The stark numbers in the Pew Research Center’s mammoth study of American Jews, released this week, begin to take on nuance when they are applied to real people.
Debbie Stillman, for instance, counts herself among the half of those who were raised as Orthodox Jews and told Pew researchers that they have left Orthodoxy.
“What I felt about modern Orthodoxy is that you have to do what you have to do or you don’t fit in,” the Rockville resident says. “I didn’t feel like I fit in because I wasn’t practicing what I saw as a prescribed code.”
She and her husband found their community when they enrolled their oldest child in preschool at Conservative B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. “Within 10 minutes I fell in love. And they reached out to us,” she says.
Fifteen percent of Jews who were born Orthodox have switched to the Conservative movement. Stillman says Conservative’s emphasis on inclusion is appealing. “In Conservative Judaism, there are multiple ways you can be comfortable and still be part of the community.”
While her Jewish home practice today hasn’t changed much from when she was growing up – a kosher kitchen, Shabbat and holiday observance – Stillman says her Conservative community shares her and her husband’s values, particularly about the role of women and social justice issues.
“The Orthodox movement is on the wrong side of many issues that I care about,” says Stillman, whose sister belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in Silver Spring and whose brother is unaffiliated.
Denominational switching is one of the findings of the Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” When Jews switch, most go to a less traditional form of Judaism, although there is movement in the other direction as well.
Much of the study repeats what we already knew: Intermarriage is up “substantially” (58 percent); Jews are politically liberal (70 percent are Democrats or lean that way); Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, are politically conservative (57 percent are Republican or lean Republican); Jews support gay rights (82 percent say homosexuality should be accepted by society); and more Jews have seders than any other ritual celebration (70 percent).
If you were to combine all American Jews into a composite, he or she would be someone older than the U.S. population as a whole, with high levels of education and income, and living in the northeast.
‘Dismal and disturbing’
Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman of Kol Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Rockville, looks at the report and finds it “dismal and disturbing. Even though it validates what we know anecdotally, it’s difficult to see it in print,” he says.
What has sparked the chatter among his colleagues on the Conservative rabbis listserve, in addition to the intermarriage numbers, are the increasing number of Jews who say they have no religion. Seven percent of Greatest Generation Jews define themselves as Jews by ancestry, ethnicity or culture — not religion. By contrast, 38 percent of Millennials define themselves this way.
They two types of self-definition do not reflect a difference in the strength of a person’s Jewish identity. What it does predict is a person’s involvement in the organized Jewish community and the legacy he or she will leave, says Gregory Smith, director of religious surveys for the Pew Research Center.
“There are vast differences between Jews of no religion and Jews of religion in terms of engagement and involvement in Jewish institutions,” Smith says. “Jews of no religion are far more likely to be intermarried and far less likely to raise their children as Jewish.”
In addition, younger Jews increasingly avoid denominational affiliation. Among Jews age 18-49, 11 percent belong to the Conservative movement, compared with 24 percent of Jews age 65 and older.
The Conservative movement will meet for its centennial convention next weekend in Baltimore and Maltzman wants the Pew report to be high on the agenda. “I hope the movement gets a good kick in the rear about this. It’s something that has to be discussed,” he says.
He does find a bright spot, although he’s reluctant to say so for fear it will detract from the gravity of the report’s findings. “Although it doesn’t make the numbers better, people who do identify with Conservative Judaism are becoming more observant,” he says.
That’s the kind of nuance that Ira Sheskin teases out of the report. The percentage of Jews without religion (22 percent) isn’t such a surprise. It corresponds to the number of religious “nones” in general society – 20 percent, says Sheskin, of the University of Miami, an expert on the geography and demography of the American Jewish community and editor of the American Jewish Yearbook.
And he points out that although the intermarriage rate is higher than it was in the mid-20th century, it has not changed since 1995.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation in Falls Church, said that although the report has some positive things to say about the Reform movement, “I would caution viewing it this way. Overall it is a sobering report.”
Reform remains the largest movement (35 percent identify as Reform), it has the highest retention rate (55 percent of Jews born in the movement have remained Reform Jews), “and people who switch [denominations] tend to move to Reform.”
The report “calls us to think more broadly about what the non-Orthodox Jewish community is,” Schwartzman says. This might give us the chance to move beyond denominations and not just rebrand a movement.”
Rabbi Nissan Antine would agree that it is an issue that transcends denominations, and goes farther – it involves Orthodox Jews, too.
“It’s a struggle between those who are connected and those who are unaffiliated,” says Antine, of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, an Orthodox community in Potomac, “and we have to work together.”
‘Look on the bright side’
Orthodox Jewry, now 10 percent of the Jewish population, is poised to become larger because of a higher birthrate and an increasing retention rate. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and who was an adviser on the Pew study, says the current 1.7 percent birthrate among non-Orthodox Jews will lead to a 20 percent drop in the size of the next generation.
When you couple that with a decreasing identification rate, “we’re seeing signs of a sharp demographic decline among non-Orthodox Jews,” he says.
But where some see gloom ahead, Antine also finds room for hope. He points to the highest figure in the report – 94 percent. That’s the number of Jews who say they are proud to be Jewish.
In addition, 75 percent have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. And 63 percent say they have a special responsibility to care for Jews in need around the world.
“Overwhelming majorities of both Jews by religion and Jews of no religion say they are proud to be Jewish (97 percent and 83 percent, respectively),” the report says.
“Even people who are disconnected, people who are intermarried – at the end of the day they’re proud to be Jews,” Antine says. “This pride tells me that people are willing to learn about Judaism, if we as a Jewish community can work together.”
But how to make sense of these rosy numbers in light of the gloomy ones?
“Being Jewish is as much or more about ancestry and culture as it is about religion,” explains Smith of the Pew Research Center. “That’s how you can have both.”
According to the report: “When asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry or culture, 62 percent cite either ancestry or culture (or a combination of the two). Fewer than one-in-five (15 percent) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion. About a quarter of Jews (23 percent) say being Jewish is a matter of religion as well as ancestry and/or culture.”
“One advantage Jews have over other religious groups is that we’re not just a religious group,” says Sheskin, the University of Miami demographer says. “Jews can express their Jewishness by going to a Jewish museum or advocating for Israel or peppering their speech with Yiddish expressions.”
As Jews struggle with Pew report in Shabbat sermons, over dinner and at religious conventions, there will be hand wringing over the findings. Less predictable than the findings themselves is whether those who take the report seriously will see the real people behind the numbers.