How Jewish life, demographics changed in the 2010s

How Jewish life, demographics changed in the 2010s

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Members of Freidom at a storytelling event. 
Photo Courtesy Freidom
Members of Freidom at a storytelling event. Photo Courtesy Freidom

In the last 10 years a change in religious identity that had been rumbling during the previous decade — dissatisfaction with the traditional categories Jews were expected to fall into, Israel as a wedge issue, and an increasing, if begrudging, acceptance of intermarriage — emerged from the fringes of the Jewish world to its mainstream. Young people declared that they’re not satisfied with the status quo, and without changes from within they’ll break off and create alternatives for expressing their Jewishness — or leave the fold altogether. Traditional Jewish life in the 2010s was less about making wholesale changes than it was about taking action as a response to the overall frustration wrought throughout the previous decades.

Pew Report sounds the alarm

The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project report released in 2013 sent shockwaves through the American-Jewish community and beyond. The Pew Report, the most comprehensive survey on the state of Judaism in the U.S. in more than a decade, confirmed fears of eroding engagement outside of a resurgent Orthodox community and a shrinking pool of deeply committed and aging members of other denominations. Among the findings, more than a fifth of American Jews — and 32 percent of Millennials — consider themselves as having “no religion”; the intermarriage rate of non-Orthodox Jews is 71 percent; and two thirds responded that one not need believe in God to be Jewish.

Reneging on Kotel deal pushes liberal Jews further away from Israel

At a time when it appeared the relationship between Israel and liberal American Jews couldn’t be worse, tensions were inflamed even further after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly cancelled a 2016 agreement that would have expanded the egalitarian section of the Kotel, placed it under the authority of a pluralist committee, and given it a common entrance with the rest of the Western Wall plaza. Reform and Conservative Jews already wondered if they had a place in Israel; after this episode they were left wondering if Israel even cared.

Israel just ‘one center of Jewish life’ for Reform movement

On the heels of the Kotel agreement falling through and the continued dominance of religious life in Israel by its Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced at URJ’s Biennial Convention in 2017 that the model of Israel setting the “agenda” for the Jewish world should be replaced “with an ethos of an interdependent, mutually responsible world-Jewish community with two powerful centers, North America and Israel.” The message was clear: If Israel isn’t interested in working on our relationship, neither are we.

Charedi Jews share stories about leaving community

Hundreds of former chasidic Jews are experiencing Freidom — a play on the Yiddish word “frei,” or free — a social group for individuals who left their respective close-knit and closed-off charedi Orthodox communities. Shulem Deen shined a light on the lives of the expat chasidic world with his memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” about his heart-wrenching decision to break with the community and the consequences of doing so, including losing his wife and children. Although their numbers are small compared with the explosive growth of the Orthodox community, former inhabitants of this world have demonstrated a willingness to go, to write about their experiences, and, with organizations like Freidom and Footsteps, assist others on the same path.

Social justice top value of American Jews

It’s neither Israel nor religion that matters most to Jews, but social issues such as welcoming immigrants, protecting women’s access to abortion, LGBTQ rights, and universal health care. A 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that by a large margin, American Jews value social justice (46 percent) more than they do Israel (20 percent) and religious observance (17 percent) combined.

A less Open Orthodoxy

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) was founded two decades ago, in part, because of the rightward shift of Modern Orthodoxy and the need of those who champion progressive causes within Judaism — including the role of women in the synagogue, accepting LGBTQ individuals into the community, and an emphasis on inclusivity — to remain within a traditional halachic framework. They referred to their niche as “Open Orthodoxy,” pushing the envelope especially when it came to traditionally acceptable roles for women. The movement inspired a backlash, however, and by decade’s end YCT had quietly abandoned the “Open” moniker.

Conservative movement leaders urged rabbis to welcome interfaith couples, but reiterated a ban on performing their weddings. Photo by Justin Oberman/Creative Commons

Once a third rail, intermarriage now increasingly accepted

For generations, even parents who had little-to-no affiliation with religious Judaism laid down the law on one single rule to their children: Marry within the faith, or else. Disregarding this rule resulted in families — and garments — being torn apart. Though that hasn’t changed for Orthodox and some pockets of Conservative Jews, an inability to stem the flow of intermarriage led to widespread acceptance of a once-controversial strategy to deal with those who choose to marry out: embracing interfaith families instead of writing them off. In 2017 Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the launch of RJ Connect, an online-officiation referral service for couples to find clergy members who are not only willing to officiate interfaith and same-sex marriages, but also to “help young couples take the next steps in their Jewish lives.” The Conservative movement also stressed “kiruv,” or outreach, although its rabbis were still banned from officiating at interfaith ceremonies.

At the 2017 URJ convention Rick Jacobs is pictured (center) among some of the 6,000 attendees from some 500 congregations across the U.S. Photo Courtesy UR

Religious affiliation defining political identity

The Democratic Party has been able to count on an overwhelming percentage of the Jewish vote, a nearly century-long trend that is expected to continue for at least the next several generations. However, a perceived ambivalence toward Israel by high-profile Democrats such as President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), and an undeniable animus for the Jewish state by several of the party’s up-and-coming progressives, coupled with the seemingly enduring friendship for Israel by most Republicans, has created a denominational shift in political identity. Exceptions abound, of course, but the Orthodox, who often value support for Israel above all else, are increasingly likely to pull the lever for a GOP candidate. Not so for other movements.

Hadar students poring over texts. The institution’s “genuine commitment to halachic observance and egalitarianism” was a big draw for one student. Photo Courtesy Hadar

Don’t have a pulpit in the status quo? Make your own

In 1999 Yeshivat Chovevei Torah shook up the Orthodox world by offering rabbinic ordination to students who were open to progressive issues most mainstream rabbis tried to avoid at all costs. Chovevei made waves again in 2009 by opening another branch, Yeshivat Maharat, that would train women to make halachic decisions, albeit without the automatic title of rabbi. A decade later Hadar has started its own advanced study program with an opportunity for ordination under the institution’s observant, egalitarian — and nondenominational — approach to Judaism.

Contact Gabe Kahn via email:, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.

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