Can the Pew Findings Guide Philanthropic Investment in the Jewish Community

Philanthropic efforts need to walk a line between supporting the existing institutional structure and disruptive efforts that foster development of new forms of engagement.

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

by Leonard Saxe

The 2013 Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” was like manna from heaven for pundits across the Jewish world. The study unleashed a virtual tsunami of commentary. Most commentators lamented the state of American Jewish life described by Pew and saw the findings as evidence of fuzzy identification with Judaism, growing secularization and lessened Jewish engagement. Pundits typically saw the findings as confirming their respective views of the Jewish community and bolstering their prescriptions for renewal of Jewish life.

A cross-sectional survey such as the one Pew conducted is not, however, a diagnostic instrument, nor is it a strategic planning document. A host of questions remain about the state of American Jewry and what one might do to address the challenges suggested by the findings. In addition, there are a number of questions about the study itself and whether the interpretation of pundits is accurate.

A threshold question is whether the American Jewish situation is as bleak as commentators believe. It’s not. Pew reports that American Jews are an increasingly small portion of the total U.S. population and that the secular population is growing, particularly among young adults. According to the study, the proportion of Americans who claim Judaism as their religion has dropped by nearly half in the last 50 years (from nearly 4 percent to less than 2 percent). More than 20 percent are Jewish, but Judaism is not their religion. These conclusions, however, obscure the most important finding: The U.S. Jewish population has grown over time.

As estimated by Pew, the total Jewish population is now 6.7 million. Not only has the overall population grown, but in contrast to the bleak narratives some have drawn from the report, there has been a substantial increase in the number of Jews by religion – the population most engaged in Jewish religious and cultural life. Thus, compared to 1990, there are today at least 25 percent more adult Jews by religion (a total of 4.2 million). More American Jews engage in Jewish life, including ritual life and support for Israel, than ever before.

Just as there are more Jews by religion, Pew also found that there are more secular Jews (“Jews not by religion”). As Pew reported the findings, the proportion of the population that is secular has remained relatively stable over time, although these numbers may be even larger than they estimated. Pew also identified nearly 2.4 million adults of Jewish background (i.e., individuals who have Jewish parents or upbringing). Although Pew did not consider them to be Jewish because they are thought to have another religion, most of these individuals consider themselves to be all or partly Jewish and many engage regularly in Jewish practices.

What accounts for the population increase identified by Pew? Although some have suggested that the finding is a methodological artifact, this is unlikely. The estimate of the number of nearly seven million Jews by religion comports with findings by my colleagues and me at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute. Our estimates are based on a synthesis of several hundred surveys that ask questions about religion, and it was statistically improbable that their estimate would be very different.

There are several explanations for the population increase, including immigration to the United States, intermarriage, the growth of Orthodoxy and the longevity of the Jewish population. Intermarriage may be the most surprising factor, but it is also the most important. Increasingly, Jewish identification no longer ends when someone marries a non-Jew. Increasingly, it is passed on to the children of intermarried couples. Because intermarriage results in an increase in the Jewish population when the rate of children raised Jewish increases by more than 50 percent, it is likely that the effects of intermarriage rates will have even more significant impact in the future.

One of the most controversial interpretative issues of the Pew study concerns individuals who consider themselves “partly” Jewish. According to Pew, a Jewish child is one who is being “raised Jewish” – either fully or partly. It is not clear, however, how respondents interpreted the question. For some, it may have indicated how much formal Jewish education parents were providing. For those being raised partly Jewish, is it that they are being given no Jewish education, or are they being provided religious training in another faith? Pew’s estimate of 1.3 million children excludes .5 million children who live in Jewish households. For many purposes in the Jewish community, such as eligibility for Taglit-Birthright Israel, having a Jewish education is not a prerequisite to participation and, in the Taglit case, more than 20 percent of participants have had no formal Jewish education.

What do the Pew findings suggest about philanthropic strategy and the use of communal resources? It’s crucial to note that the portrait is not of a community in distress or in need of urgent remediation. To the contrary, the picture of American Jewry provided by Pew is of a growing community. American Jews are highly educated and socially successful. But, more importantly, more than 90 percent of American Jews are “proud” to identify as Jews.

Also noteworthy is that although Pew framed the study as an inquiry into a religious group, most respondents did not share Pew’s frame of reference. Most respondents – including those who identify as Jews by religion – view being Jewish as primarily a matter of heritage and culture rather than religion. A piece of that identity, almost universally shared, is remembering the Holocaust. In contemporary terms, this may contribute to the sense by a vast majority of Jews that Israel is an important or essential part of their identity.

Thus, the philanthropic need is for the support of efforts that can strengthen and enhance Jewish life. For example, Jewish education is not universal, and approximately one-third of those who identify as Jews have had no formal Jewish education. In addition, much of the Jewish education received is of a poor quality and results in dramatically low levels of facility with Hebrew. Hebrew fluency not only facilitates engagement with Jewish religious institutions, but also with Israel and Israelis. There are tremendous opportunities here for well-considered philanthropic investment.

Specific philanthropic strategy needs to be built on more elaborate data than that which were reported in the Pew study. Philanthropic efforts need to walk a line between supporting the existing institutional structure and disruptive efforts that foster development of new forms of engagement. More specific data about how programs and institutions function for particular populations, as well as data from systems such as, can help these efforts succeed.

We live in an era in which Judaism continues to provide a framework for relating to the past and providing meaning for the future. In a world that is changing rapidly, the constancy of Jewish culture and tradition is no doubt one of the reasons the Jewish people have survived. But we want to thrive, not just continue to exist, and the Pew findings provide an important starting point for a conversation about how we accomplish that goal.

Leonard Saxe, Ph.D., is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Social Policy at Brandeis University, where he directs the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.