And here is where the American embrace is theologically problematic, for inclusion is the American creed.

Increasingly, secular Jews have come to see any effort to define group identity in ways that include some but exclude others as distasteful and even hateful. This helps explain the most shocking of the Pew findings: More than a third of those Jews polled said belief in Jesus—the one point that all Jews had once been able to agree was something that put you outside the Jewish tent—should not be deemed a disqualifier. How can this be? Simple: It is just an extreme manifestation of the logic governing the inclusion doctrine. The very idea that Jewish identity involves drawing lines—lines as seemingly insignificant as who may be a voting member of a synagogue and who may receive honors during services—is itself the problem for many Jews. The non-observant American Jewish mind-set is increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of drawing any boundaries around Jewish identity. And that mind-set has been ironically justified by the organized Jewish community’s breathless pursuit of those who have already chosen to place themselves outside the lines.

The fate of the liberal denominations that make up the bulk of American Jewry is particularly instructive. Conservative Judaism, which as recently as the 1970s could claim close to half of those who affiliated with a religious movement, is in free fall. Only 18 percent now identify as Conservative. The Reform movement has nearly doubled that number with 35 percent. But that is largely explained by Reform’s decision to accept the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jews if the father is Jewish (in contravention of halachic law still accepted by Conservatives as well as the Orthodox) and to allow their clergy to perform intermarriages.

The problem for liberal Judaism goes deeper than the mass exodus of Conservatives to synagogues where their children can intermarry. Reform Judaism is retaining half of those who say they were raised in the movement—but with the intermarriage rate in this group also at 50 percent, the prospect of that population expanding or even holding its own in the future is doubtful. Sixty percent of Reform Jews say they are raising their children as Jews by religion—but only 37 percent are giving them a religious education.

Most important, a jaw-dropping 35 percent of those who claim they were raised as Reform Jews now say one of three things: (a) they identify with no movement, (b) they are not Jewish by religion, or (c) they are not Jewish even by ethnicity. Almost as many report participating in some sort of non-Jewish religious practice (like celebrating Christmas), a clear sign that the compromises intermarriage forces on families send a message to children that Jewish identity is, at best, an option rather than an imperative. While Reform’s ranks may continue to be bolstered by a steady stream of those from other backgrounds who intermarry but wish to identify with Judaism, the Pew numbers show that at some point the losses from assimilation will increase as the gains diminish.

Orthodox Jews are the outliers in the Pew study in almost every respect—and especially so when it comes to intermarriage and adherence to traditional Jewish values. Though half of those raised as Orthodox say they no longer identify as such, the age breakdown here is remarkable: The falloff is much more prevalent among older Jews. Younger Orthodox Jews are sticking with their faith tradition: 83 percent of those under 30 have remained in the fold. Though they compose only 10 percent of the total number of Jews in America, the Orthodox are not intermarrying and therefore they are retaining their numbers at far higher percentages than other movements. They are also having more children than the rest of the community, which is itself less fertile than the rest of the American population.

Given their higher birth rate and the manner in which the rest of American Jewry is melting away, that raises the prospect that at some point in the future, the Orthodox will make up the bulk of those who identify with a religious movement and perhaps even eventually of those who identity as Jews at all.

However, any triumphalism about a future of Orthodox dominance should be muted. The Orthodox are still a tiny minority of those who claim some sort of Jewish identity in the United States, and it will be many decades before they constitute anything close to a majority even if their growth rates continue to outstrip the rest of the community. Orthodox triumphalists should also consider that they, too, would be diminished by the disappearance of much of the non-Orthodox majority when it comes to political influence and even philanthropic concerns. With increasing numbers of the observant community identifying as ultra-Orthodox and that sector being disproportionately poor, the changing demography of American Jewry raises questions that even those who are sure their grandchildren will be Jewish ought to be worried about.

_____________

Unsurprisingly, Pew found that Jews are largely liberal and overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party. Perhaps more surprising, and more dispiriting, was the suggestion that support for Israel is less than enthusiastic. Only 38 percent of Jews said they think the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to make peace with the Palestinians. However, that number was heavily skewed by the negative opinions about Israel expressed by the unaffiliated and Jews of no religion (another mark of the profound failure of two decades of outreach). This was cheering to those who believe the American-Jewish establishment is too supportive of Israel and the Israeli government, and that the establishment should be more representative of Jewish opinion nationally. Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman offered the perfect riposte to this in an interview with the Forward: “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care. This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care.”

Here, too, the Pew results point to a growing divide—between those for whom their Jewishness is a central, if not the central, fact of their lives and those who are increasingly detached from Judaism and any belief in Jewish particularism. The Jews “who care,” in Foxman’s words, are disproportionately affiliated with religious movements and are far more likely to be passing down their beliefs to subsequent generations that will keep the faith and keep supporting Israel.

With respect to the Jews, the American promise of religious and personal freedom has been completely fulfilled. Not so in Western Europe and Russia and other places where Jewish populations still exist, where we are seeing the ominous resurgence of attitudes many had thought would never return after the Holocaust.

Thus, as Jews face the prospect of their own declining numbers in the United States, the vital necessity of the State of Israel is more evident than ever. If this tiny tribe that has remained on this earth for thousands of years—carrying out the dictates of its ageless scrolls and following the rulings of its millennia-old sages—is to survive and thrive into the unknowable future, it will only be able to do so primarily in its own land with its own language, a land in which Jews live with Jews, marry Jews, and bear Jewish children who bear Jewish children of their own. Where outreach has failed, Zionism has succeeded.

About the Author

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary.




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