Jewish family, Jewish social networks, and Jewish education have a mutually supportive – even symbiotic – relationship with each other. Statistically, marriage to Jews and Jewish parenting (i.e., raising children as Jews, ideally with a Jewish religious identification) elevate Jewish engagement; at the same time, Jewish engagement promotes marriage to Jews and Jewish parenting.
The connection between Jewish engagement and Jewish parenting can be seen in the far higher rates of Jewish engagement expressed by those raising their children in the Jewish religion, as this paper has shown. On all indicators of Jewish engagement, parents raising “Jewish-by-religion” children ranked far, far higher than those raising “non-Jewish” children, as well as those not raising children at home.
Now, a cross-sectional survey cannot allow the analyst to disentangle whether Jewish parenting brings about more Jewish engagement, or whether Jewish engagement brings about more Jewish parenting. We do know from other studies that in the case of affiliating with synagogues, for example, parenthood usually precedes affiliation. Rather, we believe BOTH processes are at work: Family decisions affect Jewish identity and Jewish identity affects family decisions.
The major policy implications of our findings is that interventions in two broad areas can help promote successful Jewish outcomes among the next generation of (non-Haredi) American Jews. One critical policy intervention is developing and supporting a range of Jewish educational endeavors. The second critical intervention entails promoting Jewish social networks for adolescents and single young adults. Jews who know Jews tend both to marry Jews and to be recruited for further Jewish engagement. Extending the years of formal education through the high school years is critically important.
In fact, to go beyond the current data, one reason why we believe Jewish education “works,” is that schools, camps, youth groups, and Israel experiences all establish and deepen friendships among Jewish adolescents and young adults, and they carry those friendships forward for years if not decades.
Fortunately, our research not only shows the depth of the challenges but also points to ways to meet those challenges. The organized Jewish community cannot compel earlier marriage and should not appear to be interfering in any way with free personal choice. (It would be wise to articulate its concerns tactfully.) But it can work to enhance the opportunities for young Jews to create social networks (i.e., create Jewish friendships) – which in turn will exert a positive impact upon Jewish engagement before marriage, and elevate the likelihood of Jews marrying Jews. Insofar as strong Jewish social networks support and sustain Jewish engagement, these social networks may be facilitated through a diverse range of programs that promote and enhance the Jewish social networks of Jews in their 20s and 30s.
American Jewish thought leaders, policy makers, philanthropists, and practitioners have paid scant attention to the centrality of the family to Jewish vitality. Many regard all Jewish journeys and family configurations not only as equal valid, but as equally valuable for Jewish engagement and continuity.
In contrast with such avowedly non-discriminatory and non-discriminating thinking, our study demonstrates that Jewish spouses matter, Jewish children matter, and, more generally, the configuration of Jewish families matters a great deal for current Jewish engagement and future Jewish continuity. The resistance to studying and discussing the declining numbers of Jewish families and declining numbers of children raised as “Jews-by-religion” precludes the readiness to respond to that challenge. Moving forward to confront this challenge to Jewish families is critical. The data are clear: Jewish families raising Jewish children are central to a viable next generation for tomorrow and a vital Jewish community for today.