Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

Since the end of WWI, the largest Jewish concentration in the Diaspora has been found in the United States.21 Over the last several decades, the number of Jews there has been stable and has presumably increased somewhat. While in 1957 some 5 million Jews resided in the United States, by 1990 their number had increased to 5.5 million, and further to 5.7 million in 2014.22 That American Jewry has managed to sustain its numbers and even grow slightly should be attributed to the calculus of different contradictory processes: low fertility, on the one hand, and positive international migration balance on the other. Likewise, actual Jewish fertility, namely the average number of children born to a Jewish women who are also raised Jewish, increased according to new data from the 2013 Pew survey, which found that more than one-third (36%) of the children of mixed couples are being raised Jewish (compared to only a quarter two decades earlier). This rate, however, is still somewhat lower than the 50% threshold required that intermarriage does not cause a demographic loss to the Jewish side. Moreover, we now know that among the adult offspring of mixed parentage there is an increase in the share of those who identify as Jews among younger age cohorts: while only one-quarter of those aged 65 and over with one Jewish parent define themselves as Jewish, this is true for 39 percent of their counterparts aged 30 to 49, and further rises to 59 percent among adult offspring below age 30.23 If so, mixed marriages are transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans. This increased tendency of adult offspring of mixed parentage to identify as Jewish moderates the aging of the American Jewish population.

The size of the American Jewish population, as mentioned above, includes all those who define themselves as “Jews by religion” as well as “Jews of no religion” but who consider themselves Jewish. In addition, there is another million people who define themselves as “partially Jewish” (600,000 adults and 400,000 children).24 This group could not have been identified in previous studies because interviewees were not offered the option of designating themselves as “partially Jewish.” Less clear are the other components of their identity, although it can certainly be said that they do not identify with any other religious faith.

The “partially Jewish” are of Jewish background as they have at least one Jewish parent. The majority of the adult “partially Jewish” (60%) group have a Jewish mother. Four out of every ten were raised as “Jews by religion” and another two out of ten grew up as “partially Jewish.” Often, the “partially Jewish” view their Judaism in terms of Jewish ancestry or in terms of belonging to a cultural group, but with no religious meaning. Although some 80 percent of them are proud to be Jewish, only one-third feel a strong attachment to Judaism, and a similar proportion reported that it is very or somewhat important for them to be Jewish (as compared to twice this rate among “Jews of no religion” and three times higher among “Jews by religion”). The “partially Jewish” exhibit lower rates than “Jews of no religion” and certainly lower rates than “Jews by religion” in various indicators of Jewish behavior, such as membership in Jewish institutions, fasting on Yom Kippur, attending a Passover Seder, or belonging to informal Jewish networks. Notably, the “partially Jewish” resemble “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” in key demographic and socio-economic characteristics such as age, gender, and education.

Thus, self-identification as “partially Jewish” is also reflected in the rhythm of Jewish attitudes and practices. These people are partially Jewish whereas the other part of their identity, as mentioned earlier, is not associated whatsoever with another religion. Their Jewish identity is presumably coincident with one or a few of such components as American identity, racial identity as non-Hispanic whites, social status, cultural preferences, or political orientation. In the past, in an American society that emphasized the idea of the melting pot and where Jews were a minority uncertain about their acceptance by the majority culture, many among them with a mixed background or who were raised at a distance from Judaism, when faced with the dichotomy option of Jewish identity or another religious identity chose the latter. Today, in contrast, America emphasizes principles of pluralism, multiculturalism, and the freedom of choice, and, together with the social benefit of identifying as Jewish, people are open to and feel secure in indicating Judaism as one component of their self-identity. Social and cultural developments in the general American scene have opened a plurality of options to define group belonging, be it an exclusive identity or one component in a dual or multiple self-identity.

A complementary dimension to the number of Jews is their share within the total American population. In 1957, Jews represented 2.8 percent of all Americans, however, by 1990 their proportion declined to 2.2 percent, and further to only 1.8 percent in 2013.

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