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The disintegration of the American Jewish community and how to reverse it.
In the Fall of 1996, the Jewish Spectator1 published our analysis of the data collected during the National Jewish Population Survey ("NJPS") of 1990. In October 1996, Moment magazine2 published the Demographic Chart which captured the text of our research with a graphic illustration.
Within only a few years after the Moment debut, the Demographic Chart (and the essence of our analysis culminating in our findings) had been translated into seven languages and had appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times3 and The Vanishing American Jew by Professor Alan M. Dershowitz.4 The Demographic Chart has been publicly cited by many notable Jewish personalities including, but not limited to the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Immanuel Jacobovitz, Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Prime Minister of Israel Bibi Netanyahu.
It became clear that the main reasons for the multiple appearances of our analysis as well as the high profile that it developed, was the powerful impact of the Demographic Chart which we have now, almost a decade after its first appearance, revisited in this article.
For the sake of clarity and to appreciate how the Jewish demographic landscape has evolved over the past decade, we have utilized a similar format in this article to its namesake published after the culmination of the NJPS 1990.
With all the controversy surrounding the announcement of the result of the NJPS 2000 - 2001 (hereinafter referred to as the NJPS 2000), the bottom line consensus from a non-denominational perspective is aptly captured by Michael Steinhardt:
Jews in America are demographically endangered.
"... All would agree that Jews in America are demographically endangered. In addition to the usual suspects of assimilation and intermarriage, the survey revealed that Jews in America are getting married later and having fewer children -- so few that we are experiencing negative population growth ... When we remove the Orthodox from the statistical equation, the picture becomes that much bleaker for those American Jews who are most at risk. In the wake of the study, one would have hoped to find a leadership galvanized to change. The NJPS (2000), after all, revealed palpable evidence of a crisis. But the community largely ignored the bad news, justifying its complacency by disputing the study's methodology ..." 5
Mr. Steinhardt's summation is correct.
Based upon the data and the various population studies that are now available, it appears that an extraordinary disintegration of the American Jewish community is in process. There was a time when every Jew could take it for granted that he or she would have Jewish grandchildren with whom to share Seders, Sabbath and other Jewish moments. However, the clear data indicates that this expectation is no longer well founded. Indeed, our studies show that within a short period of time the entire complexion of the American Jewish community will be altered inexorably.
As was the case with the NJPS 1990, the NJPS 2000 targeted four key quantifiable elements of Jewish survival: marriage rates, intermarriage rates, birth rates, and levels of Jewish education. When all of these factors are tabulated and correlated, a troubling picture emerges of the future of American Jewry. Skyrocketing intermarriage rates, declining birth rates, and inadequate Jewish education continue to decimate the American Jewish people.
The information presented here is drawn from the findings of the United Jewish Communities (formerly the Council of Jewish Federations) National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of 2000; the American Jewish Identification Survey (2001), a replica study of the 1990 NJPS; numerous data runs from the North American Jewish Data Bank ("NAJDB") a plethora of articles based on the NJPS 2000 and several conference calls with leading academicians and demographers closely involved with the NJPS 2000.
The intermarriage rate for the various denominations was obtained from the North American Jewish Data Bank from data extrapolated from the NJPS 2000. In order to obtain a sufficient number of cases for the data to be statistically significant, the age cohort from 18 to 39 were used for all the denominations. As for average number of children per women, the information was also obtained from the NAJDB for all denominations. Since the NJPS 2000 did not differentiate between Centrist Orthodox and Yeshiva and Chasidic Orthodox, the data for this sub-category was obtained from the seminal study coordinated by Dr. Marvin Schick6 (hereinafter referred to as "the Schick Study").
The Schick Study seemed to indicate a significant (but not huge) undercount of Orthodox family size in the NJPS 2000. Nevertheless, we have essentially conservatively used the NJPS 2000 for the assumptions made in the Demographic Chart.
How Many Jews Are There in America?
