Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

Families and the Transmission of Jewish Identity

Jews who live in close proximity to many Jews, live with other Jews in their households, and have mostly Jewish social circles are more Jewishly engaged in all respects. However, for at least 60 years, fewer Jews live in densely Jewish neighborhoods. Geographic mobility has taken many Jews away from historically Jewish population centers.3 The freedom American Jews feel to live in geographic and social proximity to other Americans – non-Jewish as well as Jewish – is certainly a positive development in terms of life options and opportunities for Jews as individuals. However, the decline of cohesive communities of Jews who live close to each other complicates the natural, effortless transmission of social capital. A substantial number of American Jews reside in the “borderlands,” to use Steven M. Cohen’s evocative phrase, in terms of both their Jewish connectedness and geographical location.4

This lack of Jewish closeness is both physical and symbolic – as is evident in the norms and values of young Jews. Consider the anecdotal evidence of a small gathering of Jewish thinkers and Wexner Graduate Fellows (the prestigious and competitive Jewish leadership program) held recently in New York;5 there, several of the fellows vividly articulated views widely held by today’s American Jews who – like them – are in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s:
“Why do you worry about [Jewish group] survival?”

“Survival is the golden calf of Judaism. We are so obsessed with survival that we forget what it is we want to survive,”

“Isn’t tribalism at the root of what is in essence social engineering, and isn’t this the root of ethnocentric violence?”

Their critique of tribalism – a term with near-sinister connotations – resonated for many of the young leaders in this somewhat unusual intergenerational forum. Although we older scholars were at times disturbed by many of the ideas they expressed, the truth is we were not surprised. We already knew that many American Jewish Millennials (Jews born between the early 1980s and 2000) look askance at Jewish peoplehood and collective destiny as compelling personal values.

But what really caught us by surprise was that their individualism expressed itself not only in their rejecting Jewish collective identity, but also in how individualism trumped family as an urgent concern in their personal decisions about marriage and children. Illustrative is the thinking of one soon-to-be engaged female rabbi: “I am 31 years old and I’m probably getting engaged soon. Then we will probably wait awhile to have children… [rather than having children soon after marrying].” Her reason for waiting to have a family was that she feared moving on to this new lifecycle stage would cut short her own individual flowering: “I would not trade for anything the decade that I’ve had – or maybe the decade and half I will have – for personal development and discovery.”

This striking individualism regarding community and family marks a dramatic change from the more collective orientations of previous generations. While many of their Boomer parents traveled Jewish journeys toward “The Jew Within,”6 and coalesced American and Jewish values,7 today’s younger generation – including even many of the well-educated leaders among them – has become, in anything, less preoccupied with collective destiny and communal goals, and more inclined to see Jewishness as a resource – albeit a rich and diverse one – for their own personal meaning.

The “survival” of the Jewish group, the dynamic maintenance of the Jewish community, and the transmission of Jewish culture to the next generation have been self-evident goals, constituting bedrock values for historical Jewish societies; they continue to be so for notable segments of the Jewish population worldwide today. For hundreds of years, Jewish families have maintained vibrant quotidian Jewishness and served as the primary locale of transmitting Jewish culture to the next generation. In contrast, the growing perception among today’s Jews in their 20s and 30s that Jewish identity is invested in the individual rather than the family is closely tied to the declining centrality of the family, to the postponement of family formation, and to the receding emphasis on endogamy (in-group marriage).

Bringing Jews Together

Social circles – by which we mean a geographically proximate Jewish community,8 friendship networks, and most critically the family grouping – strongly influence Jewish identity, in all its stages of development. For many American Jews, their few unifying ethnoreligious experiences take place within the family of origin, as well as friendship circles and adult nuclear and extended families. In fact, with the weakening of Jewish neighborhoods, the family is today’s primary social group that socializes young Jews. Accordingly, intact and strong Jewish families are perhaps even more critical to Jewish identity transmission than in the past. Conversely, disruptions that have changed patterns of family formation for many Americans and for many American Jews are intricately tied to disruptions in transmissible Jewish culture to succeeding generations.

Against the American emphasis on individualism, those younger American Jews who do place greater value on Jewish social networks – family, community, and the international Jewish collective – are in many ways deeply countercultural. They resist a larger culture that is suspicious of inherited social identities, such as those constructed around religion or ethnicity.

