Perspective: One Jewish group is growing in a secular age. What is its secret?
The practices that distinguish the faithful from the religiously disengaged are both surprising and logical
Across America, young men and women are abandoning religious faith in droves — and Judaism is no exception. More Jewish adults than ever classify themselves as religious “nones.” In fact, according to the latest Pew survey on American Jews, fully 40% of Jews under the age of 40 describe “themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ rather than as Jewish.”
This pattern is most pronounced among younger Jews. These young adults rarely or never darken the door of a synagogue or mark Shabbat, according to Pew respondents who were asked how they connect with Jews and Judaism. Both of these trends would not seem to bode well for Judaism in America.
But hidden within the data are clues as to how American Jewry can reverse these trends. As Dava Schub, CEO of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., said, “There is a lot of room to continue to move and grow and evolve.”
First, the bad news:
The fact that many young Jewish men and women do not stick with their faith tradition, what scholars call “religious retention,” is one challenge facing the Jewish community. Another is that of below-replacement fertility — Jewish women are averaging 1.5 children each (2.1 is the replacement rate). Both these trends suggest the Jewish community as a whole, which currently numbers about 7.6 million, or 2.28% of Americans, could shrink substantially in the coming generations. Given these demographic trends, at first glance the future for Jewish life in America looks rather bleak.
These trends, however, are not evenly distributed across the different Jewish denominations.
Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative are seeing the lower rates of retention, religious attendance and fertility compared to their more observant counterparts in Orthodox and traditional Judaism. Perhaps the key distinction is that of fertility.
Birth rates for Orthodox women are 3.3 children per woman, whereas the rate for non-Orthodox women is only 1.4 children per woman. This statistic is illustrated in real life when considering that the average age among Orthodox Jewish adults in America is at least 18 years younger than the average among Reform/Conservative Jews.
Regarding regular religious service attendance, 83% of those who identify as Orthodox attend services at least once per month, compared to 33% for those who identify as Conservative, and 14% of those who identify as Reform. Considering generational retention, the Pew data show that a higher proportion of people who were raised in Orthodox homes remain Orthodox as adults (67%) than Conservative (41%) or Reform (66%).
To put it plainly, in the words of Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center, “If you are familiar with the American-Jewish community, you’ve seen the growth in Orthodox neighborhoods, communities across the country.”
In other words, the decline of American Judaism looks to be concentrated in its moderate and liberal branches, whereas retention, fertility and attendance among young Orthodox adherents is on the rise.
Add to this the fact that only 1% of those who identify as Orthodox are not synagogue members, whereas 36% of those who identify as Reform and 11% who identify as Conservative are not synagogue members. And, as the figure indicates, a growing share of young adults identify as Orthodox — and they are having more than two times more children than are their more religiously liberal counterparts. All this suggests that Orthodox Judaism in America is doing something right that cannot be ignored.
And what are those lived behaviors among the Orthodox that encourage Jewish-positive values and seem to herald intergenerational strength and continuity? Some items are relatively easy to predict:
- Regular observance of Shabbat — 74.7% of Orthodox observe Shabbat regularly, 28.5% of Conservative and 14.2% of Reform adherents do so often, while 66% of the “just Jewish” never do.
- Finding meaning and fulfillment in religious faith — 67.2% of Orthodox find meaning and fulfillment in their faith, while 38.4% of Conservative, 14.7% of Reform and 23.1% of “just Jewish” Jews do.
- Finding meaning and fulfillment in spending time with their (larger) families — 83% of Orthodox find meaning and fulfillment in family life, compared to 76.2% of Conservative, 74.2% of Reform, and 67.2% of “just Jewish” Jews.
Other somewhat surprising, but actually quite logical, practices distinguish more religiously engaged Jews from others. They include:
- Eating traditional Jewish foods — 91.1% of Orthodox versus 76.7 % of Conservative and 73% of Reform. One-quarter of Jewish “nones” report never eating traditional Jewish foods.
- Reading Jewish newspapers or seeking out Jewish news online — 77.3% of Orthodox versus 52.3% of Conservative and 38.0% of Reform. A full 55% of “nones” never read Jewish news.
- Visiting synagogues or historic Jewish sites when traveling — 83.6% of Orthodox versus 67.7% of Conservative and 60.1% of Reform. More than one-third of “nones” never visit historic sites.
- Participation in (the very pro-Jewish and pro-Israel) activities of Chabad — 46.0% of Orthodox versus 25.9% of Conservative and 10.7% of Reform. Meanwhile, 79% of “nones” never hang out at the local Chabad house.
- Listening to Jewish or Israeli music — 72.2% of Orthodox versus 51.2% of Conservative and 29.4% of Reform. Just over one-half of “nones” never listen to Jewish music.
Of course, it is possible that there might be enough Jewish “nones,” combined with those who identify as “culturally Jewish,” to provide just enough Jewishly-aware descendants in two generations to register as a significant minority portion of American Jewry in Pew’s 2080 survey.
Indeed, it is notable that at least large minorities of Jewish “nones” observe Yom Kippur, life cycle events (such as bar/bat mitzvahs) and attend a Passover Seder. These activities, however, are insufficient to provide any reasonable certainty that succeeding generations will embrace a Jewish identity and engage in similar Jewish behaviors.
Fortunately, for those who know that they want their Jewish children today to be successful Jewish parents in 2050, there are ways to increase the odds that they stay in the fold. The key, the Pew data suggest, is to make some basic and intentional choices.
You should not only increase family synagogue attendance and religious awareness, but also regularly make matzah ball soup with your children and grandchildren, keep up with the latest Jewish news in the U.S. and Israel, and tune in to Jewish music on the internet. When traveling, plan to go out of your way to visit significant Jewish historical sites, and when at home, engage with the local Chabad house at least on occasion.
While these activities may seem rather simple and even innocuous, from the story told by the Pew data, those who intentionally pursue these activities may not only strengthen their own Jewish identity and connection to the American and Israeli Jewish communities, but they will also create, support and sustain the identities of their children and grandchildren, resulting in the sustenance of American Jewry to the end of the current century.
Finally, the rising fortunes of Orthodox Judaism also suggest lessons for other Abrahamic traditions that would like to see their fortunes sustained in the 21st century. Beyond attending services, focus on family devotions, plug into your own faith’s religious media and music, and make regular pilgrimages to places that are meaningful for your tradition. Such steps are likely to protect you, your children and your community from the secular currents eroding the faith of many faithful young adults today.
Sam Richardson is the director for small community outreach at the Jewish National Fund-USA and research specialist for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Brad Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Future of Freedom fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.