Pew on Jew
by Jerome A. Chanes
There was a young lady of
Who insisted on wearing a sheitel.
She didn’t care much
But the sheitel, said she
—now that’s vital!
“American Jews are losing
faith—in religion, that is. More than one in five Jews, 22 percent, now say
they have no religion. And as U.S. Jews overall pull away from formal
expressions of Judaism, they are upending traditional notions of Jewish
identity and what it means to be a Jew today.”
Thus the New York
Jewish Week, in the lede to its September 30 story last year on “A
Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the Pew Research Center’s survey of Jews in
The New York Times,
in Laurie Goodstein’s October 1 story, took a crucially different tack: “The
first major survey in more than ten years finds a significant rise in those
who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their
children Jewish—resulting is rapid assimilation that is sweeping through
every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.” Emphasizing intermarriage and
assimilation, the Times threw down the gauntlet.
What was the Pew story?
Was it about kashrus and such—a decline in observance—or about actual loss
One in five Jews (22 percent, approximately the same as the
percentage of “Nones” in the general public) describe themselves as having
Less than two percent of Americans identify their religion as
“Jewish” as religion, a decline of half since the late 1950s.
Secularism appears to be regnant, as 62 percent say that being Jewish
is a matter of ancestry and culture, while 15 percent say that it is a
matter of religion.
Jews of no religion (“secular” Jews) are much less connected to
Jewish organizations and are much less likely to raise their children
Jewish, whereas 90 percent of Jews by religion raise their children Jewish.
Intermarriage—long the Jewish bugaboo and worse—is more common
amongst secular Jews than amongst Jews by religion: Seventy percent of
married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with
36 percent among Jews by religion; and intermarriage appears to have risen
substantially over the last half-century.
Altogether, Pew found there to be 6.3 million Jews in America; that
was 15 percent higher than the 5.5 million of the highly respected 1990
National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) but well below overall U.S.
population growth of 25 percent.
What Pew discerned was a
dramatic generational shift away from Jewish identity rooted in religion and
traditional institutions, to one that’s more secular, fluid, and, more
broadly, American—implying a decline in Jewish identification itself.
And compared to the Forward’s understated approach, the rest of the
Jewish press was gloom and doom.
The Jewish Telegraphic
Agency (JTA), the century-old news service for Jewish communities worldwide,
led the way. “People want to have the news when the sky is falling,” said
JTA publisher Ami J. Eden. “We decided to go with the ‘Nones’—people who say
that they have no religion—in the lede because that seemed like the most
compelling, and most dramatic, in the study,” said New York Jewish Week
managing editor Robert Goldblum.
Blaming the intermarriage
numbers on “assimilationist liberals,” the right-wing Jewish Press
declared on October 10, “They are intermarrying their way into post-Jewish
oblivion. And they’re doing so as a direct result of having emptied their
version of Judaism of all meaning.”
In Israel, the
center-progressive newspaper Haaretz, always ready to bemoan the
state of American Jewry, issued two Pew-based jeremiads back to back:
“Reengaging American Jews Before They Drift Away” (October 8) and “Who is an
Assimilated Jew?” (October 9).
On November 16, JTA ran
“Jewish Funders Ponder Lessons from Study,” which questioned the substantial
sums going into Jewish identity building in the face of data that “the
number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life is plummeting.”
Indeed the gloom and doom
within the Jewish community was widespread, and in synagogues and community
centers across the country talks and conferences were held to discuss the
Meaning of Pew.
But for professional
insiders, the findings on Jewish identity did not come as a surprise. As
Forward publisher Samuel Norich cannily observed, “Pew was not only
predictable, it was predicted.” As far as the professionals were concerned,
the real news had to do with the religious movements.
According to Pew, the
largest movement continues to be Reform Judaism, with which 35 percent of
American Jews identify. After that it’s 18 percent Conservative, 10 percent
Orthodox, and 6 percent such smaller groups as Reconstructionism and Jewish
Renewal. Relatively high fertility rates persist among the Orthodox, who
also have a substantially lower dropout rate than the other movements,
especially in the 18-to-29-year-old cohort (17 percent).
The Pew data on the
movements are highly suggestive of major changes within the movements.
movement, once regnant in American Judaism, is plagued with problems that
may be insoluble. Forty-three percent of the Jewish population in 1990, it
has declined more than one percentage point per year since then.
In some measure the
movement’s demographic decline has been replaced by pockets of
energy—independent synagogues and “congregations of renewal,” many of which
come out of a Conservative base, which is the leader of a
“post-denominational” trend. The problem is that the number of these
energetic institutions is far outnumbered by those in decline.