Who are these countercultural resisters – young people who place a premium on Jewish collective life and religious engagement and who exhibit more traditional family formation tendencies? What do we know about (non-Haredi) young adult Jews who marry, marry at a younger age, marry Jews, have children and raise them in the Jewish religion?
As data from the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans9 underscore, we know that they have significant and substantial Jewish social circles, family and friends. Overwhelmingly they have two Jewish parents, and a majority of their current friends are Jewish.10 Earlier studies have shown that their largely Jewish friendship circles in high school were replicated in college,11 and that their current friendship circles include a majority of Jewish friends.12

For the organized Jewish community, the policy implications of these findings are clear: They argue for enhancing opportunities for teens, college students, and unmarried young adult Jews to meet each other and to create Jewish social circles – not only, but certainly including, romantic attachments.

Contemporary Patterns of Family, Marriage, and Fertility

Younger American Jews’ individualistic attitudes are shaped both by American Millennial social networks and the norms and values of a broader Western culture, which often work to undermine conventional familial bonds.

This phenomenon is of course not limited to Jews. In March 2015, one day apart, two highly regarded New York Times columnists – one a moderate conservative and the other a perennial liberal – agreed on the devastating impact of the fading of family norms among significant segments of the American population. David Brooks’ March 10 column, “The Cost of Relativism”13 discussed Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. Nicholas Kristoff’s “When Liberals Blew It” on March 11,14 commemorated the anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report that attributed poverty among African-Americans in part to weakened family patterns. The two columns made powerful overlapping points. According to Brooks, American society is missing “Norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens.” Unlike liberals’ emphasis on autonomy or Cohen and Eisen’s Sovereign Jewish Self,15 Brooks argues that societies need internalized rules, behaviors you don’t think about. But today, “There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.” Kristoff, despite his identification with the liberal camp, accused his fellow liberals of making discussions of family norms off limits for progressive Americans, undermining long-standing emphases on family formation and family continuity, with extremely adverse consequences, as Moynihan had noted in the case of African-Americans.

When considering changes in family formation patterns, two possible vantage points could be adopted. One area of concern is that of larger societies throughout the developed world as they confront the prospect of fewer children. Analysts focusing on the needs of the social group, community, or country involved focus on the economic, political, and security implications when, according to recent figures, birth rates have fallen to 1.4 in Italy, 1.34 in Greece, and 1.39 in Japan. The profound social concerns of these figures are discussed by reviewer Garret Keizer as he comments on “a generation’s failure to generate”.16

A second – and very different – vantage point focuses on the personal impact of family formation decisions on the individuals involved. In the United States, this type of discussion is actually entered into relatively infrequently, as many Americans seem uncomfortable with the conversation. For example, in 2002, Sylvia Anne Hewlett published Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career,17 urging women to plan for parenthood with the same realism and awareness of the facts they planned their careers. Within days of its publication, Elizabeth Cohen of CNN’s Medical Unit reported (April 17, 2002)18 on the swift negative response to Hewlett as a putatively anti-woman conservative whose primary goal was to “scare” women into parenthood. In fact, Hewlett’s stated purpose was to encourage women to make realistic life decisions, but the notoriety she experienced may well have dissuaded others from speaking out in support of her positions.

It is important for American Jews to study and think about patterns of family formation from both vantage points – that of larger Jewish societies and that of Jewish individuals.

Among younger American Jews today, the number of children born is below replacement level. As Steven Cohen, Jack Ukeles, and Ron Miller found in the 2011 study of the New York Jewish population: hasidim had an average of about 6 children; the yeshivish (non-hasidic ultra-Orthodox) had an average of about 5 children; while Modern Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers had an average of 2.5 children per family. The non-Orthodox averaged only 1.5 children, not far from the 1.7 figure calculated by Pew researchers for the national non-Orthodox population.19

In contrast, as Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola reminds us, like the Israeli society around them, hiloni or self-described secular couples are far more pro-natalist than their American or European counterparts. Even hiloni Israeli couples aspire to having between three and four children, and actually give birth to almost three children per family (2.7-2.8).20 Secular Israeli couples’ high birthrates demonstrate the powerful effect of social norms and social contagion – the impact of the people we know and the larger society.21

In all areas of family formation – fertility, cohabitation before marriage, timing of marriage, female labor force participation – the norms and attitudes of one’s social circles exert considerable influence.22

