With one in five Jews in the United States describing themselves as having no religion, an intermarriage rate of 58 percent, and declining synagogue membership, it would seem the future of the Jewish community is in peril.
However, despite the troubling trends found in last year’s survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center, a hopeful trend has also emerged — a growing number of children of these intermarriages identify themselves as Jewish.
“A majority, 63 percent, of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish in some way,” said Pew Center deputy director Alan Cooperman, who helped analyze and author its 118-page “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
Cooperman spoke Nov. 2 at the inaugural breakfast of the Central New Jersey Kehilot Investing in Day Schools. His talk drew about 200 to Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison.
During the program, Abe Schwartzbard was presented with the first Pillar of Jewish Continuity Award (see sidebar).
The community fund, set up to offset rising day school tuition, brought in $49,500 in its first year, which appeared as a credit on the tuition bills of parents of students at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick.
Both schools are Orthodox; the fund was to have included the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, which closed in the summer of 2013.
Cooperman said that Jewish identity among children of intermarriage reversed a trend of recent decades. Among millennials, or those born after 1980, slightly over half of those with one Jewish parent now self-identify as Jewish, and the number is growing.
By contrast, only 6 percent of those born to intermarried parents from 1928-1945 identified as Jewish. Cooperman said even among “Generation Xers” — born from 1965 to 1980 — only 24 percent of such individuals consider themselves Jewish.
The primary factors behind this turnaround, he said, are a drop in anti-Semitism and the high esteem in which Jews are held by their fellow Americans.
“Jews are thought of by other Americans as smart, successful, and funny,” said Cooperman.
Pew regularly gauges the attitudes of Americans toward religions other than their own.
“The group that is most warmly regarded is Jews,” said Cooperman. “Surveys other than our own have said the same thing. Even more surprisingly, they are also the religion with the smallest share of negative feelings.”
The intermarriage rate is “part of the price of freedom” Jews have enjoyed in America, where although they make up 2 percent of the population, their influence has led many to believe the number is much larger.
“When I talked to European audiences, they are shocked,” said Cooperman. “In the Middle East, they don’t believe me.”
Cooperman also noted that 22 percent of American Jews say they have no religion — that is, they have at least one Jewish parent, consider themselves culturally or ethnically Jewish, but do not affiliate with any religion. That trend is part of a “broad social change not limited to Jews” within American society, where 20 percent of all people no longer affiliate with any religion, he said.
Cooperman said the generations since World War II have tended to be less and less affiliated than older generations, presenting something of a conundrum: Have the rising intermarriage rates made American Jews less religious or has the rate of intermarriage risen because American Jews are less religious?
Reform remains the largest denomination, but the Orthodox have a much younger population and a higher birth rate.
“The median age of Orthodox adults is 10 to 15 years younger than the Reform and Conservative,” Cooperman said.
In recent decades, individuals have tended to gravitate toward less traditional forms of Judaism, allowing the Reform percentage to remain steady even in the face of a growing Orthodox birthrate.
“Of the adults who were raised Orthodox, half are no longer Orthodox,” explained Cooperman, although that trend seems to be declining as a “significantly higher” retention rate was found among young adults 18-29 years.
“Feeling the demographic pressure are those in the middle, the Conservative movement,” said Cooperman. “They have lost a considerable amount of market share.”
But there is one thing virtually all Jews agree on: 94 percent said they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.