Alan Silverstein

Religious Pluralism Means Distinctive Denominations – A Key to Jewish Continuity and Vitality

The Jewish People Policy Institute has published its latest study, assessing Jewish intensity and demographic growth among Haredi Jews [7% of the total number of Jews in the USA]. Impressive Pew Study of 2012 data about Haredim is contrasted with alarming data about all “Non-Haredi Jews.” The stark differences led David Rosenberg in Arutz Sheva to ask “Is there a future for non-Orthodox American Jewry?” This line of reasoning falsely assumes a unified category exists among 93% of American Jews, e.g. Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Unaffiliated, Jews of No Religion, etc. It ignores major findings of the Pew data. Steven M Cohen and Jack Wertheimer [“The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope”] noted that  “Overall, a “denominational gradient” holds true: those raised Orthodox tend to be the most engaged, followed by those raised Conservative, followed by those raised Reform, followed by those raised with no denomination.”

The most problematic cluster among so-called “Non-Haredi Jews” within the JPPI data are 600,000 adults who self-identify as only “partially Jewish,” and 300,000 children “who are being raised partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” The next ring of loosely engaged folks as “Jews of No Religion,” yet another large segment of the Pew Survey. In this regard, Cohen/Wertheimer points out that “Jews who [do] identify themselves with the Jewish religion are far more engaged with all aspects of Jewish life than are Jews lacking such an identification. By “all aspects,” we mean not only such obvious things as synagogue attendance and ritual observance but also connection to Israel, engagement in non-religious Jewish organizations, likelihood of giving to Jewish causes, and forging close friendships with other Jews.” To lump “partially Jewish” and “Jews of No Religion” together with the other American Jews yields misleading data.

Moreover, among “Jews affirming the Jewish Religion,” Cohen/Wertheimer point out the significance of identification with one of the Jewish religious denominations, They acknowledge the contribution of a few high profile communities not connected to any of the movements but add a caution” “Our analysis of the Pew data challenges… the widely touted phenomenon of post- or non-denominationalism—allegedly, the leading edge of a new American Judaism—requires rethinking: on every measure, [in general] Jews by religion who were raised in no denomination evince lower levels of Jewish connection than do Jews raised in some denomination.”

What is clear is that there is a range of Jewish intensity along a denominational gradient by adherents of the respective movements [Haredi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Unaffiliated] which yields a diminishing spectrum of results. This is the context in which to read the JPPI study of Haredi Jews, living the most intensive Jewish life-style. These are the folks whom Dr. Wertheimer has previously identified, “that…self-consciously insulate themselves to one degree or another from Western culture or explicitly reject the assumptions of modernity.” Haredim do not send their children to live away from home at secular universities. They encourage very early marriage and large family size. Accepting the “price” of isolated living, they retain most, although not all, of their offspring within their ranks.

Less intensive Jewish living by “Modern Orthodox” Jews [3% of American Jewry]” yields impressive but not as dramatic data reflective of widespread Jewish engagement [ritual observance, Jewish study, Israel connection to Israel, etc]. These are Jews strongly engaged in Jewish living balanced by involvement in the general society. They demand that their yeshivot provide high standards not only of Judaic studies but of secular studies as well. The goal is to send their children into America’s best college campuses as a launch into potentially lucrative careers. The age of marriage for their sons and daughters is noticeably higher than among the Haredi Orthodox. Family size is above the 2.1 replacement level but smaller than among Haredim. They face pressures in terms of the affordability of the Modern Orthodox life-style [yeshivah tuition, summer camp, private college].The challenges posed by affordability, by career and by the assimilatory pull of the outer society result in a significant rate of disaffection. This dynamic of struggle is assessed in Werthemier’s essay entitled,” Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?: The culture wars have come to the Modern Orthodox movement.”

