Exactly two years ago today, the Pew Research Center published a blockbuster study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that provided the most detailed research about Jewish identity in this country in more than 20 years. The results were not unexpected, but they were nonetheless shocking. Non-Orthodox Jewry is undergoing what amounts to a demographic collapse. The end of the barriers to Jewish acceptance in society is, as I wrote at the time in COMMENTARY, a tribute to American exceptionalism and freedom. But this has also contributed to the breakdown of Jewish communal life as intermarriage rates and assimilation rates soared and affiliation and belief in Judaism as a religion and a sense of Jewish peoplehood declined. The key question since the release of the Pew Survey has been what, if anything, was the organized Jewish world prepared to do to counter these trends. But the answer from the umbrella philanthropies and major groups that dominate communal life and speak for most Jews has, for the most part, been silence. Yet it is still not too late for a vigorous response and into that breached has stepped a group of Jewish thinkers, scholars and religious figures who have endorsed a “Strategic Directions For Jewish Life: A Call to Action” with recommendations in this paper for a change in priorities and specific proposals that can help stem the tide of collapse. Every Jew, no matter where they fit in on the religious or political spectrum ought to read it and to reach out to their community to encourage both individuals and institutions to implement its suggestions.
As one of those who have attended the meetings where this proposal was first mooted and a signatory to the final document, I can attest to the care that its organizers took to create a broad base of support for the project from the entire community. Its tone is not one of impending doom but imbued with a sense that an opportunity still exists to preserve the vital middle of American Jewish life.
Yet as much as the paper takes a positive rather than a negative approach, what is most troubling about the reaction to Pew has been the lack of a sense of crisis about the facts reported by Pew. As I wrote last year in the April 2014 issue of COMMENTARY about the beginnings of this effort, there can be no avoiding the facts:
Intermarriage is the primary indication of decline in communities. Pew shows the intermarriage rate for the non-Orthodox is now at 71 percent. With only 20 percent of the intermarried raising their children as Jews by religion, only 18 percent getting a Jewish education, and the overwhelming majority of the children of intermarriage intermarrying, the math is unavoidable. While the Pew survey’s authors would not say whether being intermarried makes Jews less religious or whether being less religious makes Jews more inclined to intermarry, the result is the same: a trend threatening the future of the non-Orthodox community that still accounts for approximately 90 percent of those who call themselves Jews.
But sadly the response from major Jewish philanthropies and organizations to this crisis has been complacence, acceptance, and apathy. The reason for that reaction is no mystery. Any response that encourages the creation of Jewish families and discourages intermarriage is viewed as an insult to those who have intermarried. In particular, the Reform and Conservative movements have responded in a way that shows that its leadership has their heads firmly buried in the sand. The communal world is paralyzed by its fear of offending this vast group and, therefore, refuses to understand that the existential crisis it is largely ignoring is eroding the foundation on which they stand.
The decline in belief in Judaism as a religion along with the blessings of American freedom has spurred the growth of intermarriage. That in turn has led to the 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. According to Pew, 79 percent of Jews of no religion intermarry, as do 69 percent of those who say they are no affiliated with any Jewish denomination. Sadly, half of those who do affiliate with the Reform movement, now the largest American segment of American Judaism, are intermarried.
Nor is this completely about intermarriage since that problem is compounded by late marriage and the decision of many Jews to never marry and low birthrates. Diminished Jewish social connections, a weaker sense of Judaism being meaningful and fewer engaged Jews all add up to create a potential demographic catastrophe.
Let there be no mistake about the stakes involved in this question. The math is inescapable. Barring some kind of reversal, most of the descendants of the non-Orthodox Jews will not be Jewish except in the sense that they acknowledge some Jewish ancestors. In the coming years, that will mean Jewish numbers will decline to the point where it will no longer be able to support most of the institutions that sustain Jewish life in this country. That is why even the Orthodox sector, where these trends are far less prevalent, should be just as concerned about this as the non-Orthodox.
While no one solution or list of possible remedies can reverse these numbers, there is plenty that can be done. As the Call to Action notes there are a list of activities and ideas that can make a huge difference:
*A communal mobilization campaign
*Diminished costs for day school tuition
* More emphasis upon quality supplemental schooling that extends at least seven years
*Major investment in low-cost Jewish summer camps
*Thousands of Jewish teenagers traveling to Israel
*Significant expansion of Jewish youth groups
*Congregations prioritizing their teenagers
*More outreach-oriented and pluralist rabbis, both on and off campus
*Jewish cultural events, prayer communities, and learning activities among Jewish young adults
*Retreat experiences for young couples and families
*Jewish Public Health Education aimed at parents and grandparents
*Continue and expand Birthright Israel’s numbers
These ideas aren’t new but they need to become the centerpiece of Jewish life and get the sort of massive investment that they have yet to get from a community whose philanthropic efforts have been increasingly oriented toward secular causes.”
American Jews have largely wasted the two years since Pew and the cost in terms of lost ground in the effort to revive the community will be high. But it is not too late for the leaders of American Jewry to listen to this Call to Action and to begin taking the steps needed to halt the community’s slide toward irrelevance.