Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews: Conference Call with Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna

Posted on: Wednesday October 30, 2013

The Pew Research Center recently released a comprehensive survey of U.S. Jews. In this conference call for RA members, Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna, one of the advisors for the Pew study, evaluated the data from the survey as related to the Conservative Movement and addressed opportunities for our Movement highlighted by the results. 

In addition to reading the highlights below, we recommend reading a few short selections from the full report that served as Dr. Sarna's jumping-off points. The sections are those on Growth of Jews with No ReligionBirth Rate,Household Composition, and Denominational Identity.

Highlights

  • Periodically, the Jewish community is jolted by distressing findings. In the 1930s relatively few Jews were getting a Jewish education and people were abandoning shuls in huge numbers. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s there were predictions of the demise of the Reform and Orthodox movements. It was widely believed that Jewish life in America was finished. Nevertheless both Reform & Orthodoxy changed in response to studies and criticisms; they managed to transform themselves. There is much to be learned from the transformations of the past. As has happened so often before in Jewish life, we must respond to predictions of gloom & doom, and in creative ways—remembering that continuity is often preserved by promoting discontinuities—address the challenges that we face.
  • One of the most prominent aspects of the Pew study is that 22% of the Jews questioned described themselves as “Jews of no religion,” the fastest-growing demographic in American Jewish life. These numbers are similar to the proportion of Americans overall who no longer identify denominationally. But other responses suggest that many of these Jews have just not found a home in organized religion since they are often deeply spiritual. A full 30% of them identify denominationally. Many are involved in Jewish social and cultural life. One suspects that many of these Jews are akin to the Christians who report that they are “not religious” but are “deeply spiritual.”
  • The information concerning the Conservative movement was painful for some to read but essential and interesting. Jews who identify as Conservative have fallen to 18% of the population and there are fewer children in the average Conservative household than in the average Reform or Orthodox household. But 36% of the Jews surveyed identify as “other,” “just Jewish,” or “nondenominational” and many of these are neither Reform nor Orthodox but somewhere in the middle. Since members of this cohort are involved but not tied to a particular institution, they represent a huge opportunity for the Jewish future. This is where Jews should focus their engagement efforts.
  • Many of the report’s findings reflect the impact of intermarriage. 73% of Conservative Jews are “in-married”, a higher rate than Reform Jews and lower than Orthodox Jews. 43% of intermarried families say they are raising children neither as Jews nor as non-Jews but somewhere in between. Meanwhile, 2.4 million people claim a Jewish background but have left Judaism entirely. We should therefore pay close attention to these children of intermarriages being raised partially or wholly as non-Jews as well as those who have left the fold. How much stronger would we be if we had retained them and what can we do to keep them with us, or bring them back?
  • Many of today’s rabbis lived their professional lives in an era of Jewish revival. Many young people, beginning after the Six Day War and especially in the 1970s, became more Jewish engaged and better educated Jewishly than their parents. Every period of revival is followed by a downcycle, and that is what we are experiencing now. But that does not preclude the possibility of another revival. Likewise, all centrist American religions are struggling in this time of political polarization. But if the “vital center” reasserts itself and political centrism returns, religiously centrist movements like Conservative Judaism are likely to grow. 
  • An indisputable finding of the Pew report is that those Jews who have strong backgrounds in schools, camps, youth groups, Israel trips, etc. are far more likely to remain engaged in Jewish life over time.
  • All American religious movements are experiencing stress. The average Jew is less and less concerned with denominations—he or she is looking for a strong and spiritual community, a place to feel at home. Synagogues that meet that need are far more likely to succeed.

Quotations

  • “We should not assume that American Judaism is linear, that all trends continue in a straight line inevitably… Studies like this are calls to action. Just as Jonah called the people of Nineveh to action and they averted the evil decree, so can we.”
  • “36%...of Jews are not in any of the denominations. They call themselves ‘other’ or ‘just Jewish’ or something else…[many of them] are neither Reform nor Orthodox but somewhere in the middle…41% of Jews under 30—41%—claim they have no denomination, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. It might mean they belong to a havura or a minyan or a partnership minyan. These are the people who, it seems to me, any movement should be eager to attract.”
  • “There is little doubt that the impact of intermarriage is one of the forces behind this survey…But I do want to bring to your attention that only 51 percent of Jewish adults are married at all…That is a very important finding. Most of our synagogues are focused on families or couples. That means that half of American Jews who are widowed, divorced, or single parents somehow feel that the synagogue is not a place for them.It seems to me that this is something rabbis across the spectrum should think about.”
  • “Our challenge: can we win over those who have no religion, can we win over those who are seeking, can we win over the children of intermarrieds who are not sure where they are and are being raised somewhere in between Judaism and Christianity?”
  • “[People of Jewish background] had Jewish parents, they were raised Jewish, they are not Jewish today. This is the price we have paid today for intermarriage, and the number is 2.4 million. We would be 2.4 million larger if all those people who explained that they are of Jewish background proudly said, ‘I am Jewish, myself.’”
  • “All middle ground religion in America is in trouble…Whereas in the 1950s to be a good American was to be at the center, what Arthur Schlesinger called the ‘vital center,’ the polarization of American life right and left has made life difficult for those in the middle. Historically over time the middle is reconstituted, and I think when American culture again values the center, centrist religion will likewise be increasingly valued. I think we need a center, but it is more difficult today to be in that center.”
  • “The movements that are able to capture…the young Jews, the 41% under thirty…who are interested in Jewish religious life but are not part of any contemporary movement in Judaism, any denomination—anyone who captures them will succeed…It may simply require spreading the Conservative tallit to embrace them.”
  • “Just as the automobile transformed all synagogues and churches…transforming the religious lives of people when they’re much more mobile, I think we will see the internet as a fundamentally disruptive and transformative technology, and we’re only beginning to see how we’re going to come to terms with it.” 
  • “Rabbis should take the long view, not the short view. We’re not investors quarter by quarter; we won’t know the value of the work that rabbis do for a very long time. And one hopes we will look back and say that Conservative rabbis took the measure of the moment, instituted new policies, and twenty or twenty-five years from now we will look back at a different American Judaism and know that it was the result of innovations that came from the people on this call. Never imagine that the future is pre-ordained—we shape the future.”