According to the NJPS 2000, 5.2 million people in America today constitute the core Jewish population. Of these, approximately one million persons classified themselves as having been born Jewish, but having no identification with any religious group; 185,000 identified themselves as Jews by Choice, i.e., converts. (For the purpose of this article, all Jews by Choice have been considered Jewish, regardless of the denomination recognizing the conversion.) Thus, affiliated Jews numbered approximately 4.2 million in 2000, and constituted about four-fifths of all identified Jews.
Intermarriage Rates and the Dwindling Jewish Population
The NJPS 2000 found that 47% of Jews who married in the past five years had wed non-Jews, up from a readjusted intermarriage figure of 43% a decade ago. The rate of intermarriage has risen dramatically in the past 30 years, from an average of 9% before 1965 to 52% in 1990.
Secular Jews have doubled their intermarriage rate, while Reform and Conservative Jews have tripled theirs.
The 1990 NJPS indicated that Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews are far more likely to intermarry than Orthodox Jews. Secular Jews have doubled their intermarriage rate, while Reform and Conservative Jews have tripled theirs. Secular Jews in the 18 to 39 year age group have an intermarriage rate of 72%, while those over age 39 have an intermarriage rate of 35%. Younger Reform Jews now at a 53% rate, compared to a 16% rate for the older group. Among younger Conservative Jews, the intermarriage rate has increased to 37%, compared to 10% for those over age 39. Only Orthodox Jews have reversed this trend: Their intermarriage rate has fallen from 10% among those over 39 to 3% of the 18-39 group today.
The unadjusted intermarriage rate actually increased in the 18 to 39 year age group between NJPS 1990 and NJPS 2000. This research study as well as the Demographic Chart conservatively utilizes the 47% figure.
Jewish women between the ages of 60-69 have had an average of 2.12 children, whether they were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular. However, among women aged 40 to 49, there is a drastic inter-denominational difference in estimated completed family size. Among those who married, estimated final birth rates have dropped an average of 32% among Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews, who now have a little over 1.45 children per family. At the same time, the estimated final birth rate among the Orthodox aged 40-49 has increased 106% to 4.4 children today. The independent research report done by Professor Alvin I. Schiff and Professor Marelyn Schneider7 concluded that the actual increase was 167% to 5.7 children. For purposes of this research study and the Demographic Chart, we have once again utilized conservatively low numbers just as conservatively low numbers were utilized in our first research article published almost ten years ago. Those numbers are consistent with NJPS 2000.
The NJPS 1990 found that mixed married households contained 770,000 children less than 18 years of age. According to the NJPS 1990, only 28% of these children were being raised as Jews; 41% were being raised in another religion; and 31% were being raised with no religion at all. Moreover, while 28% of children of intermarriage are being raised as Jews, only between 10% to 15% of this entire group ultimately marries Jews themselves. Thus, it is clear that nearly all the children of intermarriage are lost to the Jewish people.
With respect to mixed marriage households, the NJPS 2000 appears to be consistent with the findings of NJPS 1990.
The Connection between Intermarriage, Orthodox Observance and Jewish Education
Just as the decision to intermarry is the product of countless previous decisions about how to live one's life, so too the decision not to intermarry seems to be the product of a lifetime of Jewish living and learning. The research indicates that a stronger commitment to a higher level of Jewish education and observance leads to a lower likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation. The combination of Jewish commitment and having experienced a complete K-12 Orthodox Jewish Day School education results in an intermarriage rate of not greater than 3%. All the research indicates that it is essentially the Orthodox who are committed to such a complete Day School education.
The longer children are in Orthodox Day School, the fewer parents are likely to face the "Guess who's coming to Seder?" issue. Almost all Orthodox families today give their children the greatest number of years of Jewish education. This seems to be crucial to their exceptionally low intermarriage rate. Contemporary Orthodox children generally have at least twelve years of Jewish Day School education, while the peak number of years of Jewish education in the Conservative and Reform movements is generally from four to eight years of Hebrew School, much of it being part-time.
