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2017 Annual Assessment

Another aspect of the bifurcation of the Jewish community in the United States is expressed in terms of demography, marriage and reproductive patterns, and their relation to Jewish identity. Whereas the Orthodox, and especially the Ultra-Orthodox, marry young, overwhelmingly marry Jewish spouses, and have significant numbers of children (Modern Orthodox, average 3 children; Ultra-Orthodox, almost 6 per family), non-Orthodox Jews marry late, have a high incidence of intermarriage, and have far fewer children (on average, 1.4).

Demographers and social scientists are divided over the meaning of this situation, especially the pattern of Jewish identity and reproduction of non-Orthodox Jews. Some researchers and commentators, looking at the small number of children, the high number of households without children, and the high rates of intermarriage have drawn pessimistic conclusions regarding the future of the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Analyzing the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans data, they have drawn attention to the fact that only 21 percent of Jewish adults between 25-54 are raising children as Jews by Religion,1 that is, as Jews who exhibit a high rate of Jewish engagement: membership in synagogues and Jewish organizations; Jewish philanthropy; attachment to Israel and feeling of solidarity with, and responsibility toward, other Jews. They have also stressed that that children of intermarriages and Jews of No Religion exhibit much lower levels of Jewish engagement and sense of connection to, and responsibility toward, other Jews.

At the same time, a number of writers have taken issue with this pessimistic outlook.2 They have argued that spiritual quality and the meaningfulness of Jewish life are more important than numbers. Above all, they have pointed to data that show that among those under 30, a majority of the children of intermarriages identify as Jewish.

The real question undergirding this debate is: What does it mean to be Jewish in 21st century America? The pessimistic camp (who prefer to describe themselves as “deeply concerned”) represented by Steven M. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman3, among others, holds a vision of Jewish membership and belonging that until recently characterized the “Jewish middle” – Conservative and Reform Jews who were very committed to the Jewish people (worldwide) and to Israel and expressed this commitment through membership in synagogues and Jewish organizations and through Jewish philanthropy. The backbone of this approach is a commitment to the well-being and flourishing of Jewish “sacred ethnicity.”4 On a deep level, Jewish identity is conceived as belonging to a primordial, given community of faith characterized by a high degree of mutual solidarity and responsibility. The pessimistic camp is alarmed because it sees this form of Jewish identity as disappearing. They are seeking to find ways to promote a pattern of active engagement in the religio-ethnic community characterized by subjective commitment, religious practice, informational association, and formal affiliation, either through educational interventions or by somehow encouraging earlier marriage, in-marriage and larger families. Many of the interventions these researchers advocate are aimed at forming and/or reinforcing Jewish social networks, which are viewed as key in establishing Jewish families with children and encouraging Jewish engagement. In connection with this, some researchers in this camp stress that in order for ethnic (or religio-ethnic) groups to exist they must maintain some sort of social boundaries vis-a-vis non-members of the group.5

Members of the other, more optimistic group take the disappearance of primordial sacred ethnicity as a given in contemporary America. They take it for granted that belonging there will take the form of individual choice. They are encouraged by the fact that in the youngest cohorts among the majority of children of intermarried families identify as Jewish. This, of course is a new development in modern Jewish history. It seems to stem, in part, from the high esteem that Judaism and Jews enjoy in contemporary America, possibly to the fact that so few of this cohort have yet married, and that intermarriage is so widespread that far more committed Jews (their parents) are intermarrying. Researchers with this point of view have also argued that research of the past year or two, shows enhanced Jewish identity also among young Jews of other groups characterized in the past by low identification and engagement (such as Jews of No Religion) due to educational programming targeting them.6

In line with this, certain writers and observers have stressed the need for programs that individuals will find engaging and meaningful. Participating in such programs, and communities – camps, youth groups, Israel trips – will (ideally) demonstrate that Jewish engagement can be meaningful for individuals. Such participation can help children of intermarriages and Jews of No Religion choose to identify and engage Jewishly. Thus, writers such as Len Saxe and his colleagues have published research showing that intermarried couples who are married by a rabbi, or children of intermarriages that participate in Jewish programming in college or go on Birthright trips have higher levels of Jewish engagement.7 The challenge, though, in regard to the population of the marginally affiliated and the children of intermarried couples is not that they do not respond to meaning-laden or immersive programming, but in getting them to participate in such programs in the first place.

Furthermore, a few researchers have suggested that such programs work because they construct social boundaries as well as provide meaning.8

The two approaches do not really generate policy alternatives. Everybody seems to agree that we should prepare programs for both the Jewish core or “middle’ and the marginally affiliated and intermarried. There do seem to be somewhat different emphases between the two camps.

The more optimistic camp advocates investment in the marginally affiliated and the intermarried group, claiming that, in fact, this group is becoming paradigmatic for Jewish identity writ large in America. This camp would like to foster the development of meaning-laden and immersive programs, and strategies for marketing them, so that those whose connection to Judaism is based entirely on individual choice will be inclined to choose Judaism and Jewish engagement. They, of course, also think that “connected Jews” can benefit from these programs insofar as the Jewish identity of connected Jews is also, today, ultimately based on individual choice.

The “deeply concerned” are more explicit about the need for best practices and creative programming for connected Jews and their children (the Jewish middle). However, they agree that the issue is not binary and that there is a lot of fluidity in who benefits from programs like Birthright Israel, Jewish college courses, and successful initiatives for unmarried younger Jewish adults.

Endnotes


1 Sylvia Barack Fishman and Steven M. Cohen, Family, Engagement and Jewish Continuity among American Jews, Jewish People Policy Institute, Jerusalem 2017.
2 Fishman and Cohen op. cit. p. 8-10.
3 Fishman and Cohen, Op. cit.
4 Worlds Apart: Systems of Jewish Identity in Israel and the Diaspora, The Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People, No. 10. Jewish People Policy Institute, Jerusalem, 2014.
5 Shlomo Fischer, Uzi Rebhun, Noah Slepkov, “Patterns of Jewish Identification Among Jews in America”. 17th World Congress of Jewish Studies, August 9, 2017.
6 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.
7 Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok, Graham Wright, Shachar Hecht, “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage”, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Theordore Sasson, Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok, Michelle Shain, Shahar Hecht, Graham Wright, “Millenial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement”, Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies, http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/noteworthy/intermarriage.html
8 Fischer, Rebhun and Slepkov op. cit.

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