Opinion |

My Generation Sees an American Jewry in Decline. But Younger Jews Don't

Are we baby-boomers, demographers and sociologists included, eulogizing the U.S. Jewish future because younger Jews aren't 'doing Jewish' exactly like we did?

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
A protester wearing a yellow star stands as republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Rock Hill, South Carolina January 8, 2016.
American Jewry is dying off, alienated and intermarrying into oblivion. Or maybe it isn't: A protester wearing a yellow star at a campaign speech by Donald Trump, South Carolina. January 8, 2016Credit: Reuters
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

In a recent study based on an analysis of the Pew Portrait of American Jews Survey, Sylvia Barack Fishman and Steven M. Cohen sociologically document something my parents knew intuitively, and expressed repeatedly, when they were pressuring me to get married (the sooner the better) to a "nice Jewish girl."

They knew that single act would not only assure our family’s continuity (and make me a young father, unlike my dad), something as Holocaust survivors they cared deeply about, but also that it would cement my ties to the Jewish community not least after my student days in the then-radical atmosphere of 1960’s Brandeis University. In my case, they were right.

As my rebellion petered out, I got married at 23 and my wife and I had a son, and soon three more. We joined a synagogue, where we found friends for my kids, made ties to their peers' parents, looked to enroll them in Jewish education and became anchored in a whole array of institutions that were connected to the synagogue, schools, my children and the Jewish community.

So powerfully were we attached to these that when it became time for me to choose an academic position, I ended up rejecting an offer from an Ivy League university where there were few Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions that I now felt were vital to me and my growing family. Fishman and Cohen reiterate this:

As we move from intermarried to non-married to inmarried, we find increases in feeling that being Jewish is very important: 25 vs. 40 vs. 63 percent; for having mostly Jewish friends: 8 vs. 22 vs. 48 percent; for belonging to a synagogue: 12 vs. 25 vs. 70 percent; and, most critically, for the percent of one’s children being raised in the Jewish religion: 20 vs. 46 vs. 94 percent.

So the fact that I married a Jewish woman mattered first and foremost, and all else followed.

Yet, as someone asked me, after reading the report, are the measures of Jewish engagement that both Fishman and Cohen as well as I (baby-boomers all and talking about our generation’s experience and wisdom), the only ones that count?

Are there not new ways of connecting to Jewish life and being for the generations after ours? Are we looking for all the points at which these generations follow our archetype, and eulogizing the Jewish future when they don't?

Is synagogue membership or protesting a more helpful indicator of Jewish commitment? The Park East Synagogue, Manhattan. February 19, 2015 Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images / A

Younger generations won't be persuaded or cajoled into marrying (and marrying Jewish) at the young age we did; they're more likely to enjoy more casual relationships before settling down (if at all). But although they're not ticking the marriage/kids/synagogue/Jewish school boxes, it's clear they find other ways of expressing their Jewishness.

I am talking about participants at Limmud conferences, those who feel deeply connected to the community of their Jewish fellow seekers, who see themselves as cultural Jews (the most popular form of Jewish belonging among the non-Orthodox), who read broadly about Jewish topics, form Jewish ties and communities through social media, visit Israel through programs like Birthright, or engage with Israel professionally via such organizations as Tamid, those who organize their political activity through their Jewish identity; do these forms of Jewish connection by the unmarried or the new generation of Jews not count?

Admittedly, I have my own prejudice in favor of the connections that Fishman and Cohen talk about and that echo my own. They are the ones that I urged upon my own sons. I know they work. But I cannot say with assurance, nor has the report convinced me unequivocally, that the alternative choices for how to connect to their Jewish identity made by subsequent generations will be ineffectual or insubstantial in the long run, despite wandering off the conventional pattern with which demographers of the Jewish community are familiar.

Does our data not capture how younger generations 'do Jewish'? A J Street-sponsored meeting in Boston to mobilize support for the the U.S. administration's efforts to broker a peace deal. Credit: Bob Nesson

Of course those who marry later, or do not reproduce themselves, will surely leave a far smaller demographic footprint on Jewry, one that the steadily growing Orthodox will likely overshadow. But the assumption that only the ways we have been measuring Jewish connections and attachments for the last two or three generations are the ones that work might not be altogether true.

People have been predicting Jewish decline and demise for a long time, but this "ever-dying people," as philosopher Simon Rawidowicz called the Jews, seems always to find some new way of reviving themselves and we should believe they will again.

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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