None of this would be
terrible were it not for the age-old dilemma of the disparity between
Conservative rabbis, who are religiously observant, and the people in the
pews, who generally are not. This gap points up the movement’s ambiguous
relationship to normative Jewish normative practice.
Moreover, its central lay
and rabbinic organizations—the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and
the Rabbinical Assembly—have always been weak, and the Jewish Theological
Seminary has lost its monopoly over the training of Conservative rabbis.
The Conservative movement
has always maintained a clear and strong boundary between Jew and non-Jew.
Should it obscure that boundary—for example, by permitting intermarriage—it
would erase a distinctiveness critical to the movement’s self-understanding.
It is not too much to say
that the Conservative movement may be breaking apart.
The issue for the
Orthodox does not have to do with numbers, which have remained stable for
more than two decades. It concerns, rather, a striking shift from Modern
Orthodox to Ultra-Orthodox—or, more accurately, Sectarian Orthodox.
After World War II, the
Modern Orthodox demonstrated to the rest of the Jewish world that Orthodoxy
was not an accretion of unthinking, obscurantist practices but a living
religious tradition with serious intellectual underpinnings. Beginning in
the mid-1960s, however, they began looking over their right shoulders at the
more sectarian world of Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Yeshivas. They also
began shifting right on a range of public policy issues, including
church-state, civil rights, Israel, and reproductive choice.
Meanwhile, the Sectarian
Orthodox (Haredim, in Hebrew) have become, if anything, more
sectarian—paying increasing attention to the minute details of practice and
limiting their engagement with secular studies. In a radical departure from
50 years ago, few members of sectarian communities today study in mainstream
These changes in both the
Conservative and Orthodox communities indicate a shrinking “middle” in
American Judaism. Indeed, in “The Shrinking Jewish Middle—And What to Do
About It,” an unpublished paper written in January, sociologist Steven M.
Cohen, among the canniest observers of American Jewish life, treated this as
the most important of the Pew survey’s findings.
Almost as interesting as
the findings was the fact that the survey was the first not to be conducted
by a Jewish organization.
When Jewish organizations
first began counting American Jews in the 1950s, they gauged identification
largely according to degree of ritual observance. If you said you kept
kosher and kindled Shabbat candles on Friday evenings, you scored high on
This ritual package
correlated to the religious movements. Those who scored highest almost
always identified as Orthodox; those who scored low tended to identify with
Reform—the movement that, as central to its ideology, jettisoned much
Through the 1980s, the
question was, in effect, “Do you identify with Judaism religiously?” This
was a source of increasing annoyance to the communal leadership,
professional and lay—almost all of whom came out of the Reform movement:
“You’re telling us that we have no Jewish identity?!!”
The 1990 National Jewish
Population Survey (NJPS), sponsored by the Council of Jewish Federations,
responded by offering questions in a number of areas and asking respondents
to choose among four modes of Jewish identification: “national,” ethnic,”
religious,” and “cultural.” Seventy percent chose “cultural.” Whatever that
meant, it suggested that there were many gateways to being Jewish.
The value of this more
varied picture of Jewish identity was, however, obscured by the survey’s
finding that 52 percent of Jews were now marrying outside the faith.
Although many analysts in the field concluded that this figure may have been
as much as 10 points too high, its effect on the community at large was
traumatizing, and led to a fundamental shift of attention to issues of
A decade later, a new
NJPS sought to improve upon the 1990 model. It didn’t succeed. The
questionnaire was overloaded, intricate, and far too complex. There were now
of Jewish identification, suggesting that the surveyors simply did not want
to be put in a position of saying who was and who wasn’t a Jew.
leadership could not countenance a decline in population. In the words of
one large-city federation executive, “We had to get the numbers up to 5.2
Internal debates were so
contentious that the survey did not appear until 2002. A decade later, no
agency in the Jewish community was willing to undertake an omnibus
demographic study. It is fair to say that the inability of the American
Jewish communal establishment to do so is itself evidence of the weakening
of Jewish identification and the consequent weakening of the establishment
So how did Pew come to
step into the breach? Analysts had long noted that it was time that
American Jews looked at their own community in comparison with other groups,
but were insecure about doing so. Additionally, an important part of the
answer had to do with Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, the
independent weekly (with daily on-line coverage) that has come to be
considered the American Jewish newspaper of record.
