What matters to millennial Jews? The Pew Research Center’s recent “Jewish Americans in 2020” report suggests, with a few exceptions, the same things that matter to older Jews. That Jews ages 24 to 39 enjoy traditional Jewish food in almost the same percentages as members of Generation X, baby boomers and the World War II-era Greatest Generation is one of the Pew study’s surprises.
Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, which focuses on young adults, held a virtual discussion on the study’s findings about millennial Jews on May 24. Here are some of the takeaways:
There’s always been a fear that each successive generation of Jews will be less involved and less identified as Jews, particularly the children of couples in which only one parent is Jewish.
The survey shows that not to be the case. Overall, millennials are as involved as older Jews.
“What we see is that [interfaith marriage] is not causing the crisis that a lot of us thought it was going to,” said Rabbi Aaron Potek of Sixth & I. “Jewish numbers are relatively consistent. We’ve even grown in terms of a total population.”
A new generation of interfaith marriages
Emma Green, a staff writer at The Atlantic, said many millennial children of interfaith couples are now partnering up and creating the “next generation of interfaith marriages.”
In the early 1980s, the Reform movement started sanctioning interfaith marriages, and “set the stage for an entire generational shift which we’re now seeing in the millennial generation,” she said.
According to Green, a whole generation of researchers who studied the Jewish community believed interfaith marriages would lead to a decline in the Jewish population. Despite those fears, the Jewish community continues to grow.
Interfaith marriages remain consistent
The survey found 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews married in the last decade have a non-Jewish spouse, virtually the same rate as in Pew’s 2013 survey.
While Pew’s report shows interfaith couples are far less likely than couples in which both partners are Jews to raise their children as religious Jews, the majority do raise their children in some way affiliated with Judaism and the Jewish community.
“The data doesn’t really support where all the theories had thought that the Jewish people are going to go,” Green said. “And I think that’s something to really sit with and think about.”
Younger Jews in general are just as religious as older Jews. Nineteen percent of millennials say they attend synagogue at least once a month, the same percentage as Generation X and boomer Jews. And 23 percent of Jewish millennials say they keep a kosher home, compared to 11 percent of boomers.
But there is a notable shift in how millennials approach the traditional American Jewish denominations.
The percentage of millennials who identity as Orthodox is considerably higher than older generations: 14 percent of millennial Jews are Orthodox compared to 4 percent of boomers.
The percentage of millennial Jew who identify with no particular branch of Judaism is also higher than older generations: 40 percent of millennials call themselves nondenominational Jews, compared to 29 percent of boomers. This difference coincides with a decrease by generation in the number of Jews who identify with the Conservative and Reform movements.
Millennials are less likely than older cohorts to feel they have things in common with Israeli Jews, feel attached to Israel, follow the news about Israel or believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.
Green attributed the change to Israel’s coming of age as a military and economic power. Simply put: Older Jews remember a time when Israel was poor and vulnerable, yet somehow pulling off astonishing miracles.
“And that was a time in history when the future of the state of Israel was not assured,” Green said. “It was a new country that was in a very challenging neighborhood. And it still had the quality of being a kind of scrappy socialist state that was taking in predominantly refugees from Arab countries in the Middle East.”
Israel is in a different situation today.
“By and large, millennials have grown up at a time when Israel is taken for granted as a powerhouse with unbreakable bonds with the United States.”