But most well educated Americans – including American Jews, by and large – are hesitant to discuss fertility. Symptomatic of this discomfort is the vocal critique of Hewlett and other pro-natalists, while only conservative columnists such as Ross Douthat23 write recent columns entitled, “More Babies, Please.”24 The lack of individual urgency regarding childbearing echoes and is echoed by conversations in magazines and the electronic media. During the past ten years, popular periodicals and other media outlets have publicized a plethora of triumphalist stories with one punchline: Don’t believe the “scare” stories – you can have a baby much later than you think. But recent medical literature tells a different story: Sara Rosenthal clarifies rates of infertility according to recent research: according to recent figures, between 3 to 5 percent of women in their 20s experience infertility, climbing to 8 percent between the ages of 30 to 34, 15 percent at ages 35 to 39, 32 percent at ages 40 to 44, and 69 percent at ages 45 to 49. 25

American Jewish communal and religious leaders have rightly been concerned with the rising proportion of Jews marrying across religious and cultural boundaries. But while intermarriage animates (often heated) discussions,26 far less attention has been paid to the fact that numerous Jews marry so late that they don’t have easy access to appropriate Jewish partners, and often are not physically able to bear the children they had hoped for. Recently, the norms of marriage and raising Jewish children have retreated in the face of extended singleness, non-marriage, and – planned or unplanned – childlessness.27 Considering the implications for American Jewry as well as the implications for American Jews, patterns of courtship, marriage, and fertility are aspects of American Jewish life that would benefit from thoughtful analysis.

The Growing Prominence of “Partnership” Marriages

Just over one-quarter of American Jewish households – 27 percent – consist of two parents with children under 18. But these households, although a minority of Jewish households, represent an exciting – and little recognized – positive model for future growth and development in the American Jewish community. Calling these households “Partnership Marriages,” Sylvia Barack Fishman shows how the majority of these households blend individualistic goals and aspirations with what we may call “traditional Jewish family values,” in “Gender in American Jewish Life”.v28

Most American Jewish families with children living at home have two parents working outside the home for pay – about three quarters of spouses ages 25 to 64. The figures are similar even when broken down by decades. The great majority of American Jewish women with children under age six at home are also labor force participants. Husbands and wives tend to have similar levels of educational and occupational achievement. Even their salary levels are quite close. Divorce rates are substantially lower than in the population at large. One might assume that such households would be too busy for Jewish connections. But, as Harriet and Moshe Hartman demonstrate in detail ,29 these same households that display spousal parity are also among the most Jewishly involved households – however Jewish involvement is measured – in the United States. Indeed the majority of Modern Orthodox American Jews are part of this demographic and this lifestyle.

Because these “Partnership” families model “having it all,” to use a contemporary – if hyperbolic – phrase and concept, they should be studied to see how their histories and the strategies they employ might be extended to larger segments of the American Jewish population.

Educating Jews for Jewish Family Formation

A second area of exciting and hopeful news is that interventions – especially Jewish educational interventions of both day schools and supplementary schools can make a significant, measurable difference: Educating children more than seven years in Jewish day school or in supplementary school settings, through the teen years, exerts positive Jewish impacts on family-related outcomes as well as upon adult Jewish engagement. Our analysis of the recent Pew data set revealed that Jews who study in either day school or even supplementary (largely, congregational) schools for more than seven years are more likely to marry a Jew and more likely to raise children who are “Jewish by religion.” Jewish summer camps also exert a significant positive effect.30

We also must note that all available studies of the impact of Israel travel point in the same direction: Visiting Israel produces elevated measures of Jewish involvement and engagement. The impact of Birthright trips is well documented.Less often realized, teen trips also exert lasting impact. For example, in a recent study of the Robert I. Lappin Foundation’s Youth To Israel program,31 of the married alumni – all of whom originated from nearly two dozen small towns north of Boston – 72 percent had married Jews. In contrast, using the recently conducted 2013 Pew study as a comparison group, for young adults with Jewish educational and parental backgrounds resembling “Lappin’s kids,” just 50 percent had married Jews.

In sum, Jewish education functions as an intervention partially because it fosters peer Jewish social circles. Such interventions have become more and more significant because for Jews to experience Jewish social circles (and find Jewish spouses) is now not a common experience for large numbers of American Jews. Moreover, such in-group friendship and marital patterns run counter to American society’s celebration of ethnically diverse or transcultural relationships, to the extent that Jews who outspokenly promote endogamy (in-marriage) are sometimes accused of being “racist.”32 Having Jewish friends helps young Jews experience warm feelings toward and good memories of such Jewish groups.33

The clear policy implication of these newly mined data on Jewish education, consistent with a long research literature, is that Jewish schooling matters. The creation, expansion, and effective marketing of excellent, attractive, and affordable Jewish educational non-Orthodox day school programs and supplementary school programs for teenagers, is an area where communal intervention can make a measurable difference in the quality of American Jewish identity and the transmission of Jewish identity to the next generation of American Jews.

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