The Pew Survey on Jewish Americans
The Pew Survey on Jewish Americans. Photo by The Forward
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If you’ve been following the news about that new survey of American Jews from the folks at the Pew Research Center, you’ve probably heard the basics. The New York Times summed it up nicely: “a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.”

There’s one more thing you need to know: It’s not true. None of it.

A “rise in those who are not religious”? Wrong. More Jews marrying “outside the faith”? Wrong. More Jews “not raising their children Jewish”? Wrong.

No, not wrong as in “I think there’s a better way to interpret those numbers.” Wrong as in “incorrect.” Erroneous. Whoops.

Mind you, most of what’s in the study seems solid, from what this reasonably informed layman can tell. It just so happens that Pew made an honest mistake in one highly visible spot, and that is what grabbed the headlines. Then the reporters made a few mistakes reading the material. The result was what you saw: a dark portent of doom.

Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative. It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.

Over the past quarter-century (it continues), the data show a community that has grown in number. Intermarriage leveled off in the late 1990s after rising steadily through much of the 20th century, and has remained stable for the past 15 years.

By some measures, Jews appear to be increasing overall levels of Jewish practice and engagement. Most surprising, significant numbers of children of intermarriage have grown up to become Jewish adults, far exceeding even their own parents’ intentions.

If things are so good, why do they look so bad? Simple. After calculating its data, Pew compared its findings with an earlier survey to see where things were headed.

Unfortunately, they picked the so-called National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, best remembered as a multimillion-dollar botch job. Its release had been delayed two years to allow two separate reviews by outside experts. The confidential reviews were devastating. This was not a useful data point.

A critical misstep in 2000 was a decision to set aside interviewees with “weak Jewish connections” and not bother asking them detailed questions about Jewish identity. One result was a falsely upbeat picture of Jewish commitment and practice. Another was the disappearance of most Jews who claimed “no religion.” You can guess the rest.

When Pew compared its findings with NJPS 2000-01, researchers were shocked to discover a huge increase in Jews answering “none” for religion. Pew’s total in 2013 was 22%. The records from 2000 turned up 7%. Conclusion: Jews were abandoning religion.

That should have rung an alarm. Fifteen percent of a highly visible and vocal religious community, three-quarters of a million people, quietly losing their religious faith inside a decade. How could that happen?

The answer is, it didn’t. For a reality check, go back to an earlier survey, NJPS 1990, which was highly regarded in most respects. Of 5.5 million Jews it found, 20% chose “none” for religion. Given a 3% margin of error, that’s the same as 22%. There’s been no rise. None.

What has risen is the total number of Jews. Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year. It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” This causes some confusion. Adults of Jewish parentage who practice Judaism “and something else” — usually Christianity, occasionally Buddhism — aren’t included in the Jewish population.

But kids — hey, you never know how they’ll turn out, right? So you can’t just write them off statistically. Experience shows that some will grow up to be Jewish.

It makes sense to use a working total somewhere in the middle, around 6.5 million. Up from 5.5 million. That’s an 18% increase in a quarter-century when America’s population grew 26%. We were supposed to be declining.

Also increased, surprisingly, are rates of Passover Seder attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur, Sabbath candle-lighting and kosher food observance. Some of the increase can be explained by the growth of the Orthodox population, from 7% to 10%. But that covers less than half the rise.

One of the biggest surprises in the Pew survey is how many children of intermarriage actually grew up to be Jewish. In the 1990 survey, 28% of intermarried couples said they were raising their children as Jews. In 2013, a generation later, at least 43% of those children grew up to be Jewish anyway. And why not? In a world where half-Jews like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ryan Braun, Scarlett Johannson and Drake proudly identify as Jews, Jewish is cool.

It would be a mistake to see the picture as entirely rosy. Adult children of intermarriage who identify as Jews are split roughly evenly between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. By contrast, adults with two Jewish parents identify with religion by a 7-to-1 margin.

This is significant for several reasons. Non-religious Jews tend to have a far more ambivalent tie to Jewish identity. They’re only half as likely to say that being Jewish is important in their lives, that they feel themselves to be part of a Jewish community or that they feel a special obligation to other Jews in need. Only one-third of those with children say they’re raising them as Jews.

On the other hand, if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future. Back in 1990, only 28% of half-Jewish children were supposed to end up Jewish, yet nearly half did. Will the children of today’s non-religious Jews turn out the same way? Who knows?

Besides, we know a great deal about what non-religious Jews don’t do or believe, but very little about what they do. Nearly all the survey tools for measuring Jewish behavior describe religious rituals. Non-religious Jews obviously score low.
But we get hints, and they’re intriguing. For example: We know that as interfaith marriages grow in raw numbers, their children increase as a proportion of both religious and especially non-religious Jewry. That should increase the downward pull of non-religious Jews’ ties. And yet the proportion of non-religious Jews who fast on Yom Kippur has more than doubled since 1990, from 10% to 22%.

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”

In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”

Like I said: Whoops.

To read the Pew Research Center's rebuttal of this article, click here.