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Despite the Gloomy Headlines, American Jewry has Grown in Size

American Jewry has grown in size, is largely connected to Israel, and the young generation can be engaged; is more diverse and divided than in the past Highlights from Prof. Leonard Saxe’s lecture at JPPI (edited by Dan Feferman).

Despite (some of) the gloomy headlines from the recent Pew Study of American Jewry, along with reports about anti-Semitism, BDS and American Jews turning on Israel, there is much in the Pew data to be optimistic about. These were the main messages delivered by Professor Len Saxe, who heads the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, in a presentation (13.7.21) to the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).

The myth of the vanishing American Jew

Presenting his analysis of the recently published 2020 Pew Study of American Jewry, Saxe sought to refute the pervasive myth of the vanishing American Jew, a widespread assumption that growing rates of intermarriage were leading not only to assimilation but to Jewish disidentification; intermarried Jews are not shedding their Jewish identities and Judaism at the rates that were prevalent in past generations. The 2020 study places the number of American Jews at 7.5 million (5.8 million adults and 1.8 million children), which reflects a 36% increase since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

Saxe notes that the 7.5 million estimate is close to a consensus view among researchers today. Its reliability is suggested by the fact that different methods: a national sample developed as Pew did, combinations of local studies, and the synthesis of religion data from hundreds of studies done by Brandeis’ American Jewish Population project, come to similar conclusions. Each documents increasing numbers of identified Jews, using the same criteria for inclusion that have long been used by social scientists studying American Jewry.

This growth can be attributed to multiple factors, most notably, immigration and intermarriage. The immigration to the US of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Latin America and Israel has led to a net growth of American Jewry since 1990. At the same time, Saxe notes that the rate of intermarriage has brought new members to the community, particularly children of inter-married couples.  Over the span of a single generation, children of intermarriage have doubled the rate at which they identify as Jews.

Who is a Jew and who isn’t?

Saxe explained that Pew’s estimate of 7.5 million American Jews is based, as with previous surveys, on a self-definition of who consider themselves Jewish, and who have an acceptable basis for claiming Jewish identity. Most of these individuals consider their religion to be Judaism (JBRs – Jews by Religion), but it also includes about a quarter of the Jewish population who think of themselves as Jews, even though they are agnostic or atheist. Pew labels these individuals as “Jews not by religion” (JNR).

Saxe likens these Jews to Israeli “hiloni” Jews (secular).  He notes that the in past surveys, many of these non-religious Jews would have responded that this is their “religion,” but that it has become more acceptable to be non-religious.  The JNR population includes Jewish spouses in intermarried households, along with their children.

The JNR group does not, however, include some 2.8 million adults who have Jewish parentage, but  do not consider themselves Jewish and or have another religion. These individuals are labeled as having “Jewish Background” and not counted as part of the Jewish population. It also doesn’t include non-Jewish members of Jewish households; for example, a spouse who has not converted.  Local Jewish communal leaders often want to include these individuals, but for demographic study purposes, they are not.

Intermarriage is changing the landscape of American Jewry

According to Saxe, one of the most important reasons that the population has increased is that, among millennials (born after 1981), the majority who are offspring of intermarriages identify as Jews when they turn 18. Thus, more than 60% of millennial Jews born to interfaith parents choose to identify as Jewish, versus fewer than 30% in the previous generation.

A number of factors explain this shift, however, the major element seems to be that the collective Jewish world began to recognize the Jewishness of such individuals, and actively sought to engage with, rather than exclude them. The Reform Movement went so far as to recognize that those with patrilineal descent are also considered Jewish.

Overall, 70% of non-Orthodox weddings in the past decade have been inter-faith marriages. And yet, if Saxe wished to point out one major cause for concern among Jewish leaders, it is that two in-married Jews are 93% likely to raise their children as Jewish by religion (JBR), while inter-married couples are only 57% likely to raise their children as Jewish (28% as JBR and 29% as JNR).

Denominational trends

Saxe pointed to a few key denominational trends taking place in American Jewry – some that can be seen in the Pew data, and some that are less visible, but that arise from the community studies he has conducted.

The first is the collapse of Conservative Judaism – once the central movement in American Jewry. Part of this had to do with intermarried couples (especially men) in Conservative synagogues, feeling less at home, and moving to Reform congregations. Subsequently, this had the side-effect of bringing more traditional observance and knowledge to the Reform movement, which has remained steady.

