This statistic also sheds light on the awesome toll exacted over the past century or more as a consequence of Judaic abandonment. I believe the number of Americans with Jewish ancestry, including those who acknowledge it and those who do not, in large measure because they are not even aware of their ancestry, is probably at least fifteen million.
The upshot of all this is that if we cast the net broadly, Jewish population has inched up over the years, to an extent because of the arrival of Russian Jews and also Israelis. If we cast the net narrowly, what comes into play is the loss of those who have totally abandoned any sense of Jewish identity.
However we calculate and whatever the numbers, it is certain that much of American Jewry is skating on thin Jewish ice. The cracks are there, they are spreading, and the toll will be evident down the road. Even when we consider those who have intermarried and say they continue to identify as Jews, the prognosis is devastating. According to Professor Steven Cohen, a key figure in the Pew research, about 40 percent of the children of intermarriages identify as Jewish, yet more than 80 percent marry non-Jews. Just 8 percent of the grandchildren of the intermarried will marry Jews.
For all our rejection of intermarriage, when it comes to population studies and key communal matters there is more than a dose of ambivalence about how to treat the intermarried and their offspring. For understandable reasons, Israel urgently prefers a high estimate of the number of American Jews, the notion being that this increases our influence in Washington. Even among the Orthodox, in our communal interactions as well as our discussion of demographic research there is no rush to exclude those who have married out and their children.
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Pew focuses heavily on the Orthodox, despite its data showing that we are no more than 10 percent of all American Jews. The justification for this attention is that we are the most committed and that irrespective of what our numbers might be now, they are certain to grow because of high fertility. The fertility rate for the non-Orthodox is 1.7 children per two Jews, significantly below the zero population growth rate of 2.1 children. Because of low fertility alone it is estimated that in the next generation the number of Jews will decline by somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.
Pew divides the Orthodox into three segments – Modern, yeshivish and chassidic – something that it does not do for Reform Jews, although it reports that the Reform are three and a half times more numerous than the Orthodox, a statistic that borders on the nonsensical. All Orthodox who do not self-identify as Modern are in the other two categories which have the additional appellation of “ultra,” a term I regard as scientifically bogus and ethically flawed.
Much of the controversy that has erupted over Pew concerns the high attrition rate for the Orthodox, meaning the number who were raised Orthodox and no longer identify as such. There are also a startling number of self-identifying Orthodox who say they handle money on Shabbos and do much else that would strike any of us as not kosher. This seems absurd, as do the statistics showing that a substantial number of those who say they are Orthodox indicate that occasionally they go to non-Jewish houses of worship. A number of commentators have pointed out that this just cannot be.
The problem is that it could be, at least to an extent, under Pew’s definition of Orthodoxy which is predicated entirely on self-identity. A person is Orthodox if he/she so claims, irrespective of behavior and beliefs.
I have been involved over several decades in population research in Israel where the crucial criterion to determine whether a person is haredi or dati is whether the person fulfills the mitzvos. Pew believes that self-identity is the approach that demographers must take in the U.S. This is perhaps acceptable, provided that it comes with the caveat that many who self-identify as Orthodox are, in practice, not Orthodox. These are individuals who invariably belong to an Orthodox synagogue because they believe there is no other synagogue they should belong to. This phenomenon is apparent in the Sephardic community where those who are not particularly observant have not followed the Ashkenazic route of creating Conservative and Reform denominations.