Did We Get it Wrong? Reframing the Pew Discussion

by Shira Fishman, Ph. D.

There have been many interesting discussions in the Jewish community following the release of the Pew Study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Much of the debate has focused on the assimilation, intermarriage, and shrinking of the Jewish community, but a close reading of the data reveal that the assumptions of these discussions may be flawed. Before making any decisions about the future of the Jewish community, it is imperative that we understand the narrative.

1. Is the Jewish community shrinking?

According to Pew estimates, there are MORE Jewish people today than previously reported. The National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) of 2000-2001 reported a total Jewish population of 5.2 million people. By contrast, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University maintains that the Jewish population today is closer to 6.8 million. The Pew Center puts the number of Jews at 6.7 million.

While the 2000 NJPS was criticized for undercounting the number of Jews, using the 1990 NJPS as a benchmark still shows growth – up from 5.5 million Jews. What accounts for the growth in the Jewish population is still unknown, but it seems clear that there are more Jews in America today than previously thought. Instead of focusing the discussion on how the Jewish community is getting smaller, the increase in the Jewish population should be celebrated.

2. Does intermarriage spell the demise of the Jewish people?

Intermarriage was the primary concern for the last two rounds of Jewish population surveys. Programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel were created as a result of the statistics on intermarriage. However, for Jews by religion (those who say their religion is Jewish), the rates of intermarriage stabilized in the mid-1980s at around 50 percent and have stayed the same ever since.

According to Pew, 61 percent of intermarried respondents are raising their children as Jewish or part Jewish. This seems far more critical than their rates of intermarriage. Rather than leave Judaism, as would have been predicted by the rates of intermarriage over the generations, intermarried Jews are raising their children as Jewish.

The myriad of programming aimed at intermarried families are perhaps reaching their audience or perhaps programs put in place to combat intermarriage are having an impact. For example, according to research done by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Taglit alumni are 45 percent more likely to be married to someone Jewish as compared to similar others who applied to Taglit but did not go.

The fact that the intermarriage rates have remained stable while the number of children being raised Jewish appears to be increasing, suggests a Judaism that is inclusive, welcoming, and accessible to everyone. The discussion can now focus on ensuring the successful integration of intermarried families and continued openness of the community.

3. Does the large proportion of Jews not by religion (JNBR) in the young adult population reflect a broader secularizing trend?

The largest proportion of JNBR (respondents who report no religion but are Jewish by some other means, i.e., cultural/secular Jews) are the youngest respondents. Does this represent a new trend of the younger generation to eschew religion? Data on trends in the broader American population has supported this hypothesis.

However, given the prevalence of intermarriage over the past 20 years, another explanation is also possible. Young adults who are JNBR may be overwhelmingly the product of intermarriages. If this is true, perhaps this demonstrates that the Jewish people are retaining the children of intermarried families as cultural Jews. Rather than a surge in secularism, the increasing numbers of JNBRs might represent a rise in identification with the Jewish people, a retention of those who may have not called themselves Jewish in previous generations. Perhaps the discussion needs to focus on how to engage young adults as cultural Jews – strengthening and supporting their cultural identity so they continue to engage with Judaism as they age.

Overall, the Pew data presents a rather sobering portrait of Jewish life, especially religious Jewish life – many say that religion is not important in their lives and many do not participate in traditional Jewish rituals. However, clearing up some misconceptions about the data reveal a vastly different outlook on Jewish peoplehood – there are more Jews today who are identifying as Jews, saying Judaism is important to their lives, and raising their children as Jewish. From this starting point, the conversation about the future of the Jewish people looks very different.

Shira Fishman, Ph. D. is a Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.