When the results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey appeared, a sense of panic was quickly followed by a commitment to purpose.
True, an intermarriage rate of 52%, later lowered in order to account for sampling difficulties, caused some to claim that assimilation was more destructive of Jewish life than Nazism was. But the dominant response was exemplified by “A Statement on the Jewish Future,” signed by a distinguished group of rabbis, academics and community professionals and coordinated by the American Jewish Committee, which called for a strengthening of everything that made Jews distinctive.
The immediate response to the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released in early October, has been more one of resignation than of action. It is one thing for the intermarriage rate to increase; 58% of those who married between 2005 and 2013, we learn from Pew, tied the knot with non-Jews. But when young Jews are giving up on Judaism as a religion, no matter how proud they may be of their Jewish roots, what can one expect the initial response to be but a withering away of denominations and a lack of enthusiasm for Israel?
Only time will tell, but I sense that we are unlikely to see anything like the serious, if at times contentious, public debate that the 1990 survey provoked.
Panic, however, which was the wrong response two decades ago, is still out of order today. The key take-away from the Pew portrait is not that Jews are disappearing; it is that, like everyone else, they are being swept up by the temper of the times. We have become a society in which people choose the ways they want to live. While people have choices, faiths do not: Either they adapt or they will be bypassed.
Consider, first, the 22% of Jews who say they have no religion. For all the talk about American exceptionalism, this country is now moving toward secularism in ways that Western European societies did decades, or even centuries, ago. Europe’s history was marked by frequent clashes between clericalism and anti-clericalism.
Lacking an oppressive state church, the United States lacked defiant atheism. No longer. Because the religious right has become so powerful, it can hardly be surprising that anti-religious sentiments are flourishing. Some established Jewish organizations may see in the religious right important support for Israel. Others, more frightened to see Christian fundamentalists shaping public policy, turn against religion, even their own.
When there is secularism, Jews will always be found among the secularists.