Pew Survey About Jewish America Got It All Wrong

With Flawed Comparisons, Study Reached Faulty Conclusions


By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 13, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
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Also increased, surprisingly, are rates of Passover Seder attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur, Sabbath candle-lighting and kosher food observance. Some of the increase can be explained by the growth of the Orthodox population, from 7% to 10%. But that covers less than half the rise.

One of the biggest surprises in the Pew survey is how many children of intermarriage actually grew up to be Jewish. In the 1990 survey, 28% of intermarried couples said they were raising their children as Jews.

In 2013, a generation later, at least 43% of those children grew up to be Jewish anyway. And why not? In a world where half-Jews like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ryan Braun, Scarlett Johannson and Drake proudly identify as Jews, Jewish is cool.

It would be a mistake to see the picture as entirely rosy. Adult children of intermarriage who identify as Jews are split roughly evenly between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. By contrast, adults with two Jewish parents identify with religion by a 7-to-1 margin.

This is significant for several reasons. Non-religious Jews tend to have a far more ambivalent tie to Jewish identity. They’re only half as likely to say that being Jewish is important in their lives, that they feel themselves to be part of a Jewish community or that they feel a special obligation to other Jews in need. Only one-third of those with children say they’re raising them as Jews.

On the other hand, if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future. Back in 1990, only 28% of half-Jewish children were supposed to end up Jewish, yet nearly half did. Will the children of today’s non-religious Jews turn out the same way? Who knows?

Besides, we know a great deal about what non-religious Jews don’t do or believe, but very little about what they do. Nearly all the survey tools for measuring Jewish behavior describe religious rituals. Non-religious Jews obviously score low.

But we get hints, and they’re intriguing. For example: We know that as interfaith marriages grow in raw numbers, their children increase as a proportion of both religious and especially non-religious Jewry. That should increase the downward pull of non-religious Jews’ ties. And yet the proportion of non-religious Jews who fast on Yom Kippur has more than doubled since 1990, from 10% to 22%.

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”

In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”

Like I said: Whoops.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com

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