August 22, 2019

If you want more Jews in America, you cannot ignore these facts

There’s a good chance you’ve read The New York Times report about the political affiliations of American clergy. If so, you probably were not surprised to learn that most Jews are Democrats and that Jewish clergy tilts even more Democratic.

“Leaders and congregants of Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are those of Reform and Conservative Jewish synagogues,” the analysis says. It finds that Conservative clergy is relatively old, while Reform and Orthodox clergy are relatively young, and all Jewish clergy, generally speaking, lives comfortably in neighborhoods of high-income, well-educated (and white) residents.

That is an interesting study, but it’s hardly the most important one about Jews in America in the past week. The Jewish People Policy Institute, for which I work, just released a study called “Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention.” It ought to make anyone who cares about having a Jewish future in America pause. It ought to make anyone who refuses to ignore the data at least somewhat anxious.

The authors found that 50 percent of non-Charedi American Jews ages 25 to 54 are not married, 21 percent are married to Jews, and 29 percent are intermarried. Just under one-third, 31 percent, are raising children as Jews in some way. They concluded that “a solid majority (perhaps 60 percent) of American non-[Charedi] Jewish adults will never have the experience of raising children in Judaism.”

The tables presented in the study are illuminating and sobering. Non-Orthodox Jews in America do not have spouses in large numbers, and if they do, then the spouses are not Jewish. They also do not have many children, and when they do, they do not raise them Jewishly. Like it or not, criticize it or criticize those who criticize it, believe that it can change or believe that it is a fact Jews must learn to live with — whatever you think, ignoring it would be a mistake.

This is a picture of a numerically declining Jewish community — unless you believe that an infusion of non-Jews into the community could keep its numbers up.

Family configurations for all non-Haredi American Jews ages 25-54

Alas, the numbers do not support such a belief. Having a Jewish spouse means a much better chance for a demonstrably Jewish home. On most questions — Are you a member of a synagogue? Do you have Jewish friends? Is being Jewish important? Are you attached to Israel? — the intensity is similar: Those with a non-Jewish spouse score low, those with no spouse score somewhat higher, those with a Jewish spouse score highest.

The authors of the study make it clear: “Marriage to Jews and the raising of Jewish-by-religion children are key to the current and future Jewish vitality of American Jewry, as well as to its transmissibility. The family first, and then community and friendships, create the conditions for formal and informal Jewish education to take place.”

Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg situation here. If one does not believe that being Jewish is important, one is less likely to insist on having a Jewish spouse and a Jewish home. If one does not have many Jewish friends, one also is less likely to have a Jewish spouse and less likely to have a Jewish home, even in cases where there is an initial desire to have one. If one does not have a spouse, one is less likely to have children to carry on the tradition. If one marries late, one might be less picky choosing a spouse of a certain tradition.

The bottom line is clear: If non-Orthodox Jews keep doing what they do, and if current trends do not change, the decline is all but guaranteed. The authors see a remedy for that in bolstering and emphasizing “the revival of Jewish social capital for Jewishly ‘impoverished’ families through the establishment of new Jewish social circles.”

I hope they are right, but for this to work, there is a need for Jewish leaders to acknowledge the challenge, define it as a problem and accept this remedy and its implications. Obviously, certain recent political developments have made a bad name for any call for parting with political correctness. But there’s clearly a need for that, too.

This is not, nor should it be, about disparaging Jews who make life choices as they see fit. And it is not, nor should it be, about alienating the non-Jewish partners of Jews. It’s not about forcing young Jews into marrying partners they dislike. And not about telling Jews what they should do. And not about saying that Jews who decide not to stick with Jewishness are in some fashion lesser people than those who choose to remain Jewish.

This is about looking at facts, acknowledging them and learning from them. It is about what we — those who want to see more Jews and more engaged Jews — can do to improve our chances of getting them.