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Do Statistics Tell The Real Story? Reflections on U.S. Jewry

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This past autumn the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project released the findings of its survey of American Jews. “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” immediately won the attention of a good number of American Jews and became the focus of considerable media coverage.

The survey, which questioned 3,475 Jews on telephone landlines and cell phones across the country, found that American Jews can be divided into three sectors: Jews by religion, Jews of no religion, and people of Jewish background.

Members of the first group identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of practicing religion. Members of the second group describe themselves as Jewish but having no religion. Members of the third group have some Jewish connection, perhaps a Jewish parent or grandparent, but do not consider themselves Jewish at all, and indeed may be practicing another religion entirely.

The general findings indicate that great generational changes are taking place within the Jewish population of the United States. For example, whereas 93 percent of Jews born between 1914 and 1927 identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of practicing religion, only 68 percent of Jews born after 1980 identify themselves as Jewish on that basis – and 32 percent of this younger group describe themselves as having no religion, identifying as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

The Reform movement remains the largest denomination of American Jewry, though the survey finds a weakening in the numbers and degree of commitment among that denomination’s membership.

And while the Conservative movement is shrinking drastically, respondents who identify as Orthodox are notably younger than Jews of other denominations and tend to have much larger families and show greater commitment on almost all measures of Jewishness.

The researchers find the evidence suggests that the Orthodox share of the Jewish population will grow significantly in the short-term future.

At first glance, these findings would seem to be cause for celebration by the Orthodox community. Many of us still remember how social scientists in the 1950s predicted that Orthodoxy was fading into history and would soon disappear altogether.

But some of the findings about our Orthodox community are troubling to me. Among them:

1. The Pew Research Center has also conducted surveys of other religions in the United States. Most interesting is a recent study of Mormons. Like the Jews, the Mormons represent about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Jews, certainly when compared with Mormons, are relatively untroubled by prejudice and believe they are well integrated into American society. (This finding is consistent with the intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews, which exceeds 70 percent.)

However, what is instructive and of great concern is that 87 percent of Mormons report they pray every day, while no Jewish group, including the Orthodox, approaches that percentage. One reason for that discrepancy is the fact that there are no significant gender differences between the religious practices of Mormon men and Mormon women, whereas among Orthodox Jews there are great gender discrepancies in synagogue attendance and daily prayer.

2. Another interesting finding (one that can admittedly be interpreted in various ways) is that whereas in the older generation there was a significant dropout rate from Orthodox practice, there is now a retention rate of 83 percent among the 18- to 27-year-olds. Judged against the percentages in most other religions, that retention rate is considered indicative of great success in keeping youth in the fold. The bad news, however, is that 17 percent – almost one in five of Jews in the 18-27 age range – are dropping out of Orthodoxy.

3. Evidence of a significant dropout rate from Orthodoxy is, unfortunately, not matched by clear evidence of success on the part of the kiruv (outreach) movement in winning over significant numbers of non-Orthodox Jews to Orthodoxy. Many individuals involved in outreach who are studying these results are scratching their heads in amazement that their efforts, and the success they feel they have achieved, are not reflected in the results of this particular survey. Why that is remains an open question for future careful study.

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