Reading the Pew Study on American Jews

Since its release just a few short weeks ago, the Pew Research Center’s survey and report on the state of American Judaism has stimulated an almost frantic conversation on where we are as a Jewish community, and where we might be headed.

As a Conservative Rabbi and as the President of the Rabbinical Assembly, there is no way that I can relate to the findings of the Pew Study as “good news.” Our percentage as a declared denomination has shrunk, intermarriage rates are very high…. All of this I did not really need the Pew study to know. Every non-Orthodox rabbi, both intuitively and from empirical evidence, knows that the Conservative and Reform movements in America have suffered serious attrition, and that intermarriage has been a serious issue for a very long time already.

All of this is true. But I am not in any way, shape or form ready to declare defeat and regard any and all efforts to ameliorate the situation as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” as some of our less charitable critics have described it. There are a few things that need to be said in response to the Pew study, and I don’t think that they are Pollyanna-ish or evidence of denial. The news may be discouraging, but the opera isn’t quite over.

To begin with, in the spirit of honesty, I will give credit to my Orthodox colleagues and friends for certain decisions that they made long ago and which are now redounding to their benefit. They understood the pre-eminent importance of day school education in the face of the incredible openness of American society and culture, and made the Jewish day school the overwhelming choice for their children. They were right. A fine congregational school can be an excellent vehicle for transmitting Jewish knowledge and identity, but it cannot – if only for reason of instructional hours- match the impact of a good day school, both in skills acquisition and in identity building.

Additionally, the Orthodox world has succeeded in making larger families the norm. The generally smaller size of non-Orthodox Jewish families, coupled with the powerful American trend toward late marriage and intermarriage, has been a demographic disaster for the non-Orthodox world. Changing those attitudes is difficult at best. I’ve tried, and I continue to try. It’s not an easy sell.

I admit all this, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

That said, I am equally convinced that the percentage numbers of denominationally declared families in the Pew study represents an ever increasing trend in the American Jewish community (and Protestant community, by the way) towards post-denominationalism, more than it represents a global loss of Jews for whom the Conservative movement has been a positive, formative influence. I am sure that many of the younger Jews on, say, the Upper West Side of Manhattan who populate any number of so-called “independent minyanim” were raised in Conservative homes, attended Schechter schools and synagogues, went to one Camp Ramah or another, attended JTS… In other words, their Jewish identities were shaped and nurtured in Conservative institutions. For whatever reason- and there are a few good ones, and a few less good ones- they would be loathe now to identify as Conservative, or to seek out and join a Conservative synagogue. Labels are so yesterday… But it creates a mistaken impression of the reach and influence of the Conservative movement to create hard numbers that, while they quantify affiliation percentages, do not do justice to the role that the movement has played.

Part of the challenge of the Pew report is, indeed, a metaphorical slap in the face to Conservative institutions; not a slap of disrespect, but one of “wake up!” Clearly, in the face of post-denominationalism, our institutions need to re-invent themselves to as to adjust to the changing religious marketplace. Religion is a commodity in the American marketplace, and it needs to be marketed. Every synagogue, every school, every camp, needs to be asking itself what it can do to create a product more in tune with the interests and needs of today’s American Jewish community.

One last thought… the Pew study made it clear that the future of the American Jewish community is yet to be written. It will never be all Orthodox; the real question is whether or not the large numbers of children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews, and whether the non-Orthodox word can successfully reach those younger Jews who have no affiliation or allegiance whatsoever. That is where the real challenge lies, and where our real work lies in the non-Orthodox world.

So no- the news isn’t great, not by a long shot. But like I said, we are far from the last act of this drama, and all of us who care about this are obliged to understand exactly how high the stakes are. They couldn’t be higher. Insofar as Jews are concerned, American might just be the ultimate example of “be careful what you wished for, you just might get it.” We got it. Now we have to keep what we had before. Easier said than done…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.