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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

The family patterns of American Jews in many ways resemble those of American non-Jews with comparable socio-economic, educational, and occupational profiles. Researchers of family and religion have long demonstrated that peak ethno-religious involvement is associated with life-cycle status, especially with marriage and children.10 Across religious groups, maritally-intact couples with school-age children at home display relatively high levels of religious engagement, however that engagement is measured. Conversely, the absence of children – along with divorce, widowhood, and non-marriage – are associated with depressed levels of religious engagement.

Moreover, spouses of any religion who share ethno-religious backgrounds are more likely to raise children who, in turn, grow up to marry and raise children in that particular religious tradition.11 Much like non-married and non-parent Jewish adults, intermarried Jews exhibit lower than average rates of Jewish involvement. It is also accurate to say that they exhibit lower than average rates of Jewish continuity, as indicated by the large extent to which their children fail to identify as Jews and create Jewish families when they become adults.12

Dramatic changes in family patterns and characteristics underlie equally dramatic changes in religious behavior in the larger society in the recent past. In the 1950s and 1960s, America experienced a large upsurge of religious affiliation. More and more Americans joined houses of worship, both churches and synagogues, and more of them attended religious services. Church leaders – both lay and clergy – congratulated themselves on the apparent return to religion on the part of their congregants and parishioners. At the same time, some social scientists said, in effect, “Not so fast!” In their view, the growth in church activity was being fueled and driven not so much by extraordinary church leadership or a newly found hunger in the land for God and religion, but by the post-WWII “Baby Boom.” The title of one such article in this line of scholarship is especially illustrative: “A Little Child Shall Lead Them: A Statistical Test of an Hypothesis That Children Were the Source of the American ‘Religious Revival.’”13 In other words, the growth in marriage, young couples, children, and parenthood all served to stimulate church-joining, church-going, and church-growing.

Just as widespread marriage and a baby boom spurred religious activity in the 1950s, a half century later, several family-related trends have been associated with declining religious engagement. Americans started marrying later or not at all; they divorced more often; they reduced their birthrates or eschewed parenthood altogether. Delayed or non-marriage and a birth dearth were factors that went along with declining religious activity among Jews as well.

Robert Wuthnow notes, “Almost all of the decline in religious observance…has taken place among those young adults who are not married.”14 Amidst this slow and steady decline in religious affiliation, participation and identification in America – especially among young adults – religious leaders (Jews included) have wondered whether they were doing something especially wrong. Sermons, dues, programs, education, prayer, and all manner of religious functioning have come under scrutiny and demands for greater vision and creativity.

Currently, not only has American religious participation diminished, it has become increasingly concentrated among the conventionally configured couples-with-children who themselves make up a smaller fraction of the entire population. It should be noted that among younger Jewish Americans even that minority of “conventional” heterosexual two-parent families with children looks different than its parallels in the 1950s – today the majority include two parents who are labor force participants.15

Building upon this scholarship and these observations, this paper examines the contours of Jewish family formation today and their relationship with expressions of Jewish identity. More pointedly, with respect to relatively younger non-Haredi American Jewish adults today, it asks questions in five critical, related areas:

  • Marriage: To what extent are Jews’ marriage patterns consistent with that associated, at least in the past, with high rates of Jewish engagement, and to what extent do they tend to depart from those patterns? How many Jews are married to other Jews, and how many are non-married or married to non-Jews?
  • Children: Similarly, what are the childbearing and religious childrearing patterns of American Jews? How many are raising children as Jews, and specifically as Jews in the Jewish religion – a designation with important implications for the next generation? Alternatively, how many are raising no children, raising children as non-Jews, or raising their children as nominally Jewish, but with no expressions of Jewishness or religion?
  • Family configurations: Given the variety of possibilities with respect to marriage and childrearing, what are the major family configurations (involving both spouses and children) and to what extent are today’s Jews distributed across these configurations?
  • Family influence on Jewish engagement: Looking at the various configurations of marital status and childrearing, which sorts of Jewish engagement are associated with which types of family configurations? What are the Jewish identity differences between those who are non-married, inmarried, and intermarried, and what are the differences between those raising no children, non-Jewish children, Jewish children without any religion, or children in the Jewish religion?
  • Policy implications: Finally, in light of these findings, what are the implications for policy? To what extent is it critical to influence the family formation decisions of today’s American Jews and what might be done to influence those decisions?