J.J. Goldberg

Pew Confesses: The News Wasn't as Bad as It Looked

By J.J. Goldberg

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The good people at Pew Research have come up with a brief, fascinating addendum to their recent survey of Jewish Americans, aiming to clear up some of the furor the survey touched off over the closely related questions of intermarriage, religious identity and overall Jewish population numbers.

Some quick background, in case you just got back from Mars and missed it: Pew released a survey on October 1 titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” It’s the first comprehensive look at Jewish population and behavior in more than a decade, and was launched at the initiative of Forward editor Jane Eisner. Its most noticed findings: First, 22% of American Jews say they have no religion—that is, they’re Jewish by culture or ancestry.

Second, the current intermarriage rate (the percentage of Jews currently entering wedlock who marry non-Jews) is 58%. Among non-Orthodox Jews it’s 71%. These numbers have touched off a veritable Johnstown Flood of doomsday predictions of the impending disappearance of American Jews, or at least of the non-Orthodox variety. (See here, here, here, here and here, for example.)

Now comes Pew’s update. Digging deeper into their survey’s computerized statistics, Pew religious life researchers Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman say that intermarriage is resulting in two different, essentially contradictory trends. On one hand, children of intermarriage are much less likely than people with two Jewish parents to identify with the Jewish religion. On the other hand, there’s been a dramatic increase in recent decades in the tendency of children of intermarriage to consider themselves Jewish—non-religious, but Jewish by identity—in adulthood. As Pew puts it,

the survey shows that the offspring of intermarriages — Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent — are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.

Yet the survey also suggests that a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are Jewish in adulthood. Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.

The update seems to have been motivated at least in part by annoyance and pique at the reactions their survey stirred up. Cooperman and Smith are among the most respected researchers of religious behavior in America today, but they don’t spend a lot of time arguing over Kiddush on Saturday mornings about the fate of the Jews.

Nobody warned them when they took on the project that they were walking into a s—storm. “American Jews have been debating the impact of intermarriage for decades,” they begin. So give us a break —

The new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews did not start this debate and certainly will not end it.

They credit academic researchers Theodore Sasson of Brandeis University, Steven M. Cohen Hebrew Union College and NYU Wagner, and Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California, for suggesting fruitful avenues of additional analysis. I suspect they mean that those three senior analysts of contemporary Jewish identity gave them advice on how to get themselves out of this mess.

As a matter of fact, Sasson (whose day job is teaching international affairs at Middlebury College) published a study just a day earlier in the online Tablet magazine that lays out the case for Pew-based optimism in much greater detail, “New Analysis of Pew Data: Children of Intermarriage Increasingly Identify as Jews.” Its subtitle gives away its bottom line: “a story of retention, not assimilation.”

Sasson’s piece discusses, briefly but usefully, the nature of Jewish identity among Jews with one Jewish parent. It looks at their patterns of religious observance and attachment to Israel. It suggests how scholars of American religion might misread trends in Jewish identity by mistakenly assuming that Jews behave like other American religious communities.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Sasson draws some conclusions for Jewish institutions, moving forward, on what to do with the trove of information Pew has given us:

Admittedly, the secret of Jewish survival may be the propensity to panic about our fate. The grim predictions made in the 1990s may have proved wrong because Jewish organizations, federations, and private foundations did what they needed to do to turn the tide…

A new round of panic will serve the community well if it addresses the real challenge we face going forward.

The real challenge, Sasson writes, is

how to engage the growing population of young adults who grew up in intermarried homes. This is a population that feels itself a part of the Jewish world but typically knows little of it. How Jewish organizations address this challenge will determine—more than any inexorable laws of demography—the future character of American Jewry.


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