The Hard Reality Of The New Pew Report

The latest study by the Pew Research Center put on paper a lot of what our communal leaders already knew. Intermarriage is on the rise (71percent of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried) and younger Jews are opting out of ritual and affiliation (1/3 of Millenials identify as Jews of no religion).

But it also reported other striking numbers which deserve attention. For instance, notwithstanding the troubling assimilation statistics, it does not appear that the Jewish population is getting smaller.  In fact, when compared to a 2000 Jewish Federation study, the North American Jewish population is now larger or at least the same size as it was more than a decade ago.  So what does that statistic tell us?  And what segment of our community is growing?

According to the report, those Jews identifying as Orthodox remained 10 percent of the population, those identifying as Conservative 18 percent, and as Reform 35 percent. And those identified as “Unaffiliated” rose to 30 percent of the Jewish population. Add to that the number of children in Jewish homes — an average of 1.7 in Orthodox home versus .3 to .4 in all other Jewish homes — it appears that the likely trajectory of growth in the North American Jewish community will be toward the right of center. Should that statistical projection hold, future retention rates should also improve, since the report indicates that Orthodox retention rate is improving, with “only” a 17 percent fall off among 18- to 29-year-olds, with the majority of de-identification and denominational switching occurring in the less traditional streams of Judaism (11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Orthodox, versus 6 percent over 65). In contrast, Reform and Conservative are on the decline (11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Conservative versus 24 percent of those over 65; 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Reform, versus 38 percent over 65).

Adding to the issues of concern, however, is that an increasing number of Jews appear to identify themselves as “Jewish” based on conventional moral values that are not tied to religious belief or practice.  The concern being that such “morality-based Judaism” lacks the unique Jewish character to promote future generations of engaged Jews.

The good news for Jewish Baltimore is two-fold. Comparing our community’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study with the Pew report, we are trailing behind on some of the less-than-comfortable national trends. For example, Jewish Baltimore has much less intermarriage (20 percent), and a much higher affiliation rate (46 percent belong to a congregation).   But while those numbers should give us some communal comfort, the trends — even in Baltimore — are troubling.

We all agree on the goal:  To strengthen and grow our Jewish community, to assure the continuity of the Jewish people and to promote Jewish identification and affiliation.  And, by and large, we also appear to agree on some of the best means for assuring those results:  day school education for our children, Jewish camping programs and Israel experiences.  We urge further investment in these activities, and a focused effort to expand recruitment of more of our children into one or more of these program opportunities. The problem is that those efforts alone are not enough.  Even within those segments of the population that are exposed to those programs, we are seeing too high a fall-off rate.

The Orthodox community’s statistics appear to be far more impressive than those of the other streams, though there has been some attrition there, too. Orthodox leadership should not be satisfied when Pew reports that only 48percent of those raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox. This is so even if the Orthodox community is found by the Pew report to be “much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population [which] suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow.” Losing a reported 52 percent of your population is unacceptable. But the problems are far more pronounced in the other streams.

Given these statistical realities, we urge a comprehensive communal self-evaluation, focused on means for promoting those issues which unite us rather than evaluating those which pull us apart.  Let’s invest our communal resources in those activities and programs which promote Jewish continuity, survival and growth, rather than those which simply support the status quo.

See related story, “Pew Survey of U.S. Jews.”

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