Across America, young men and women are abandoning religious faith in droves – and Judaism is no exception. More Jewish adults than ever classify themselves as “non-religious”. In fact, according to the latest Pew survey of American Jews, 40% of Jews under 40 describe themselves “as atheists, agnostics, or ‘nothing in particular’ rather than Jewish.”
This pattern is more pronounced among young Jews. These young adults rarely if ever darken a synagogue door or mark Shabbat, according to Pew respondents who were asked how they connect with Jews and Judaism. Both of these trends do not bode well for Judaism in America.
But hidden in the data are clues about how American Jewry can reverse these trends. As Dava Schub, CEO of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center in Washington, DC, said, “There’s plenty of room to keep moving, growing, and evolving.”
First, the bad news:
The failure of many young Jewish men and women to stick to their religious tradition, what scholars call “religious retention,” is one of the challenges facing the Jewish community. Another is that of below-replacement fertility – Jewish women have an average of 1.5 children each (2.1 is the replacement rate). Both of these trends suggest that the Jewish community as a whole, which currently numbers about 7.6 million, or 2.28% of Americans, could shrink significantly in coming generations. Given these demographic trends, at first glance the future of Jewish life in America looks rather bleak.
These tendencies, however, are not evenly distributed among the different Jewish denominations.
Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative see lower rates of retention, religious attendance, and fertility than their more observant counterparts of Orthodox and Traditional Judaism. Perhaps the key distinction is that of fertility.
The birth rate of Orthodox women is 3.3 children per woman, while that of non-Orthodox women is only 1.4 children per woman. This statistic is illustrated in real life when you consider that the average age of Orthodox Jewish adults in America is at least 18 years younger than the average Reform/Conservative Jew.
When it comes to regular church attendance, 83% of those who identify as Orthodox attend services at least once a month, compared to 33% of those who identify as Conservative and 14% of those who identify as Orthodox. identify as reformed. Considering generational retention, Pew data shows that a greater proportion of people who were raised in Orthodox homes remain Orthodox as adults (67%) than Conservative (41%) or Reform (66%) ).
To put it plainly, in the words of Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, “If you know the American Jewish community, you’ve seen the growth of Orthodox neighborhoods, communities across the country. ”
In other words, the decline of American Jewry seems to be concentrated in its moderate and liberal branches, while retention, fertility and attendance among Orthodox youth are on the rise.
Add to that the fact that only 1% of those who identify as Orthodox are not members of the synagogue, while 36% of those who identify as Reform and 11% who identify as Conservative are not members. of the synagogue. And, as the figure indicates, a growing share of young adults identify as Orthodox — and they have more than twice as many children as their more religiously liberal counterparts. All of this suggests that Orthodox Judaism in America is doing something right that cannot be ignored.
And what are those behaviors experienced by the Orthodox that encourage positive Jewish values and seem to herald intergenerational strength and continuity? Some things are relatively easy to predict:
- Regular observance of Shabbat – 74.7% of Orthodox observe Shabbat regularly, 28.5% of Conservatives and 14.2% of Reform adherents do so often, while 66% of “Righteous Jews” never do.
- Finding Meaning and Fulfillment in Religious Faith — 67.2% of the Orthodox find meaning and fulfillment in their faith, while 38.4% of the Conservatives, 14.7% of the Reformed and 23.1% of the “only Jews” do so.
- Find meaning and fulfillment by spending time with their (large) family — 83% of Orthodox find meaning and fulfillment in family life, compared to 76.2% of Conservatives, 74.2% of Reformed and 67.2% of “Jewish only” Jews.
Other somewhat surprising, but ultimately quite logical, practices distinguish more religiously committed Jews from others. They understand:
- Eat traditional Jewish foods — 91.1% Orthodox against 76.7% Conservatives and 73% Reformed. A quarter of “no” Jews report never eat traditional Jewish foods.
- Read Jewish newspapers or search for Jewish news online — 77.3% Orthodox against 52.3% Conservatives and 38.0% Reformed. A full 55% of “none” never read Jewish news.
- Visiting synagogues or historic Jewish sites while on a trip — 83.6% Orthodox against 67.7% Conservatives and 60.1% Reformed. More than a third of “none” never visit historical sites.
- Participation in Chabad activities (very pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli) — 46.0% Orthodox against 25.9% Conservatives and 10.7% Reformed. Meanwhile, 79% of “nones” never hang out at the local Chabad house.
- Listen to Jewish or Israeli music — 72.2% Orthodox against 51.2% Conservatives and 29.4% Reformed. A little more than half of the “none” never listening to Jewish music.
Of course, it is possible that there are enough “non-Jews”, combined with those who identify as “culturally Jewish”, to provide just enough conscious descendants of Judaism over two generations to register as a part significant minority of American Jewry in Pew’s. Survey 2080.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that at least large minorities of “non” Jews observe Yom Kippur, life cycle events (such as bar/bat mitzvahs) and attend a Passover Seder. These activities, however, are insufficient to provide reasonable certainty that future generations will adopt a Jewish identity and engage in similar Jewish behaviors.
Fortunately, for those who know they want their Jewish children today to be successful Jewish parents in 2050, there are ways to increase the odds that they will stay in the fold. The key, data from Pew suggests, is to make fundamental, intentional choices.
You should not only increase family synagogue attendance and religious awareness, but also regularly prepare matzah ball soup with your children and grandchildren, follow the latest Jewish news in the United States. and Israel and listen to Jewish music on the Internet. When we travel, plan to go out of your way visit important Jewish historical sites and, once home, engage with the local Chabad house at least occasionally.
While these activities may seem rather simple and even harmless, based on the story told by Pew data, those who intentionally pursue these activities may not only strengthen their own Jewish identity and their connection to American and Israeli Jewish communities, but they will also create, support and maintain the identity of their children and grandchildren, which has enabled American Jewry to survive until the end of the present century.
Finally, the rising fortunes of Orthodox Judaism also suggest lessons for other Abrahamic traditions that would like to see their fortunes sustained in the 21st century. Beyond attending services, focus on family devotions, tune into religious media and music of your own faith, and make regular pilgrimages to places that are meaningful to your tradition. Such measures are likely to protect you, your children, and your community from the age-old currents that are eroding the faith of many faithful young adults today.
Brad Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Sam Richardson is Director of Small Community Outreach at the Jewish National Fund-USA and Research Specialist for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.