Eisner, having spent much
of her career at the Philadelphia Inquirer (including as editor of
the editorial page), had good relations with the Pew Charitable Trusts
(parent of the Washington-based Pew Research Center) and the Neubauer Family
Foundation, both headquartered in Philadelphia. The latter, established by
corporate CEO and Jewish philanthropist Joseph Neubauer, provided a
significant measure of financial support for the Pew study, and Eisner
helped bring the funder and the research organization together.
“Pew provided an
independence that [the Jewish community] had not heretofore had,” Eisner
said in an interview. “It mattered not to Pew whether the intermarriage rate
was 50 percent or 20 percent. That’s why it was important for an ‘outsider’
to do the study.”
Alan Cooperman, deputy
director of Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project, emphasized that it was
“not an odd thing that Pew would count Jews. It’s our standard survey. We
‘capture’ Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hispanic Catholics, other
Christian groups—why not Jews?”
The twin goals of the
survey were, he said, to answer the question, “What does it mean to be
Jewish in the U.S.A.?” and to offer comparability—that is, a comparison
between Jews and other religious groups in America. But in contrast to the
earlier surveys conducted by Jewish groups, the purpose was not to provide a
communal-needs assessment. “We were not primarily interested in the needs of
the community and on the uses of Jewish institutions,” Cooperman said.
Coverage of the survey in
the Forward was unusually comprehensive, almost daily at the
beginning, reflecting the paper’s virtually proprietary interest. “The
Forward loved the story,” noted JTA’s Ami Eden. “They covered it with
reverence, they covered it like the Super Bowl!”
The Forward ran no
fewer than a dozen news stories, editorials, op-eds, and features on Pew,
emphasizing the implications of Pew for the religious movements
(“Conservatives shrug off Evidence of Dramatic Decline,” October 1; “Can
Orthodox Buck Movement Toward More Liberal Branches of Judaism?” October 2);
and on the intermarriage question (“Jewish Woman is the New face of
Intermarriage, Pew Study Data Reveal,” February 13.) Altogether, the
Forward treated its Pew series as a large-scale story unfolding, with
Perhaps the sharpest
critique of the Pew study came from policy guru J.J. Goldberg in the pages
of the Forward itself. In “Pew Survey About Jewish America Got It
Wrong” (October 18), Goldberg said the story should have said, “Despite
decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of
assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most
respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is
growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.”
Goldberg suggested that
“a critical misstep” of the 2002 NJPS had been to set aside interviewees
with “weak Jewish connections” and not bother asking them detailed questions
about Jewish identity. One result was a falsely upbeat picture of Jewish
commitment and practice. Another was the disappearance of most Jews who
claimed “no religion.”
Goldberg compared Pew’s
findings with the 2002 NJPS and discovered a huge increase in Jews answering
“none” for religion. Pew’s total in 2013 was 22 percent. The records from
2002 turned up 7 percent. Conclusion: Jews were abandoning religion.
“That should have rung an
alarm. Fifteen percent of a highly visible and vocal religious community,
three-quarters of a million people, quietly losing their religious faith
inside a decade? How could that happen?”
The answer, said
Goldberg, is that it hadn’t: “For a reality check, go back to an earlier
survey, NJPS 1990, which was highly regarded in most respects. Of 5.5
million Jews it found, 20 percent chose “none” for religion. Given a 3
percent margin of error, that’s the same as 22 percent. There’s been no
The article, an extreme
version of the Forward’s general soft-pedaling of the bad news, drew
reactions ranging from the lurid and excoriating to the merely defensive.
Indeed, it polarized much of the subsequent discussion of the survey.
Pew’s own response was
sharp. In an October 25 op-ed in the Forward, Cooperman and religion
survey director Greg Smith accused Goldberg of comparing apples and oranges.
The category of “Born Jews With No Religion” in the 1990 NJPS was
“considerably broader than the Jews of No Religion in Pew,” they wrote. Jews
might very well be abandoning their religion.
The bottom line from Pew,
in this author’s view, is that Jewish identification is indeed a troubled
arena and that intermarriage rates are higher than many Jewish professionals
had come to think. But is the sky falling?
“The early coverage was
too reflexive,” noted the Jewish Week’s Robert Goldblum. “Oh God, the
community is falling apart!” In his view, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”
is really telling Jewish Americans that a new kind of community has been
forged in the United States, one less dependent on traditional boundaries
and definitions. “Including this idea in the original coverage,” he said,
“would have provided balance and made the coverage less geshrei-like.”
Less hysterical, that is.
word for the wig worn by sectarian Orthodox married Jewish women, who
observe the stricture against display of loose hair.
3The organization that
coordinated fund-raising, allocations, and social planning on behalf of
social-service agencies in Jewish communities across America. It has since
been renamed the Jewish Federations of North America.