Intensive Jewish education impacts adults as well as children. Indeed, the recent growth in the Orthodox movement has come from five sources: higher marriage rates, increased family size, low intermarriage rates, propensity of those raised Orthodox to remain within the fold, and the influx of baalei tshuvah, or returnees to Jewish life. During the past thirty years, tens of thousands of American Jews who were raised in non-observant homes have committed themselves to an Orthodox lifestyle. Each young adult who "returns" brings along the likelihood of an entire family remaining within the Jewish People.
In summary, the most recent analyses of Jewish population indicate two distinct trends in American Jewry. During the period from 1945-2000 -- and particularly from 1960 to 2000 -- the Orthodox have steadily increased the duration and intensity of their children's education, their birth rate, and the percentage of those raised Orthodox and remaining Orthodox. At the same time, their intermarriage rate has been reduced (see above). Also, for the first time in American history, significant number of Jews who were not raised Orthodox are becoming so. During the same period (1960-2000), intermarriage among other denominations of Judaism has evidenced different trends. The level of education among Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews has (with a few notable exceptions), remained about the same; their birth rate has declined, and their rate of intermarriage has multiplied. Once a Jew intermarries, he or she as an individual remains Jewish, of course, but the likelihood of that person having any Jewish descendants is close to nil (see Demographic Chart).
Long-Range Implications for Today's Jews
Within three generations there will be almost no trace of young American Jews who are currently not being raised in Orthodox homes with a complete Jewish Day School education.
As the Chinese proverb says, "If we don't change our direction, we will end up where we're headed." Elihu Bergman, Assistant Director of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, in a controversial yet disturbing report, had projected in 1975 that unless current trends were reversed, the American Jewish community would decrease by 85% - 98% by the year 2076. This prognosis now seems to apply to descendants of Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews. As far as the Orthodox is concerned, the opposite trend has become apparent. As illustrated in the Demographic Chart, multiple research studies have come to the same conclusion: Within three generations there will be almost no trace of young American Jews who are currently not being raised in Orthodox homes with a complete Jewish Day School education. Clearly, this is discomforting news for all of us to whom Jewish survival is of deep concern. There seems to be no hope that the less traditional approaches will have the same results as the more intensively traditional approach.
The Impact of the Jewish Orthodox Day School
The strongest counter-assimilation effect is exerted by Orthodox Day Schools; the less time-intensive forms of Jewish education have almost no effect on intermarriage. Since most Orthodox families now send their children to Orthodox Day School (usually for at least 12 years), the graduates of today's Orthodox Day Schools will probably be the forbearers of most of the Jews who will exist in this country in the future. This prediction is already beginning to come true: While only 7.8% of Jews aged over 70 are Orthodox, 9.7% of those aged 30-69 are Orthodox and between the ages of 18-29, the Orthodox percentage is 19.5%. Furthermore, approximately 27% of all Jewish children under the age of 18 are being raised in Orthodox families. It is also interesting to note that according to the NJPS 2000, although only 46% of US Jews belong to synagogues, that minority divides up 39% Reform, 33% Conservative, 21% Orthodox and 7% Other. If synagogue affiliation continues to be an important "bell weather" of the denominational forecast for the years ahead, Orthodoxy is capturing a growing market. More specifically, between the ages of 18-34, 34% of Jewish adults who are synagogue members have chosen to belong to an Orthodox synagogue8.
As stated earlier, long-term Jewish survival depends on four choices that each individual Jew makes: the level of personal observance; the choice to marry another Jew; the desire to have two or more children if possible; and the absolute priority of providing maximal Jewish education for oneself and one's children. The relationship among these factors is plain in the data. Choosing Jewish observance is a result of parents having chosen a Jewish education, which in turn is likely to lead to choosing a Jewish spouse. Choosing a Jewish spouse is likely to lead to providing a stronger educational and ritual base for one's children, who then perpetuate the cycle.
Of course, it is never too late for any Jew to enter, or re-enter the cycle of Jewish tradition. During the past 30 years, an enormous outreach movement has developed throughout the world, offering a variety of programs designed to reach out to disaffected Jews. Such outreach programs have been launched by all the major denominations.
