A daunting policy challenge facing the American Jewish community is that its “middle” is shrinking. The “Jewish middle” is composed of Jews who are highly committed to the Jewish people and the Jewish community but who are not necessarily committed or involved in Jewish religious practice or Orthodox observance (though they do belong to Conservative or Reform synagogues). Together with their strong commitment to the Jewish people, they are significantly involved in general American life, and, on average, have relatively high incomes and educational and professional achievements. The Conservative movement is closely associated with this Jewish middle and it has been declining in numbers – membership in the Conservative movement has shrunk from around 40 percent of American Jews in 1990 to 18 percent in 2013. At the same time, the two extremes – the Orthodox and the assimilated – seem to be growing. The Orthodox, and especially the ultra-Orthodox, have far higher birth rates than the non-Orthodox streams, and that is slowly having an overall impact.
According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the Orthodox constituted 6.6 percent of the population; in the 2013 Pew study, they constituted 10 percent. Family size is even more telling. Orthodox children constitute 27 percent of the total population of Jewish children in the United States.1 The trend at the other extreme also seems to be showing more growth. As we indicated in the demographic chapter, for the first time, the trend among children of intermarried couples is toward greater Jewish identification. Thus, in the youngest adult cohort, 18-30, 59 percent of the children of mixed families identify as Jewish. According to researcher Ted Sasson, this accounts for the relatively high percentage of Jews of no religion among Jewish Millenials, and also for part of the growth of the Jewish population as a whole.2 The contrasting tendencies between the two polar populations on the one hand and the “middle” of Conservative and affiliated Reform Jews on the other can be seen in their median ages. The median age of the Orthodox is 40, and the median age of Jews of no denomination (who overlap with Jews of no religion and intermarried) is 43. In contrast the median age of Conservatives is 55, and 54 for Reform Jews.