Monday, November 4, 2013

Pew Report - The Sustainability of American Judaism and Why Bimodal Distributions Are Helpful and Harmful

The Pew Report raises a troubling question about the sustainability of non-Orthodox Judaism. (I will post separately on the Pew Report’s observations regarding Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.) The simple story – partially correct and partially incorrect – is that the Pew Report statistics shows that over time, there is a shift towards less observant forms of Judaism. Conservative and Reform Jews have children who are less observant, less Jewishly involved, and more likely to intermarry. Those children in turn have children who are even less Jewishly connected, and finally no longer identify as Jewish by religion, and after than no longer identify as Jewish at all.

I think that this story is based on a misunderstanding of the statistics. Those statistics more likely reflect what statisticians call a bi-modal distribution, and this distribution makes those statistics simultaneously more and less troubling. To see this, lets look at the Pew statistics themselves and then this bi-modal interpretation.

The Pew Report divides the Jewish population into two groups: Jews by Religion (JBR) and Jews of No Religion (JNR). The latter category consists people who (1) do not consider themselves to be “Jewish by Religion”, (2) were raised Jewish or have a Jewish parent (3) have no other religion, and (4) consider themselves Jewish or partially Jewish. In other words, JNRs are ethnically or culturally Jewish but are not religious.

Not surprisingly, the statistics show that JBR have higher levels of Jewish observance, identity, and connection than JNR.

For example, when asked how important is being Jewish in your life, JBR said very (56%), somewhat (34%) and not too important or not at all (10%). The numbers were reversed for JNR: very (12%), somewhat (34%), and not too important or not at all (54%). (P. 51.) Overall levels of Jew practice were higher for JBR than JNR. (P. 77.) None of this is surprising.

But what is troubling is that a huge percentage of JNR are raising their children without any Jewish connections.

For example, 59% of Jews by Religion are raising their children as Jews by Religion. 14% are raising their children partly Jewish by religion, 8% Jewish not by religion, and 18% not Jewish. So almost 60% of religious Jews are raising their children religiously Jewish. (P. 8.)

However, for Jews of no Religion, only 8% are raising their children Jewish by Religion. (That’s not surprising, since these are not religious Jews.) Only 11% are raising their children Partly Jewish by Religion and another 11% are raising their children Jewish not by religion. But the surprising statistic is that 67% are raising their children “Not Jewish.”  In other words, cultural Jews are unable or unwilling to raise children who see themselves as cultural Jews.  Instead, the children are raised as not Jews.

This is related to the increasing intermarriage rate. (p. 9.) Before 1970, Jews intermarried at 17%. This rose to 35% - 36% in the 1970s, 41% - 42% in the 1980s, 46% to 55% in the 1990s, and 58% since 2000.

Overall, 56% of married Jews have a Jewish spouse. This number is 64% for JBR, and 21% for JNR. (P. 36.) And this number is correlated with the level of Jewish observance. The in-marriage rate is 98% for Orthodox Jews, 73% for Conservative Jews, 50% for Reform Jews, and 31% for religious Jews of no denomination (P. 37.) And intermarried Jews are much more likely to be Jews of No Religion and raise their children as not Jewish.

(I actually think intermarriage is often the result of people not finding meaning in Judaism, rather than a free-standing problem. But that’s another discussion.)

So the simple read of all these numbers is that there is a path to non-Jewishness that is difficult to leave. Over a few generations, a huge percentage of religious Jews become less observant, a huge percentage of their children or grandchildren become non-religious Jews, and a huge percentage of their children or grandchildren become not Jewish at all. Almost no one goes the other way.

I think this understanding of the Pew Report numbers is partially incorrect in a way that is both hopeful and depressing.T he self-identified Jews by Religion category includes a substantial number of Jews that are at best marginally religious and in many respects are statistically identical to Jews of No Religion. If so, the JBR category is a bi-modal distribution. It really consists of two separate unimodal distributions: one distribution of Jews who are actually religious in some deeper or more objective way, and one distribution of Jews who are not religious in a deeper or more objective way but who self-identify as religious. Lets call them Jew by Religion - Objective (JBR-O) and Jews by Religion - Subjective (JBR-S).

Just to be clear: this is simply a descriptive analysis. I do not mean to denigrate anyone’s religious beliefs or practices. My point is simply that a Jew who feels religious in some spiritual way, but does not menifest these feelings in any outward and objective ways – does not belong to a synagogue or any Jewish organization, attend services, observe holidays, study Jewish texts, or engage in Jewish rituals – acts differently than Jew with similar feelings who does take more concrete actions.

