As the Jewish Federations of North America holds its annual General Assembly this week, newly emerging evidence from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of American Jewry” points to enormous challenges facing federations, Jewish philanthropy and organized Jewish life, more generally. Virtually every Jewish institution is contending with a sharply diminishing base of people who give, join or even care.
Though the Orthodox are expanding numerically and growing in strength, the number of non-Orthodox Jews who are actively engaged Jews – no matter how engagement is defined – is shrinking rapidly.
Of particular note to federations and all who care about Jewish philanthropic giving: Just 43 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between 30 and 49 donate to any Jewish cause, sharply down from 60 percent among those just 20 years their senior. And only one quarter of the younger non-Orthodox Jews are members of a synagogue, even though they are in their peak child-raising years.
Two processes are driving these declines. There simply are far fewer 30- to 49-year-old non-Orthodox Jews than 50- to 69-year-olds (about 1.2 million vs. 1.8 million) because of low birthrates in recent decades.
Second, compounding this population decline, high rates of intermarriage – now running at about 80 percent among those raised Reform – have resulted in disengagement from Jewish life on the part of most adult children of intermarried parents. In short, in the younger age cohort (30-49), there are both fewer Jews and, among them, lower rates of participation in Jewish life.
Unless these patterns are reversed or at least ameliorated, they portend rough sailing for Jewish organizations.
Other Jewish organizations have seen similar losses in membership, as have many Reform and Conservative congregations, along with the number of students in non-Orthodox day schools.
If these patterns are to be reversed, the Jewish middle – Conservative and Reform Jews who are inmarried or intermarried but unambiguously attached to Jewish life – must be nurtured and expanded.
Research conducted in recent decades demonstrates that effective Jewish engagement endeavors share three critical features: 1) they expand Jewish social networks; 2) they incorporate Jewish content, to demonstrate why rich Jewish engagement is meaningful; and 3) they bring together peers at the same life stage to address common challenges.
To address the weak Jewish connections among younger Jews, our ideal communal agenda calls for investing massively in immersive forms of Jewish education. Critical are day schools, summer camps with Jewish content, teen trips to Israel, youth movement activities, Hillels and other campus endeavors, and Birthright trips and Masa (longer-term trips to Israel).
The overall goal is to ensure that young people participate in multiple Jewish venues so that synergies can develop among them. For this to happen, parents must be enlisted as partners in socializing their children into Jewish life.
Notwithstanding the years of demographic losses, several movements each continue to reach hundreds of thousands of non-Orthodox Jews. In numerically descending order, we are thinking of Jewish community centers, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement and, yes, federations. Any reckoning with the shrinking Jewish middle must resolve to rebuild these legacy movements on a massive scale.
The task facing the American Jewish community is immense, requiring boldness, not Band-Aids.
Steven M. Cohen is research professor at the Hebrew Union College-JIR in New York and Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Their jointly written reanalysis of the Pew study is found at mosaicmagazine.com.)