June 18, 2014

After Pew: What Will It Take to Save American Jewry

Not all of the news coming out of the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” released this past October is depressing. 

The Orthodox population is growing exponentially. We have a high birthrate and a very low intermarriage rate. 

Moreover, one of the most impressive findings of the Pew report is that 70 percent of the Orthodox population was raised Orthodox. That means that 30 percent, or three out of every ten Orthodox Jews, did not grow up Orthodox but became Orthodox somewhere along the way. 

Not only is Orthodoxy attracting those from other streams, but our retention rate is remarkably high. It used to be that only 22 percent of American Jews stayed Orthodox. Today, 83 percent of Orthodox Jews stay Orthodox. Although we would prefer to retain 100 percent, no other group in the Jewish community or any other faith community has improved its retention rate like Orthodox Jewry.

No doubt, we have a right to feel proud of our accomplishments, specifically the burgeoning day school movement, the vast array of Orthodox summer camps and programs, phenomenally successful youth groups such as NCSY, the limitless chesed organizations in each and every Orthodox community as well as all of the other communal endeavors that have helped make Orthodoxy strong and vibrant as we enter the twenty-first century. But the truth is that as much as we have accomplished, we haven’t accomplished nearly enough.

Among our non-Orthodox brethren, the intermarriage rate has skyrocketed. If we leave out the Orthodox—who very rarely intermarry—71.5 percent of American Jews marry outside of the faith. (This number refers to no form of conversion, that is, when the spouse identifies him or herself as a non-Jew. If we included nonhalachic conversions, the number is significantly higher.) That statistic should make us all feel deeply distressed. Are we not our brothers’ keepers?

There are significant parallels between the Pew study and the National Jewish Population Study conducted in 2000. Both studies arrive at the same devastating conclusion: the non-Orthodox Jewish population is heading on a path toward becoming a small fraction of itself. 

As the Pew report made clear, the largest block of American Jews ages forty and under are unaffiliated. 

Moreover, most non-Orthodox Jews will intermarry; among children of the intermarried, the statistics are abysmal. Only 17 percent of the children of intermarried couples marry other Jews. With a birthrate of only 1.9 children and an astoundingly high intermarriage rate, American Jewry is on a train speeding headlong into self-destruction. This should devastate each and every one of us.

Tragically, this will not be the first time in our history that a segment of our people cut themselves off from the Jewish nation. Following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE, the Ten Tribes were exiled to various lands, and they gradually assimilated and disappeared.

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