Newly emerging evidence from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of American Jewry points to enormous challenges facing federations, Jewish philanthropy and organized Jewish life, more generally. Virtually every Jewish institution is contending with a sharply diminishing base of people who give, join or even care.
Though the Orthodox are expanding numerically, the number of non-Orthodox Jews who are actively engaged Jews is shrinking rapidly. As we compare non-Orthodox Jews between ages 50 and 69 with Jews of the next-younger generation (30 to 49), we find about half as many of the younger cohort who donate to any Jewish causes, belong to synagogues or join Jewish organizations. In addition, only half as many of the younger group feel very attached to Israel, agree that being Jewish is very important to them or have mostly Jewish close friends.
Indeed, younger non-Orthodox Jews between ages 30 and 49 are substantially trailing their elders on virtually every measure of Jewish identification.
Two separate processes are driving these declines. First, there simply are far fewer 30- to 49-year-old non-Orthodox Jews than 50- to 69-year-olds (about 1.2 million vs. 1.8 million) because of low birthrates in recent decades. Second, compounding this population decline, high rates of intermarriage — now running at about 80 percent among those raised Reform — have resulted in disengagement from Jewish life on the part of most adult children of intermarried parents. In short, in the younger age cohort (30-49), there are both fewer Jews and, among them, lower rates of participation in Jewish life.
If these patterns are to be reversed, the Jewish middle — Conservative and Reform Jews who are in-married or intermarried but unambiguously attached to Jewish life — must be nurtured and expanded. It may be gratifying that almost all Jews feel proud to be Jewish, as Pew reported, but it does little for the vitality of Jewish communal endeavors if they fail to participate actively in some form of collective Jewish life.
How are we to counter these alarming trends? Research conducted in recent decades demonstrates that effective Jewish engagement endeavors share three critical features:
> They expand Jewish social networks, linking Jews to one another.
> They incorporate Jewish content, so as to demonstrate why rich Jewish engagement is so meaningful.
> They bring together peers at the same life stage to address common challenges.
To address the weak Jewish connections among younger Jews, our ideal communal agenda calls for investing massively in immersive forms of Jewish education for youth. Critical are day schools, summer camps with Jewish content, youth movement activities, Hillels and other campus endeavors, Birthright trips and Masa (longer-term trips to Israel) as well as a variety of programs to involve Jews in their 20s and 30s in ongoing Jewish living.
The overall goal is to ensure that young people participate in multiple Jewish venues so that synergies can develop among them. For this to happen, parents must be enlisted as partners in socializing their children into Jewish life.
The challenge is to marshal imagination, courage, will and resources to rebuild the endangered Jewish middle at home.
Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-JIR in New York, and Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.