The 2013 Pew study of American Jews shocked the community that it was its subject. With stratospheric intermarriage rates and plunging religiosity of its newest, largest generation, the infamous “nones,” the study initially elicited concern about the viability of the Jewish future.
“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told the New York Times at the time.
“Imagine, during the greatest moments in Jewish history — the Exodus and the ensuing Revelation at Mount Sinai — a full 80 percent of the Jewish nation stayed behind,” wrote Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union. They shared no part … in the destiny of the Jewish nation. I cannot help but notice disturbing parallels to our situation today.
Five years later, American Jews are looking at their world through Pew’s eyes.
The survey of more than 3,000 American Jews found, among other trends, that Jews are becoming less observant and are intermarrying at higher rates. According to experts in Jewish demography, Jewish communities have begun to find opportunity in results that seemed like a death sentence just five years earlier.
Bethamie Horowitz, the co-director of New York University’s doctoral program in Jewish studies, said Pew’s “Jews of no religion” category, of which about 1 in 5 of those surveyed were classified, caused other local studies to do more detailed analyses of who exactly those Jews are.
If you were a Jew of no religion [in the 2013 survey] and you didn’t have high marks on religious practice, you came out as a nothing,” she said.
Horowitz pointed this year’s demographic study of the Greater Washington Jewish community as an example of how communities are looking deeply into Jewish identity.
That study, which was commissioned and funded by the Morningstar Foundation for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, included as Jewish activities the observance of holidays, reading Jewish-themed books or listening to Jewish music. With its net cast wide, only 14 percent, out of a sample of 6,600 Jewish households, were so disconnected from anything Jewish as to be “minimally involved.” Her takeaway of that study, she said, is that Jewish identity has no one-size-fits-all definition.
Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington agreed. The most significant takeaway from the Pew report is that communities need to address the fact that Judaism means different things to different people and tailor their programs accordingly, he said.
“I never understood or agreed with that category of Jews of no religion,” he said. “Judaism is a religion, it’s a people, it’s a land, it’s literature. Certain people connect to Judaism through their connection to Israel. It’s a much more multifaceted peoplehood that perhaps some other religions are.”
“There is an ongoing conversation about what does Jewish identity mean for Jews,” said Leonard Saxe, who directs Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and conducted the Washington demographic study. “What’s the religion piece? Is there a need to understand how anti-Semitism is affecting people? What are the questions about how Jews feel about Israel?”
Saxe pointed to Gather DC, an organization that offers social get-togethers for Jews in their 20s and 30s, as an example of a social group that has been effective in attracting those whose Jewish identity is largely social and cultural. Similar groups have sprung up in other cities, he said.
The Pew study found that the number of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse rose risen from 17 percent before 1970 to 58 percent since 2000. Among Jews who identified with a religious movement, the intermarriage rate was 36 percent. Among Jews who professed no religion, it was 79 percent.
Jews of no religion, the intermarriage rate was 79 percent, compared with 36 percent for Jews by religion.
Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research, said the fact that the report contained so much data caused Jewish leaders to take a hard look at their own communities, particularly regarding interfaith marriages.
“I think the Pew study convinced people, because they saw the level of intermarriage, of the need to invest in Jewish programming,” he said.
One recent initiative is jHUB — an online resource started by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland to help interfaith couples feel more at ease with Judaism. The website offers advice on how to find interfaith wedding officiants, lists basic information about Jewish holidays and tells couples of social events in the area.
Cooperman stopped short of saying that Pew’s 2013 report was a turning point in the history of how Jewish communities function in the United States, but said local communities are clearly relying on the survey.