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2017 Annual Assessment

The decline of the Jewish Middle and increased polarization within the Jewish community present critical challenges but also opportunities for the Jewish people. In light of these contrasting trends, we are leaving the identity and identificationgauge unchanged.

  • In the past year we have witnessed, in regard to Jewish identity among Jews of the United States, both the intensification of existing trends and the emergence of new trends.
  • One trend that seems to have intensified is the declining Jewish middle. That is, non-Orthodox Jews who are affiliated with synagogues, religious denominations and Jewish organizations. This trend is expressed in declining numbers of Jews who belong to non-Orthodox denominations. According to a recent study by PRRI, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” since the Pew Center’s study of American Jews published in 2013 (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans”), The number of Jews belonging to the Reform movement has declined by 7 percent – from 35 percent in the Pew Study to 28 percent in PRRI – and for the Conservative movement, a decline of 4 percent. The Conservative Movement now constitutes 14 percent of American Jews, just 4 percent more than the Orthodox (10 percent). At the same time, the number of Jews who identify as having no denomination is growing. The number of Jews who answered that they are “just Jewish” was 37 percent as opposed to 30 percent who answered in that fashion in the Pew study.
  • This trend is especially pronounced among younger Jews. In the 18-29 age cohort, just 8 percent identified as Conservative. In contrast, 15 percent identified as Orthodox, almost as many as Reform (20 percent). The large number of younger Orthodox Jews can be attributed to the much larger Orthodox birthrate – “More than six in ten (62 percent) Orthodox Jewish parents say they have at least three children living in their household, compared to 17 percent of Jewish parents who identify as Reform who say the same.” At the same time, Reform and Conservative numbers are much stronger in the 65+ age group. Thirty-five percent of this cohort identify as Reform and 20 percent as Conservative.
  • The corollary of the declining Jewish middle is growth at the “poles” of Jewish identity and identification. The Orthodox seem to be growing, at least in the younger cohorts. At the other end, the PRRI study indicates that Jews PRRI identifies as “cultural Jews”1 also seem to be growing. In the Pew report, Jews of No Religion constituted 22 percent. If the PRRI study reflects a similar group they are about a third. Here again the trend is much more pronounced among younger Jews (a majority – 53 percent).
  • As the Pew study showed, Jews of No Religion are much different from Jews by Religion. They are much less engaged – as a group they do not belong to synagogues or Jewish organizations, they do not contribute to Jewish organizations, nor are they very attached to Israel or to Jewish communities around the world. As written in JPPI’s 2014 Annual Assessment, Jews of No Religion accept their Jewishness as a matter of fact, It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture. Other researchers have argued that this population, and populations that overlap with it, such as children of intermarriage, respond to targeted educational programs and as a result become more Jewishly engaged. They cite studies showing that the very youngest cohorts of such Jews, who were the beneficiaries of such programs (conducted since the Pew study), evince more Jewish engagement.2 It seems too early to draw firm conclusions in this regard. Furthermore, it is not clear what brings about such engagement. Is it the provision of Jewish meaning or the re-drawing of social boundaries between Jews and non-Jews? Perhaps it is a combination of the two.
  • One of the new trends might be termed the “Rise of Orthodoxy.” Just as Jews of No Religion are different from what used to be the mainstream of American Jewry, so are the Orthodox. They are different, first politically and culturally. In the last four U.S. presidential elections they tended to vote Republican as opposed to other American Jews who overwhelmingly voted Democrat. A much higher percentage say that they “lean Republican” (55 percent according to Pew) than other American Jews, and they have much more conservative political and social views. (See chapter “The Rise of Orthodoxy and the Political-Cultural Polarization of the American Jewish Community.”)
  • The rising predominance of Jews of No Religion, who are basically disconnected from Jewish life and engagement, is a critical challenge for the Jewish community. The rise of Orthodoxy poses a different set of challenges. On the one hand they are among the most committed and engaged Jews. However, they are less engaged with the organized Jewish community and with the general American society. it also increases political and cultural polarization between them and the vast majority of liberal non-Orthodox American Jews, which weakens the Jewish community overall. As a result of these contrasting trends we are leaving the needle in the Jewish Identity gauge unchanged.

Endnotes


1 The following is a quote from the PRRI’s study “America’s Changing Religious Identity”, Daniel Cox, Ph.D., Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., 09.06.2017: “To identify culturally affiliated Jews, we asked all respondents who claimed no formal religious affiliation the following question: ‘Do you consider yourself to be Jewish for any reason?’ Any respondent who said ‘yes’ or ‘half’ was classified as culturally Jewish.” https://www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/

2 Theodore Sasson, Janet Krasnic Aronson, Fern Chertok, Charles Kadushin, Leonard Saxe, “Millenial Children of Intermarriage: Religious Upbringing, Identification and Behavior Among Children of Jewish and Non-Jewish Parents, Contemporary Jewry, April 2017, 37:1, 99-123.

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