Several unusual pieces of data in the Pew Report support the idea that there are two groups in this category.

For example, only 39% of JBR are members of a synagogue, 22% are members of other Jewish organizations, and 56% made donations to a Jewish organization. Assuming that these three are correlated, that means that maybe 40% (or more) of all Jews by Religion have no membership or affiliation or financial connection with any Jewish organization. Since participation in Jewish organizations are one primary way of Jews acting on their religious beliefs, the fact that 40% of JBR do not avail themselves of this opportunity suggests that there is a substantial group of JBR-S in the JBR category.

Another important way that Jews practice Judaism is through home rituals. The Pew Report shows that 78% of JBR participated in a seder last year. (P. 77.) This means that 22% of people who identified as Jewish by religion did not. Similarly, only 28% of Jews always or usually light Shabbat candles. (P. 77.) That means 68% did not.

Of course, one key way of acting Jewish is not engaging in religious practices of other religions. But 27% of Jews by Religion had a Christmas tree last year (including 4% of Orthodox Jews!) and 16% attended non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year (including 16% of Orthodox Jews!). (P. 80.)

The only way to make sense of these numbers is to conclude that perhaps 20% - 40% of self-identified Jews by Religion simply feel Jewish in some religious sense but are doing little if anything in an objective way to act Jewish.

This conclusion is strengthened by my experience in Conservative synagogues. A fairly high percentage of members seem to be at the synagogue simply to have a bar- or bat-mitzvah. The parents engage in little or no specifically Jewish practices, apart from a Passover seder and lighting Chanukah candles. They have little or no Jewish background and education.  And they have little or no desire to learn about these things or to try them. (A personal example.  I ran an adult education class for several years.  The class met when the kids were in Sunday morning religious school. We had a rotating group of some really spectacular rabbis teaching the classes. The parents were already coming to the synagogue to drop their kids off, and coming back two hours later to pick them up. They simply had to stay.  We had good publicity for the class, and sometimes even served food. We occasionally got a decent turnout, but we often had only a few people show up.)

Again, I am not criticizing these practices. My point is simply that when people with that level of learning, belief, and practice self-identify as Jews by Religion, and Jews who regularly attend religious services, celebrate Jewish holidays, and study Jewish texts also self-identify as Jews by Religion, the average statistics of Jews by Religion will in fact represent a weighted average of these two very different groups.

If this analysis is right, it is both good news and bad news. The good news is that non-Orthodox Judaism is not on a one-way track to oblivion. There is a sub-group of non-Orthodox Jews by Religion for whom Judaism is important and meaningful as a religion. This group acts in Jewish ways, intermarries in lower numbers, and raises children that grow up to also find meaning in Judaism. But the bad news is that there is a different sub-group of Jews by Religion for whom Judaism may invoke religions or spiritual feelings, but they have not been able to find much, if anything, in Judaism to warrant more concrete action. This group does not do objectively Jewish things, intermarries in much higher numbers, and raises children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren who ultimately no longer identify as Jews.

If so, Reform and Conservative Judaism may simply asymptotically approach a lower population.

In short, the bad news for the group as a whole is really OK news for some and really terrible news for others. It just averages out to be bad news.

* * *

I see two take away lessons here.

First, as I have long argued, efforts to ground Judaism in anything other than religion will not work in the long run. The Pew Report confirms that only the religious aspect of Judaism can survive multiple generations in America. Yes, it is important to study the Holocaust and Israel, but these are not the core of Judaism. It is important to engage in social action, but one cannot ground Judaism in canned food drives and helping Darfur refugees. Jewish culture like Jewish literature, Israeli dancing, and klezmer music are the icing on the cake, but not the cake itself, and certainly not the meal. Even ethics, broadly speaking, are only a part of Judaism. Judaism must be understood in terms of God, Torah, and Jewish beliefs and practices. It is these core ideas that result in the importance of other Jewish ideas.

Second, this understanding of the problem sets up the solution. Jewish organizations, and especially synagogues, must find and implement ways of making the religious aspects of Judaism relevant and important. The Orthodox have done this, although with some huge problems, as I have argued elsewhere. Conservative and Reform Synagogues as a whole have not done this at a broad level. They need to offer a religious vision that
makes sense to contemporary American Jews. 

In upcoming posts, I will be blogging with some ideas as to how to make this work. But first I will have a few other posts on the Pew Report.

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