Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

The Kids Are Alright

Fears of American Jewry disappearing, drifting into a velvet oblivion of assimilation, have given rise to a cottage industry of research, outreach and alarm-ringing in recent years. Most of this activity is aimed at maintaining the loyalty of the next generation of Jews, to save them from vanishing from the fold. It’s a complex job; it entails measuring the pace at which young Jews are truly bolting the barn, diagnosing the sources of their malaise and finding creative new cures. Practitioners generally view their enterprise as a rear-guard action to delay the inevitable disappearance.

For all that, measuring the Jewish attachment of the young has become one of the primary arenas of organized Jewish activism, second only to defending Israel. To community insiders, this activity is the sacred call of history. To outsiders, it often looks like a mob frenzy as staged by the Keystone Kops.

The latest example of this ongoing panic is the recent release of two new studies, both measuring the attachment of young Jews to Israel. The two studies were conducted separately by two different groups of researchers at the same time, probing the same topic, asking the same questions, using the same sets of statistics. Both purport to be objective, scientific analyses of the numbers. And yet, curiously, they reach opposite conclusions.

As reported this week by our Anthony Weiss, both new studies seek to explain the steady decline in Jewish attachment from oldest to youngest Jewish adults. Both studies rely heavily on the annual survey of Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee. Both ask what causes the generational decline in attachment.

Is it a long-term decline, propelled forward by the weakness of each new generation’s identification with the Holocaust and Israeli independence? Or is it a reflection of the modern Jewish life cycle, in which engagement with Judaism and Jewish affairs goes up as adults grow older and settle down?

The truth is that there’s evidence in both studies to support either conclusion. Both teams, one from Brandeis University, the other from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, marshal impressive numbers to disprove the other’s thesis.

The Bronfman team, led by Steven M. Cohen, believes the decline is a long-term historical shift. Intermarriage and greater societal acceptance lead to more personalized forms of Judaism that have little room for ethnic loyalties.

The Brandeis team, led by Len Saxe, notes that the gradations of attachment, from young to old and low to high, remain steady over the decades. The disengaged 25-year-old of 30 years ago is now a highly involved 55-year-old. There’s nothing, they claim, to indicate that this year’s disengaged 25-year-old won’t be a highly engaged 55-year-old in another three decades, as past generations have found.

There’s one correlation that isn’t mentioned in either study: the link between the authors’ conclusions and their temperamental dispositions. Cohen has emerged in recent years as a leading voice of caution and pessimism regarding the future of American Jewish identity. His pessimism is shared by many of the most visible and prolific students of Jewish belief and behavior.

Saxe, by contrast, is developing a reputation as a leading debunker of Jewish doomsday scenarios. It was his team that produced last year’s study of population trends, indicating that the much-publicized American Jewish population estimate of 5.2 million was off by at least a million, and that American Jewry was increasing, not disappearing. His new department, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, is fast becoming a leading redoubt of optimism in a field of Jewish population studies that generally seems to be dominated by alarmists.

Only time will tell who is right, and we’ll all be gone by then. In the meantime, there’s enough work to go around for everyone. For some, it’s bolstering programs like Birthright Israel, which have a proven record of strengthening participants’ emotional ties to Israel and Judaism. For others, it’s building a welcoming community, so that those disengaged Jews who are truly drifting away can find their way back.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.