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September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
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What Pew Means For Us


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Two months ago, the Pew Research Center issued a comprehensive study of American Jews and ever since the American Jewish community has been debating the findings. I have contributed my share to this debate, which concerns matters of critical importance.

Pew is regarded as the outstanding center for demographic or population research in the U.S. Its work is highly professional and covers a vast range of subjects. For good reason, its data are carefully scrutinized by government agencies and the media, as well as in academia. We know more about socio-economic trends in this country as a consequence of the objectivity and careful preparation that go into each Pew project.

There is much that is commendable in the report on American Jews. In a sense, the main finding is that as a people we are far less religious than used to be the case and that the process of secularization is dynamic, meaning that when the next major population survey comes around, perhaps in a decade or less, the findings will show American Jewry more removed from any sense of religiosity than it was in 2013.

As one illustration, although for nearly a quarter of a century (or ever since the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990) we have been aware of a frighteningly high rate of intermarriage, Pew documents that outside of Orthodox life the rate for recently married American Jews is now in the seventy percent range. The consequences are enormous and while they may not be felt immediately or even in the near future, ultimately they will take an enormous toll – this despite the pseudo-scholarship of those who somehow view the data as good tidings.

A determined effort is underway to put a good face on the bad news. It is claimed that intermarriage is not as harmful to Jewish continuity as we Orthodox and some others claim. The online magazine Tablet posted an essay last week titled “New Analysis of Pew Data: Children of Intermarriage Increasingly Identify as Jews.” The article informs us that “Pew’s own data show that the growth of the unaffiliated population is the result of the unexpected tendency of most young adults with intermarried parents to identify as Jewish. Instead of a growing population of young adults raised in Jewish households opting out, there appears to be a trend of young adults raised in non-Jewish or partly Jewish households opting in.”

This is bad history, bad sociology, bad demography and a frightening distortion of Judaism. But precisely because intermarriage has spread – and spread it has, as well, to many who are influential in Jewish life – there is an impulse to sugarcoat the bad news. This impulse first took root after NJPS 1990. As the rate of intermarriage has grown, so too has grown the impulse to define intermarriage as not necessarily bad or perhaps even good news.

Pew claims that there are about 6.5 million American Jews, a figure that is considerably higher than what the National Jewish Population Survey showed a decade ago but also somewhat lower than what other demographers, particularly at Brandeis University, have claimed about American Jewry. The disparity in estimates – and that’s what they are for all of the scientism that accompanies our population reports – arises in large measure from the question of who to count as a Jew or, perhaps more precisely, who may be regarded as a Jew in a household that is identified as Jewish. Intermarriage obviously comes into the equation, as does the vexatious question of whether to include persons who were born Jewish but who say that they are not.

It needs to be underscored that for purposes of population research, one Jewish parent – whether the father or mother – is sufficient to establish Jewish identity, provided that the individual self-identities as Jewish. Although it is not in the published report, Pew’s research indicates that there are 2.1 million Americans who have had one or two Jewish parents and yet are not included in the statistics of American Jewry, either because they say they are Christian or adhere to another religion or that they have no religion and do not consider themselves Jewish. This is an astonishing number that is certain to grow.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.


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