Counting Jews, Again. So what?

The just released Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, has let loose the usual round of teeth gnashing, gloating, critique and analysis. Everybody, it seems, has jumped on the study as a prooftext of what they have been saying all these years anyway. The Conservative movement is doomed. The Orthodox are marching on. The Orthodox aren’t going anywhere—fifty percent of people raised Orthodox are leaving Orthodoxy. The Reform movement is the only movement keeping its numbers. But those numbers aren’t from within the Reform movement, they come from outside—everybody just rolls downhill.

So, in the spirit of this open air of inquiry, I want to suggest that the most important line in the report is found on the bottom of page seven: “This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole –not just Jews –increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).”

In other words, Jews as a people are just like other people (except, still, in voting patterns…). There is a trend among Americans—and Jews, as Americans, are part of that trend. To not be part of that trend would be statistically impossible, since it is a larger set of which Jews are a subset. This news only comes as a surprise to those whose expectation is that Jews are always and in everything exceptional.

Unfortunately, being part of larger trends doesn’t lend itself to major policy initiatives. Religious life in America is cyclical. We might be hitting a low stage in the cycle. The only relevant policy option is: wait a decade or two and we’ll bounce back.
But what do we do in the meantime?

Well, how about this for a radical idea: Pray, Learn, Teach, Fix the World, Keep Shabbes, Eradicate Poverty, Eat Kosher, Wipe out War, and Hunger. In other words, do what Jews do, or are supposed to do. I have no illusions that this will bring the 22% of Jews with “no religion” running back to the synagogue or study hall—but then again, neither will anything else. (Remember that ‘being part of a larger trend’ thing?) However, at the end of the day, we will have learned and taught more Torah, kept Shabbes, prayed, eradicated poverty, wiped out war, and hunger. Then in twenty years when the pendulum swings back, young Jews will have a legacy to continue. Not bad for two decades.

4 thoughts on “Counting Jews, Again. So what?

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful response to the Pew study giving it a larger, less discouraging perspective. I heard that a New York city study about the Jewish community recently found that 70% of the young population were affiliated Orthodox and that the Orthodox are the only group growing. In Detroit and other communities where I’ve traveled Orthodox groups seem to be taking over buildings and institutions that the Conservative and Reform have given up for any reason. So, I wonder how all the formal and informal observations jibe with each other.
    Looking at the historical view of our Jewish People, I was taught that non-Traditional Jewish movements come and go while Traditional Jewish Movements (in a broad sense of Tradition) continue. At least for me, it is encouraging to be aware of the cyclical nature of religiosity that you mention. As discouraging as our trends sound today historians tell me that the Hellenistic Period was far worse for the Jewish community.
    So I’m with you. Shkoach in encouraging all Jews to continue to do whatever Mitzvot we can and eventually, B”H God willing, things will improve.

  2. This book from one of my sociology professors on passing down of faith from generation to generation in the US relates to the survey. Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations (Oxford University Press) by Vern Bengtson, Norella Putney and Susan Harris. If I remember correctly it does talk about religion being cyclical, but it highlights what happens within families. Here’s an interview I found

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