The most intensive Jewishly engaged “Non-Orthodox” group are self-identified Conservative Jews. Contrary to most media assessments, the Pew data does not reveal a catastrophic decline in Conservative Jewish numbers. Both in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey and in the 2012 Pew Survey, approximately 1.2 million folks self-identify as Conservative Jews. Stability in overall numbers does not represent growth but neither does it represent demise! The Pew Survey indicates 29% of current American synagogue members are Conservative Jews, down from 33% in 2000. This reflects modest decline, but certainly not a time for panic.

On the very positive side of the equation, a distinctive picture emerges. 98% of self-identifying Conservative Jews are “proud” to be Jewish. 93% feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives. 90% regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish.” 88% express “an emotional attachment to Israel,” especially the 56% who have visited Israel.  Thirty percent of eligible children from Conservative homes currently are enrolled in day school. Four out of ten self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least one time per month. Fifty percent of these Jews are current synagogue members. 29% currently belong to “a Jewish organization. 80% have made a donation to a Jewish organization during the past year. 40% feel that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish. 30% of adult Conservative Jews attended an overnight Jewish camp and 50% were part of a Jewish youth group. 75% of married self-identifying Conservative Jews are in-married. Conservative shuls also serve as the primary “Non-Orthodox’ venues for kosher homes, kosher synagogue kitchens, as well as egalitarian Shabbat and daily minyanim.

Cohen/Wertheimer refutes the false assumption of future “convergence of Conservative Jews with the Reform Movement. In exploring the views of non-Orthodox Jews ages 35-50, they take note that “when we compare specific denominations of the non-Orthodox, we find striking differences in levels of Jewish engagement. In fact, those differences are more pronounced among younger Jews than among their elders. This pattern is especially evident with regard to the sense of belonging to and of responsibility for the Jewish people; on this measure, Jews under the age of fifty who have been raised Conservative exhibit far higher rates of connection than do their Reform counterparts. Similarly large gaps open between those raised Conservative and those raised Reform when it comes to levels of attachment to Israel, participation in religious life, joining Jewish organizations, and having mostly Jewish friends.”

The Reform Movement, too, clearly plays a vital role in Jewish communal efforts at continuity. While less engaged in Israel, in ritual practice, religious service attendance and in Israel than Conservative Jews, they are much more so than among the Unaffiliated Jews of No Religion. With a 50% rate of intermarriage among self-identifying Reform Jews, Reform Judaism is at the forefront of outreach to a category of Jews most at risk to become unengaged, e.g. adult children of the intermarried. Cohen/Wertheimer emphasizes the challenge. They note that “in the aggregate, individuals who have been raised by two Jewish parents make very different choices from those made by children of intermarried parents. We have ..seen the marked tendency of the latter to marry non-Jews in their turn, and the relative unlikelihood of their raising their own children exclusively in the Jewish religion. Similar disparities can be shown on measures of religious participation and connection to the Jewish people, where adults raised by intermarried parents are, at most, only half as likely to be involved in the community as those raised by two Jewish parents; the gaps are even wider when it comes to joining synagogues, friendship with other Jews, and donating to Jewish charities.” If the adult children of intermarried remain unaffiliated, the chances of their future Jewish continuity are remote.

In sum, it is unhelpful to bundle multiple denominations along with the unaffiliated and Jews of no religion as one unified data base as “Non-Haredi” or “non-Orthodox” or as “Liberal.” Affirming Judaism as one’s religion has consequences. Whether or not “A Jew by Religion” currently belongs to a specific congregation, or at least identifies with a specific denomination also is important. We see a clear denominational gradient revealed by the Pew Study. This is evidence of the benefits to Jewish continuity and vitality which accrue from religious pluralism. American Jewry benefits by preserving its rich spectrum of distinctive options for Jewish religious identification. US Jews rely upon each movement to retain a uniqueness lest the array of choices erode.  In a free and open society in which Jews are a tiny minority, the presence of desirable and unique Jewish religious choices is the best strategy for assuring a Jewish future for the maximum number of Jews.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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