When numbers get serious
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When numbers get serious

Questioning and defending the meaning of Jewish demographics

It’s a numbers game.

But should it be?

For more than two decades, from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey to the 2013 Pew Report, much of the conversation around American Jewish life has centered around numbers. How many Jews are there, what are they doing, and — the key question for so many op-eds and sermons — how many are marrying other Jews?

Yet while the headline numbers scream meaning, looking at them closely can raise more questions. You might say that with one Jewish dataset, there are at least two opinions. And then there’s the fact that every survey returns data that are different in their own way.

Some of the resulting issues were discussed in a panel at last month’s convention of the Association of Jewish Studies, held in Boston. The session, called “The Numbers Controversy and American Jewry: Discerning the Trends and Their Meaning,” was set at the point where Jewish studies converge with Jewish current affairs.

Dr. Steven M. Cohen, left, Dr. Deborah Dash Moore, and Dr. Leonard Saxe
Dr. Steven M. Cohen, left, Dr. Deborah Dash Moore, and Dr. Leonard Saxe

The panel, which drew only about 30 people to the large ballroom where optimistic organizations had set it, featured Dr. Deborah Dash Moore, a historian from the University of Michigan, and two sociologists, Dr. Steven M. Cohen of New York’s Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, and Dr. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis.

Dr. Moore opened with a challenge: “We need to interrogate the numbers,” she said.

In other words, she wanted to know not just the number of Jews who fast on Yom Kippur and take part in a seder (53 and 70 percent respectively, according to the 2013 Pew report; 60 and 78 in the 1990 survey) but “why should American Jews care about these numbers?”

The numbers miss important nuances, she said. For demographers, “one Passover seder becomes equivalent to every other seder. A single intermarriage statistic becomes a symbol of ‘assimilation.’”

“Skepticism is in order, especially with respect to activist social science,” Dr. Moore said. “The problem is not necessarily with the numbers per se, but the disquieting ease with which they’ve been made to serve a mission. This entire process — of describing and prescribing norms, naming a crisis, publicizing it, and promoting its solution — seems to encounter relatively little friction when activist scholars fall into symbiotic relationships with congenial institutional benefactors and beneficiaries.

“The varieties of Jewish American relationships, activities, sentiments, and expressions are not simple, nor two-dimensional.”

Finally, she said she is not convinced “that the ambitious, expensive agenda advocated by my fellow scholars — such as the continued expansion of Jewish day schools — can achieve its subjective objectives.”

That last was an apparent reference to a statement, “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action,” signed by 78 rabbis and academics and donors — among them Dr. Cohen. The statement’s first call for action was to encourage state aid to Jewish day schools.

That was not a position that Dr. Cohen defended when he took the microphone. He began with a personal statement.

“I would like to serve the Jewish people so that I can help more Jews to be doing different types of Jewish things, including those I really despise. My major overriding thesis is that the engaged Jewish middle, the non-Orthodox Jews who are engaged in Jewish life, are declining in numbers and are going to continue to decline,” he said.

“If you disagree with my analysis, I still want to recruit you for my policy: to get Jewish grandparents to spend more time with their grandchildren, be they Jewish or non-Jewish; to treat our non-Jewish family members as Jewish as much as they wish; to build more subsidized Jewish preschools; to invest more in informal education for adolescents and young adults.”

Dr. Cohen said that the decline in non-Orthodox Judaism should not be a surprise — and could have been predicted even if it weren’t backed up by demographic studies. He said that when he was in graduate school he learned that “every ethnic group in America was assimilated because of intermarriage.” And indeed, he said, every non-African ethnic group is becoming less attached to its ethnicity.

So too, “every liberal religious group in America is going through a decline,” he said. “People of no religion have become the most popular denomination, surpassing Catholics.

“The fertility of non-Orthodox Jews is 1.7. Japan has a similar fertility rate and is seeing depopulation. Switzerland is seeing depopulation. So is the non-Orthodox population as a whole. We have a built-in decline in this population.

“We also have lots of other numbers. Not all numbers are disputable.

“How many people say that they’re Jewish? In my generation, age 50-69, 1.8 million self-identify as Jews. There are 1.2 million in the next generation. If you look at any measure, that generation has fewer percentages doing Jewish things than my generation. Subjectively, in my generation, 863,000 think being Jewish is important. In the next generation, only 400,000. The percentage also went down.

“If all this were true, what we would see is fewer Conservative synagogues, the Union for Reform Judaism firing lots of people, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism selling its property, the Jewish Theological Seminary coming up against significant donor resistance, and we’d see fewer federation donors.”

All of this, of course, actually has happened in the past few years, he added.

His conclusion: “We ought to get together and tell the Jewish world that there are a lot of good things going on out there, but if you believe more Jews should do more things, you ought to attend to the shrinkage of the American Jewish middle.”

The third speaker on the panel was Dr. Saxe, who directs the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis.

He tried to take a middle ground. “I believe numbers have an important role to play in how we understand ourselves but are not the only way to understand ourselves,” he said.

However, he cautioned, “population statistics tell us more about what was than what will be. They also perpetuate the myth that life is a straight line. They ignore the way the trajectory of identity and development is not linear. In this sense, Pew is a snapshot, not a movie. Or a movie taken from the front seat with the camera pointed in the rearview mirror. It tells us a lot of how we got to where we are, how we were raised. It doesn’t tell us a lot about what’s ahead of us.”