Secondly, Saxe pointed to the increase in those without a denominational identity. If in the past, this meant they were less likely to care about their Jewish identities, this increasingly means they might not have neat labels to express their Judaism (of course, many are relatively unengaged in Jewish life).

Lastly, Saxe referred to what seemed to be a dramatic spike in the number of young Orthodox Americans. However, while there was a slight growth in the Orthodox population, the spike seen in Pew may be a methodological artifact (young Orthodox are more likely to be married and have a permanent address – making them easier to sample).

Political Divisions, Anti-Semitism and Discrimination

The Pew study pointed out that American Jews are as politically polarized as much of the general population, with 75% identifying as Democrats and 26% as Republicans. Among the various sub-groups, only the Orthodox primarily identify as Republicans.

A point of interest – while all Jews perceived levels of anti-Semitism in society as worrying and at roughly equal numbers, Democrat Jews perceived discrimination against Blacks and Muslims at much higher levels than did Republican Jews. This might stem from Democratic Jews seeing anti-Semitism in a wider societal context than do Republican leaning Jews, who view it as specifically aimed at Jews. This difference has policy implications, when it comes to coalition building among civic, racial, and religious groups.

Lastly on this matter, despite all Jews noting increased levels of anti-Semitism, it has yet to stop them from participating in Jewish life.

Birthright Israel – the Case of Successful Policy Interventions and Covid-19 as a Live Test Case

Saxe noted that, even if one is concerned about rates of engagement (religious and otherwise) that the Pew data also make clear that these trends are not fixed.  The Pew 2020 data validate research that he has conducted – including a study of 4,000 young Jews who applied to Birthright during its first decade.   Just as his research indicated, Pew found that among those who had been age-eligible for Birthright, those who participated were significantly more engaged Jewishly and more highly emotionally attached to Israel.  Along with dramatic effects on Jewish identity, they also were much more likely to marry other Jews and near-universally, raise their children as Jews.

Birthright’s success is suggested by the Pew data which indicates that among those who were eligible for Birthright, the majority of those who visited Israel went through Birthright. Among US Jews aged 25-34, one-quarter are Birthright alumni.

He also pointed out that, while Pew reported that more than 70% of recent marriages of non-Orthodox Jewish marriages were to non-Jews, this doesn’t describe Birthright alumni. Among their respondents who were alumni, 54% were married to another Jew, vs 19% of those who had not been to Israel on Birthright.

And while the 2021 Hamas conflict is too recent to examine, data from the 2014 conflict showed a significant difference between how non-participants felt vs participants, (33% of non-participants felt the 2014 conflict was unjustified versus 20% of participants).

Similarly, having been to Israel greatly impacted one’s support for Israel during the 2014 conflict. Furthermore, while all those who had been to Israel showed significant increases in their levels of connection to and support for Israel, the greatest increases were among those who had the least connection to their Jewish identities and Israel prior to participating.  Birthright alumni also had significantly more confidence in their understanding of the current situation in Israel than non-participants.

The past year has served the Jewish community as a living test-case in many regards. Thus, Saxe attributes many of these successes to American Birthright participants forming personal connections to Israeli Jews, especially soldiers of varying political affiliations, during the trip. He assesses that these connections are critical in helping shape the understanding of Birthright participants about Israel and their connection to Israeli Jews, something that was disrupted during the past year.

Key Takeaways 

Saxe presented several key takeaways for policy makers that arise from the Pew data, and the past year of living with Covid.

First, the growth of American Jewry should be seen by Israel as a very positive development.  American Jews are a strategic asset. Second, American Jewry – perhaps no different than Israel – is diverse. American Jews think about their Judaism in different ways and have a different opinions about American and Israeli politics. Third, most American Jews, despite what might be believed in Israel, are connected to and supportive of Israel. And more importantly, this connection can be nurtured and developed through policy interventions, like Birthright. Fourth, establishing a human connection between American and Israeli Jews is crucial to forming relationships between the communities and shaping each group’s views on the other. The Covid experiment shows us what happens in the absence of such contact.

Lastly, educational and outreach efforts should focus more on “amcha”, Ordinary Jews, not just those perceived to have leadership potential as has been done in the past. Many young Jews, especially those from interfaith backgrounds, seek a connection to Judaism and the Jewish community, yet feel they do not “know enough” to participate. Communal organizations and initiatives must work to better reach out to these, “meeting them where they are”, without judgement or a sense of elitism. For each sub-category of Jews, there must be different messaging and approaches.