In a recent issue of NJJN, editor Gabe Kahn offered an evaluation of the just-concluded decade in American-Jewish life (“How Jewish life, demographics changed in the 2010s,” Jan. 2). In particular he cites the Pew Research Center’s Religious and Public Life Project report, released in 2013, as proof of a “resurgent Orthodox community…and a shrinking pool of…deeply committed members of other denominations.”
I respectfully recommend that the actual Pew report numbers be re-examined and refined with the aim of looking at each denomination on a case-by-case basis. For example, the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey pointed to 1.2 million self-identified Conservative Jews in the United States; the 2013 Pew data revealed an identical number! While this is not growth, it certainly does not represent a dramatic decline.
The overall percentage of American Jews who identify as Conservative Jews has declined from a percentage in the high 20s in 2000 to 18 percent in 2013. Most of that decline is due to Pew’s expanded definition of who should be counted. The 5.3 million American Jews cited in 2000 “grew” to nearly 6.8 million in 2013. Due to immigration of Jews into the United States? No! Due to increased birth rates? No!
Rather, the “growth” of overall numbers of American Jews is due to Pew’s counting 1.4 million so-called “Jews of no religion.” If you restrict the Pew analysis to the 5.4 million “Jews by religion,” 26 percent self-identify as Conservative Jews (only slightly lower than in 2000). Similarly, 29 percent of American synagogue members are Conservative Jews (only slightly below the margin of error relative to the 33 percent figure in 2000).
Who are these “Jews of no religion”? Fifty-seven percent are the product of having been raised as Jews of no religion; another 5 percent were raised only partially as Jews by religion; 28 percent were raised as “Jews aside from religion”; 20 percent were raised as Christians; 3 percent were raised in some other non-Jewish religion. Sixty-seven percent are currently raising their children “as not Jewish in any way”; and three quarters of them did not identify with any denomination in Judaism. Of the minority who do self-identify, almost all call themselves “Reform.” It should be no surprise that very few (6 percent of these 1.4 million “Jews of no religion”) identify as Conservative Jews. Taking this misleading and large demographic factor into consideration brings the Conservative Jewish overall percentage artificially down to 18 percent — of 6.8 million!
Second, Conservative Jews (or Reform Jews for that matter) should not be lumped into an arbitrary category of “non-Orthodox Jews” (e.g., 90 percent of American Jewry). Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer more accurately pointed to the Pew data’s “denominational gradient” (e.g., ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Jews of no denomination, Jews of no religion). Greater intensity of Jewish living yields higher levels of Jewish identification.
Cohen and Wertheimer conclude that “it is blindingly clear that so-called liberal [non-Orthodox] Jews are not all the same…. [L]arge gaps open between those raised Conservative and those raised [in more liberal denominations or in no denomination] when it comes to levels of attachment to Israel, participation in religious life, joining Jewish organizations, and having mostly Jewish friends.”
A re-examination of Pew data reveals that 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews are “proud” to be Jewish; 93 percent feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives; 90 percent regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish”; and 88 percent express “an emotional attachment to Israel,” especially the 56 percent who have visited Israel. Four out of 10 self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least one time per month; 50 percent of these Jews are current synagogue members.
Third, the Pew data misleads the reader when it asserts that only 11 percent of “Jewish” young adults (20s and early 30s) currently self-identify as “Conservative.” From this “fact,” pundits conclude that Conservative Judaism has no future! Yet this 11 percent number climbs right away to 15 percent once “partially Jewish young adults (not raised exclusively as Jews)” are removed from the calculation. Of the remaining 85 percent, a plurality of young adults self-identify as “just Jewish.”
Why? Are they permanently rejecting future synagogue involvement? No! For many this is an issue of “stage of life.” Right or wrong, many Conservative synagogues have been structured to serve families with children. Yet, “non-Orthodox” Jewish young adults are marrying and having children later and later. More than 50 percent in the 25-39 age range currently are single. They are prolonging what sociologists call the “Odyssey Years”: seeking a mate, a career, a community, the start of family, and so forth.
Few of these “non-Orthodox” young men and women as yet self-identify with any denomination. A substantial number will join Conservative congregations once they marry and have children and seek a community. They are the majority of the parents in my synagogue’s large and thriving Early Childhood Center. Being “klal Yisrael” (a “just-Jewish” identity) is not alien to the Conservative movement. Conservative Jews serve as the backbone of UJA, AIPAC, Israel Bonds, JNF, and other Jewish communal organizations.
In sum, the Pew study data needs to be reanalyzed. It must not be used, as widely misunderstood, to create a false reality upon which communal policy and allocations are applied. The Conservative movement is not disappearing; there are 2.1 million Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide, including 1.2 million American Jews. These folks comprise 26 percent of America’s “Jews by religion,” 29 percent of synagogue members. They perform best among all non-Orthodox Jews, based upon all measures of Jewish identity. This is not a sign of “failure” but rather of playing a vital role in support for Israel and for American-Jewish institutional life and its future.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, is president of Mercaz Olami, the Zionist organization of the world Masorti/Conservative movement.