Jewish survival depends on religious observance and education because only a long-term, intellectually and spiritually challenging process of Jewish practice and education can provide Jews with the reasons and the commitment not to marry the attractive, friendly Gentile in the office or apartment next door.
Potential solutions for Non-Orthodox Jews
These studies, and their implications, present non-Orthodox Jews with a dilemma. They may not want to become Torah observant -- but they don't want their grandchildren drinking eggnog around the Yule log nor running to prayer at the local Mosque either. What can they do? Without necessarily completely adopting the Orthodox lifestyle themselves, they may still be able to identify what the Orthodox are doing which is successful, and try to apply what they learn.
The data does not comment on whether Orthodox Jews are better as people, or as Jews, than anyone else. It does indicate, however, that they are the one denomination successfully transmitting Jewish tradition. As a group, the Orthodox is demonstrably succeeding at passing on the tradition and at inspiring their children to sustain and perpetuate their own Judaism.
Children who are left without an education leading to deep Jewish beliefs and practices have little chance of having Jewish descendants.
Orthodox parents and Orthodox Day Schools seem to give their children enough good reasons for staying Jewish that even when the children are grown and have the option to intermarry and disappear from Jewish life, virtually none of them do. Somehow, they reach adulthood with solid answers to the question of "Why be Jewish?" Perhaps parents whose children are enrolled in schools of other denominations might analyze why their children's schools are not doing the same for their charges.
Parents who are not Orthodox Day School educated -- or who may even already be intermarried -- may feel uncomfortable at the prospect of providing their children an Orthodox education. Notwithstanding this unease, during the last two decades, tens of thousands of parents ranging from totally unaffiliated on the one hand to an affiliation to the Conservative denomination on the other, have their children enrolled in Orthodox Day Schools.
Although less effective, parents might want to begin by increasing their own Jewish education by enrolling in a class for adults, and then sharing with their children what they have learned. Couples for whom Jewish education is a charged issue can still work together to find ways to provide more Jewish education and exposure for their children than they are currently receiving. For those who find the thought of entering a place of worship an overwhelming task, or who simply live too far from a Jewish place of study or prayer, the past ten years has witnessed the birth of a litany of very user-friendly and voluminous web sites.
After all the trend lines have been drawn and graphs have been analyzed, population studies point to a single conclusion: Regardless of their own personal denominational affiliation, the most important choice that can be made by anyone who cares about the survival of the Jewish people is the choice to support increased religious observance and a full Orthodox Day School education for the maximum number of children.
The American Jewish community is now at a critical crossroads. There is finally a dawning recognition that Jewish continuity and survival cannot be sustained in what has been an American lifestyle devoid of serious Jewish education and Jewish living. One might have believed in the 1950's or 1960's that it was sufficient to have minimal Jewish exposure. Examples of such exposure includes simply to be a member of a Temple, have Jewish friends, play basketball at the Jewish Center and live in a generally Jewish neighborhood to ensure that one's children would be Jewish.
However, we now have the data and studies to know that children who are left without an education leading to deep Jewish beliefs and practices have little chance of having Jewish descendants. This is a critical moment for every American Jew and Jewish organization. The American Jewish community needs to radically alter its approach to Jewish life. The first step toward this change is to understand that the present approach is incompatible with Jewish survival, and must be dramatically changed.
Click here to watch a trailer from Out of Faith, a new documentary that follows three generations of a family torn apart by conflicts over interfaith marriage.
1. "Jewish Spectator," Fall, 1996 pp 36-38
2. "Be Fruitful Indeed," October, 1996, p26
3. Tuesday, March 3rd, 1998
4. 1997, Published by Little Brown & Co, page 26
5. "Contact", Journal of Jewish Life Network, Volume 5, number 3, page 9 by Michael H. Steinhardt
6. January 2000, "A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States" (Published by the Avi Chai Foundation,)
7. Yeshiva University Research Report, July 1994.
8. UJC - Presentation of Findings, February 2004, based on the NJPS 2000-1