Pew Report on U.S. Jews: A Case of Two Extremes

Politically conservative Orthodoxy is shaping up as the sharp alternative to a Jewry that is liberal, assimilated and largely intermarried.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman
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Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman

The big picture of American Jewry that emerges from the recently launched 2013 Pew Report is that an overwhelmingly American-born and raised Jewish population, 65 percent of whose families have been in the United States for three generations or longer, continues to gradually diminish its attachment to parochial Jewish identity, to religious practice and even to any kind of Jewish affiliation.

For those following surveys of American Jewry during the last 50 years, as I have, the survey results demonstrate how the patterns emerging in the last decade or so are continuing. The great majority of U.S. Jews continue to be largely liberal and secular (70 percent,) and although proud of being Jewish (94 percent) and claiming a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (75 percent,) they are more likely to think that remembering the Holocaust (73 percent) or being intellectually curious (49 percent) is essential to being Jewish than is observance of Jewish law (19 percent) or belonging to a Jewish community (28 percent). Jewish Americans still overwhelmingly (60 percent) believe that being Jewish is mainly a matter of culture or ancestry, compared with a shrinking number (15 percent) who see it as mainly a religion.

The fastest growing group (about one in three Jews) are those who are unaffiliated; when asked what kind of Jews they are, they identify as “just Jewish.” Increasingly, these Jews think their identity does not require they do much as Jews or that their identity distinguishes them from non-Jewish Americans. The Unaffiliateds' close friends are not necessarily Jews. Indeed, given the intermarriage rate (ever since 1995, more Jews have married non-Jews than fellow Jews, and now the rate is a record high of 58 percent,) their spouse is increasingly not likely to be a Jew. In fact, fewer of them bother formally to marry – the marriage rate appears to have declined since 2000 (down from 60 percent in the 2000-2001 to 51 percent today.) mirroring a decline in marriage rates among Americans overall. Younger Jews are even more extreme in terms of all these dynamics. Coupled with their low level of fertility (below replacement level,) they are moving far away from specifically Jewish attachments and identity, and this above all presages a great decline for American Judaism.

At the other extreme are those few for whom being Jewish is central and essential to their sense of identity; those who set themselves apart from the mainstreams, who spend large parts of their lives and income on distinctively Jewish activities and who celebrate their parochialism. The Orthodox epitomize these Jews, though there are others who might qualify as well. Whereas there is still an American Jewish 'center' between these two extremes, the evidence is that they will ultimately move towards one of the extremes, the vast majority to the secular and assimilated stream.

Found in the Pew report, however, is data that speaks to what I wrote about in “Sliding to the Right,” a book about U.S. Orthodoxy. There, I argued that American Orthodoxy, which was for most of the twentieth century dominated by the Modern Orthodox - who wanted to be both parochial and cosmopolitan, attached to Jewish observance and contemporary culture, college educated, up-to-date but still anchored to traditional observance - was increasingly moving to the religious right. The Pew Survey supports this thesis.

It found the Orthodox to be 10 percent of American Jews. But no longer are these the residual few old Jews in the synagogue as they were at the start of the twentieth century. Unlike in the past, when people left Orthodoxy upon growing up, today’s Orthodox are overwhelmingly holding on to those reared in the movement; 83 percent of Jewish adults under 30 raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, as are 57 percent of those between 30 and 49. Almost all of them are in-married.

But who are today’s Orthodox? They are younger than all other Jews (their median age is 40, compared to 55 for Conservative Jews, 54 for Reform and even 43 for “just Jewish”.) They have the largest families (4.1 children, or twice the Jewish average, which is at or below replacement levels.) Sixty percent of them self-identify as ultra-Orthodox and only 30 percent as Modern Orthodox.

Among the crucial younger demographic, those between the ages of 18 and 29, 81 percent self-identify as ultra-Orthodox, and for the slightly older range (30 to 49 years old), 71 percent do so. Do not expect that to change. After all, 97 percent of the ultra-Orthodox claim all or most of their friends are Jewish (and are probably Jews like them), while 65 percent of the Modern Orthodox make this claim. Fully 89 percent of the ultra-Orthodox say religion is “very important” to them (versus 77 percent of the modern Orthodox), in stark contrast to the only 26 percent of all Jews. Politically, the consequences are also clear: In contrast to the 70 percent of Jews who are liberal Democrats, only 30 percent of the Orthodox identify themselves likewise.

In all measures, ultra-Orthodox Jews espouse stricter standards about what is compatible with being a Jew. Ninety-six percent of Modern Orthodox say a person can be Jewish and work on the Sabbath, but only 64 percent of the ultra-Orthodox do. And while seven out of 10 American Modern Orthodox Jews say a person can be Jewish without believing in God, just half of ultra-Orthodox say the same. A minority of the Orthodox (11 percent among the ultra and 19 percent among the moderns) agree with the majority of all Jews that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry.

Given these differences, it is clear the ultra-Orthodox have more difficulties accepting as truly Jewish those Jews who are not like them – and these are the Jews who increasingly represent Orthodoxy. Clearly, a more insular, younger, less college-educated, politically conservative Orthodoxy will more and more stand as the sharp alternative to a Jewry that is liberal, assimilated, intermarried and wholly identifying with American secular culture. Bridges between these extremes will be hard to build

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.

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