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A healthier scenario than Pew suggests
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A healthier scenario than Pew suggests

According to the Pew Research Center’s survey of American-Jewish identity and participation, “non-Orthodox Jews” are intermarrying at a rate of 71 percent, and 22 percent of all “Jews” polled indicated that they have “no religion.” As Pew consultant Steven M. Cohen noted, the data also implies “a sharply declining non-Orthodox population.” In particular, Cohen indicates that Conservative Jewish numbers have “plummeted” — to 18 percent, according to the survey.

Is this a true reflection of our nation-wide American-Jewish reality? Let us consider an alternative explanation.

First, the 6.8 million total for the American-Jewish population would be startlingly high if it applies to Americans who unambiguously identify as Jews. In 2000, the National Jewish Population Survey, even with subsequent adjustments upward, identified 5.4 million Jews in the United States. Over the next 12 years, that number should have declined. Young Jews married later and later. Jewish couples have had fewer children. The rate of conversion into Judaism did not keep pace with the numbers leaving the fold. Jewish immigration to the United States came to a virtual halt. Assimilation continued to erode our numbers. Yet, a casual reading of the Pew survey seems to indicate a growth of 1.4 million!

A careful reading of the survey indicates that most of that “growth” is due to the addition of 600,000 adults who self-identify as only “partially” Jewish, and of 300,000 children “who are being raised partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” It is hardly surprising that this demographic of 900,000 individuals is unlikely to be actively involved in “Jewish participation” or to indicate a strong “Jewish identity.” By including self-identified “partial Jews,” the survey was guaranteed to report a “decline” in overall engagement.

While there would be merit in a separate study of “partial Jews,” let us also examine the remaining 5.9 million respondents who identify exclusively as Jews.

The Orthodox are justified in celebrating the data showing high rates of participation and identity. What is not justified is to lump large aggregates of self-identified Conservative and Reform Jews with all other “non-Orthodox Jews.” Creating an artificial single “non-Orthodox” category creates yet another false impression of uniform decline. In fact, reading the full text reveals a wide spectrum of attitudes and behavior among each denominational category: Conservative Jews being most involved, then Reform, then “No Denomination,” then “No Religion.” Most productive would be singling out each of the categories for analysis, in the same manner in which Orthodoxy has been treated.

For example, the data describing self-identified Conservative Jews reflects relative stability rather than decline, when compared to years ago. Ninety-eight percent are proud to be Jewish, with 93 percent feeling that “being Jewish” is “important” in their lives. Eighty-three percent have some Jewish friends, more than 90 percent regard Israel as an “important part of being Jewish,” 88 percent feel an “emotional attachment to Israel,” and 56 percent have been to Israel at least once. There are relatively high percentages for belief in God, raising their children as “Jewish by religion,” synagogue affiliation, attending religious services, sending children to day school, maintaining a kosher home, and other markers of strong religious identity.

The number of self-identified Conservative Jews has not “plummeted.” They number 954,000 adults and at least 200,000 children, for a total of 1,150,000. This remains quite a substantial amount, and in accord with the data from the 2000 NJPS, which tallied (and perhaps undercounted) 866,000 Conservative Jewish adults and 211,000 Jewish children. Why have the numbers of self-identified Conservative Jews remained static?

First, quite a few long-standing Conservative synagogues exist in areas that are no longer demographically viable. Unfortunately, it will require additional time before we see the results of a United Synagogue effort to encourage “replacement” synagogues.

Additionally, assimilation continues to take a toll on membership. Only 11 percent of “Jewish” young adults (20s and early 30s) currently self-identify as “Conservative.”

This number climbs to a still modest 15 percent once the “partially Jewish” are removed from the calculation. Many among this demographic sector self-identify as “Just Jewish.” Why? Are they permanently rejecting future synagogue involvement? No! This is an issue of “stage of life.” Correctly or incorrectly, Conservative synagogues are structured best to serve families with children. Yet, “non-Orthodox” Jewish young adults are marrying later and later. More than 50 percent in the 25-39 age range currently are single. They are prolonging what sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls the “Odyssey Years”: seeking a mate, a career, a community, the start of family, and so forth.

While very few of these “non-Orthodox” young men and women as yet have the motivation to self-identify with any denomination, a substantial number will join Conservative congregations once they marry and have children. This type of “klal Yisrael” Jewish identity is not alien to the Conservative movement. The core of youngsters who attend Solomon Schechter or Camp Ramah, or are actively engaged in USY, JTS, KOACH, or Nativ, self-identify as Conservative Jews. Yet many others who have become b’nei mitzva at Conservative synagogues grow up to regard themselves simply as “Just Jewish.” Once they marry and have children of their own, Conservative synagogues offer them a comfortable home to resume a “generic Jewish” self-image, committed to Israel, Jews around the world, and to regional Jewish communal life.

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