Dr. Saxe took on Dr. Cohen directly.

“At the heart of Steven’s view of American Jewry is the idea that there are fewer engaged Jews, that birthrates signal a further decline. But in fact, what Pew shows is that there are more engaged Jews, more synagogue members, more folks doing traditional Jewish things today than compared to 1990. The population has increased to around seven million individuals. In a number of areas there have been a number of dramatic shifts in American Jewish behavior.

“In terms of Israel, there has been a dramatic increase in the number who have visited Israel and who report a high level of connection and attraction to Israel.

“In terms of intermarriage, which I think for many of us is a focus since it now describes so much of the American Jewish community — there’s no question that intermarriage has changed the contours of the American Jewish community, in ways we hadn’t anticipated.

“For the generations born before 1981, the children of intermarried parents were relatively unlikely to be Jews when they became adults. Something changed after 1980. The millennials are twice as likely to identify as Jews when they turn 18. This portends a major shift.

“We can’t predict what the future will be by looking at the entire population. Those who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s may be very different than those who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We can’t even estimate fertility from those now 45 and above. Those now deciding may be very different.

“The message of universalism was the ethos an entire generation grew up with in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The uniqueness, the chosenness of Judaism was foreign to that generation. What we’re discovering is that if you love everyone, you don’t love anyone. Groupiness and particularism and belonging to a community is important,” he said.

Addressing the problems of synagogues and other Jewish organizations to which Dr. Cohen alluded, Dr. Saxe said, “There is no question our institutions have failed us. The traditional organizations have failed in the sense that they’re not attracting people in the same way, with the same level of intensity, as they did before. We may simply need to rethink how people connect institutionally.

“Even some of the old ways we characterized people as one thing or another” — Jews by religion, Jews not by religion, Jewish by background — “may not be terminology that fits with the current ethos. There was a time when the only choice was to be Jewish or not to be Jewish. The only choice of the child of intermarriage was to be Jewish or not to be Jewish, to accept the religion of their Jewish parent or to reject it. Now we find people are proud that they have multiple heritages,” he said.

Dr. Saxe said that by nature he is a pessimist — but he is hopeful when it comes to the future of American Jewry.

One of the reasons for his optimism, he said, is his experience studying the effect of the Birthright Israel program, which produced “extraordinary results in changes in engagements and involvements with Judaism.”

“My bottom line comment is let’s stop thinking there isn’t any hope and let’s not treat demography as destiny.”

Then Dr. Moore got a chance to respond.

“One of the things that differentiates a historian from a sociologist, particularly a quantitative sociologist, is that historians tend to approach the study of Jews where Jews are,” she said. “We don’t necessarily place a higher value on particular types of behavior or particular beliefs or particular organizational structures.

“One of the things one finds in the early history of New York is that Jews don’t join synagogues. They may go for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is it. Starting from the 1830s, the number of synagogues that existed in New York could never accommodate the number of Jews in the city” if they actually showed up there.

“Not only that, but Jews don’t observe the Sabbath,” she continued. “There were big debates in the middle of the 19th century about Jews not observing the Sabbath, running parallel to debates in the larger society on how one” — here, she moved from discussing Jews to the surrounding Christian culture — “should observe the Sabbath. Should one have blue laws and be required not to sell goods? Should mail not be delivered? Should the amusements that German immigrants brought be allowed, or should one just go to church and refrain from everything else?

“One of the things I find distressing about some of the quantitative analyses is they don’t recognize the ways that categories that were meaningful at one point historically may no longer be meaningful. I’m not sure they’re helpful in understanding things in contemporary terms.”

Dr. Cohen disagreed about finding optimism in the Pew numbers.

“In 1990, we had 5.5 million Jews reported,” he said. “It was 6.7 million in Pew. How did the Jewish people grow? We added 400 thousand Orthodox people. We added 400 thousand post 1990 from the former Soviet Union. We added much more longevity among people 75 and older — that’s 200,000 more.

“Pew picked the method that would maximize the number of Jews. The episodically connected Jews don’t speak to my thesis. The engaged non-Orthodox Jews 30-49 went from 1.6 million to 1.2 million. I’m not saying demography is destiny, but demography ain’t nothing.

“I’m trying alarmism,” he admitted. “Maybe alarmism will work. Maybe people will say, I didn’t know that non-Orthodox Judaism is declining, I want to have Jewish great-grandchildren, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to change policy in the direction I suggested.”

But Dr. Moore urged “more self reflection on what drives one’s engagement. Why is the middle important as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox, who seem to be doing just fine, or those who are really completely secular and seem to be doing fine? Those would be important questions to articulate in terms of what constitute the qualities we’re looking for.

“As a historian, I keep seeing constant changes and innovations. A hundred years ago, Jews didn’t do Passover seders particularly. Passover seders became much more popular after World War Two. Why? I don’t know. We do know how Chanukah becomes reinterpreted and becomes an important holiday.

“The same is true with Jewish education. Jews are more highly educated Jewishly than previously had been the case, where only 25 percent of Jews had gotten a Jewish education.

“There are interesting changes that take place when you have a longer view than several decades.”

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