The results of the Pew survey are not at all surprising, and the basic findings align near-perfectly with estimates that my colleagues and I at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute have reported.
Pew’s estimate that there are 6.7 million American Jews — including more than 4 million adults who consider Judaism their religion — confirms that American Jewry is not, as the dominant narrative suggests, in decline. This is 25% larger than the 2000–01 National Jewish Population Survey.
The essence of the Pew survey is not, however, population estimates, but what it tells us about the state of contemporary American Jewry. Despite the overwhelming proportion of Jews who identify in terms of religion, an increasing segment of the total population see themselves as cultural or secular Jews, and a majority of recent marriages are to non-Jews.
Although there appears to be a growing gap between Jewish identity and participation in Jewish religious life, Pew’s findings allow us to reject the bleak narrative of Jewish life that has dominated communal discourse. At the same time, the narrative poses a challenge: How can communal institutions ignite the Jewish spark that resides in those who claim identity?
The Jewish community actually has a variety of tools to involve a broader segment of American Jewry.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, for example, has engaged nearly 250,000 young adults and has had dramatic effects on their trajectory of involvement with Jewish life. Part of the challenge is to use social research findings to shape more effective policy and programs.
Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and the director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.