First the good news. The American Jewish population has stabilized in size after decades of decline. That’s the positive glimmer from the recent Pew Research Center survey that found American Christianity is shrinking, but that the number of those who identify as Jewish in the United States is growing slowly.
But Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who has focused much of his career on examining Jewish demographic trends, finds the numbers behind the headlines unsettling. According to Cohen, the growth in the Jewish community is occurring at the edges — in the Orthodox community, whose above-average birthrate makes up for those lost in other streams, and among what Pew termed “Jews of no religion,” who are sometimes referred to as the “nones.”
In a spirited and often wonky discussion of Jewish population issues and implications on his Facebook page, Cohen argues that the great center of the Jewish community, roughly corresponding to the Conservative and Reform movements, continues its rapid decline. According to Cohen, “We are losing the variety of Jews who are committed to being Jewish in ways other than Orthodoxy.”
In Cohen’s estimation — and it should be emphasized that he is not Orthodox himself — the danger in the growth of the “nones” is that denominational affiliation directly correlates to such community-sustaining positions as support for Israel and objection to intermarriage. That correlation is strongest among the Orthodox, less so among those who identify as Conservative, even less among the Reform and, presumably, close to nonexistent among the unaffiliated, who tend to be the youngest cohort.
It is unfortunate that we have settled on the term “nones” for those who say they don’t identify with current institutional Judaism. This is so because it makes it tempting to write off an entire heterogeneous population simply because it doesn’t identify with a religious denomination. That could be very misleading, since there are Jews of no denomination who are deeply spiritual and who care about the survival and continuity of the Jewish people even if they don’t fit into a traditional denominational category. Thus, we know that groups of “nones,” while not official members of synagogues, will frequently organize Friday night dinners and even minyanim. Others are strongly committed to Jewish culture or other aspects of Jewish peoplehood.
As we move forward and focus on the macro-demographic picture of the Jewish people, let’s continue to keep an eye on the “nones,” hear their stories and provide opportunities for them to be a part of and to help enrich Jewish life. They’ve probably been doing their part under the radar for a long time, and they deserve to be counted.