Jews Bound by Shared Beliefs Even as Markers of Faith Fade, Pew Study Shows

Denominations Shrink, Intermarriage and 'No Religion' Rises

Is Change Good? Adam Weinstein and Kimberly Smith illustrate an increasing trend of Jews marrying outside the faith. Some see that and other changes as threats to Jewish life, but a new generation seems to see it differently.
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Is Change Good? Adam Weinstein and Kimberly Smith illustrate an increasing trend of Jews marrying outside the faith. Some see that and other changes as threats to Jewish life, but a new generation seems to see it differently.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 01, 2013.
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Only 18% of American Jews say they identify with Conservative Judaism. The shift in the movement’s fortunes is brought into stark relief by a comparison of denominational affiliation by age. While 24% of Jews older than 65 identify as Conservative, only 11% of Jews aged 18–29 do the same.

The Reform movement, for its part, has 29% of people aged 18 to 29.

Retention levels are low among all three of the Jewish denominations, but the Conservative movement’s retention levels are the worst. Just 36% of Jews brought up Conservative say that they are Conservative today, compared with 55% of Jews raised Reform who say they are still Reform.

Orthodox retention is also low. Despite Orthodox birthrates that are nearly double the average of the general public, the Orthodox community has grown only slightly as a proportion of the overall Jewish community in the past decade, to 10%. That may be because only 48% of people raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox, though that community’s retention rate appears to be improving among younger generations.

The fastest-growing denominational group, meanwhile, are those who belong to no denomination. Nearly a third of Jews surveyed said that they identify with no denomination in the current survey. Just 6% said that they identified with smaller denominations like Reconstructionism and Renewal Judaism.

According to Cohen, the Conservative movement’s inability to hold on to members is due, in part, to Conservative Jews’ tendency to intermarry and to Reform synagogues’ openness to intermarried families.

“Conservative Jews marry non-Jews and they feel more comfortable in Reform temples, which conduct their services in English and which have other intermarried people sitting in the pews,” Cohen said.

For Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University who also advised the Pew study, the grim statistics facing the Conservative movement could be good for its members. Comparing the movement’s situation to that of the Orthodox movement in the 1950s and the Reform movement in the ’30s, relative lulls preceding large growth, Sarna said that the apparent collapse could force the movement into creative reinvention. It would be “wise to hedge all predictions,” Sarna wrote in an email.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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