Thursday, June 01, 2023

Like a classic Kansas tornado in early summer, the statistics left a path of destruction in their wake that would make the heartiest of storm-chasers gawk in amazement. The recent data on “Jewish Identity” released by the world famous Pew Research Center has shocked many, prodding expert after expert to chime in with their take on what the results mean for the future of American Jewry.

Someone once said that an expert is one who has made three correct guesses consecutively. Clearly, therefore, I am no expert, but please don’t tell my mother.

Having worked for International Hillel for several years, I witnessed the hand to hand combat in the fight for Jewish souls on college campus. Having visited countless Jewish communities across America over the last 25 years, I can confidently say that trends are often easy to detect to the naked eye. The fight to stem the tide of assimilation is an expensive, messy battle and if we are not losing then it’s only because we have already lost.

If you have not already read the key data, here is what you need to know, in a nutshell:

Since 2000, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who married chose to wed non-Jews.

In 1990, when the first such research was conducted, the intermarriage rate was 52%.

23% of American Jews say they attend services of some sort at least once or twice a month, compared with 62% of U.S. Christians.

19% of the respondents said that observing Jewish Law was critical to their Jewish identity. 56% pointed to working for equality and justice as the key ingredient.

42% of the respondents said that having a good Jewish sense of humor was important to their Jewish identity.

Love of Israel beats Jewish humor by 1%. And that is no joke.

For the Orthodox community, the big shocker is clear: Orthodox Jews have an “Orthodox retention rate” of only 57% before age 50. Put another way, by age 50 43% of Orthodox Jews will have left the fold.

In a recent article in the Jewish Standard, Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck and Jewish Studies Professor at Seton Hall University averred that, “the Survey marks the end of the Orthodox community’s triumphalist sense of growth; the community’s losses are several times larger than its gains.”

As for non-Orthodox Jewry, Mark Charendoff, the former CEO of the Jewish Funder’s Network, opined to the JTA that “as a community, we made a decision two decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity, and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree. I would love to tell you that I think it’s a wakeup call, but I don’t think anyone is waking up.”

And for those who really cherish in-your-face-tell-it-like-it-is honesty, the incomparable mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a personal hero for many, laid it out harsh and cold in a JTA interview: “The leadership in the community is atrocious…I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it…so much of this was obvious a long time ago, and the worthwhile question is not so much about the Pew study but about the community itself, to ask why the community is so lame in dealing with change.”

To embellish Michael’s rebuke, I am attaching to this column, with the permission of the authors of the study, a fascinating chart that received far less attention than it should have when released in 2006. Distributed by Aish HaTorah and presented at a Harvard University symposium on “The Future of American Jewry,” this diagram is easy to understand and difficult to stomach. The really bad news? I spoke with researcher Antony Gordon in preparation for the column, and he and his colleagues are readying a new chart based upon the recent Pew data. As of press time, the chart had not yet been finalized, but Gordon is certain that ‘the presentation will be grave and show serious consequences, especially for the column entitled “Centrist Orthodox.”

If you have not been moved by the facts presented above, if you have been cursorily reading these words and find yourself unmoved, I respectfully ask that you not bother to waste your time reading the rest of this column, and certainly not part 2, which will appear in the next issue of the Jewish Link. If the information above does not drive a stake through your heart, if you are passé, uncaring and dubious of this whole discussion, then you and I don’t speak the same language.

From here on in, you, me, we, must care deeply about this conversation. Much like Israel’s dilemma in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the battle is now open on two fronts. Instead of Syria and Egypt, we Centrist Orthodox Jews (whatever that means, but that’s not for now) represent one of two headaches; the other being the non-observant Jewish community. The only ones promised a healthy future are the Yeshivesh/Hareidi community.

The horses have left the barn. Social media has overwhelmed us. Addiction to our iPhones and Droids and texting and Facebook and YouTube and twitter and Miley Cyrus and anything with an apple on it have overtaken our lives, diluted our values, and have led our children off the derech to the point of keeping half Shabbos, if any Shabbos at all.

There’s that darn Apple again, always causing us Jews serious trouble.

Yet our community seems to be the lucky ones in this high stakes game of Jewish identity. The Orthodox community shows little or no sign of gravitating toward intermarriage. When 71% of non-observant Jews marry out, there is a speechless gasp that takes one’s breath away. Where to begin? HOW to begin? Consider the reality: each of the following ten asterisks represents one Jew:


If these asterisks marry non-Jews, these asterisks will have created seven unique intermarriages, where all data reveals the large majority of children are NOT brought up Jewish. This does NOT mean we have three Jewish marriages left—we have one or two at best, as at least two of these asterisks have to marry EACH OTHER in order to build a Jewish home.

Put another way, for every 1.5 Jewish marriages there are now seven intermarriages. Extrapolated, for every three Jewish marriages there are 14 intermarriages. We do not stand a chance.

Are Jewish leaders besides Michael Steinhardt and Marc Charendoff by and large in denial? You decide. Here are some more quotes since Pew 2013 was released:

Ruth Messinger, president, American World Jewish Service in an interview with The Jewish Week: “We see tremendous cause for optimism because Pew highlights that many American Jews see their Jewishness being driven by their deep and powerful thirst for justice.”

Current Jewish Funders network CEO Andres Spokoiny to the JTA: “Those that were investing heavily in Jewish culture and alternative venues for Jewish identity were right. Given that lots of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important that while investing in traditional venues of Jewish life, it’s important to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways—through culture, through arts. That’s a key message.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America: “I’m not devastated…We will need to have a convening of real thought leaders and thinkers to look at this from a sense of implications and strategy going forward.”

Sandy Cardin, President of the Schusterman Family Foundation, with $2 billion in assets and one of the world’s largest Jewish foundations with a legendary history of investing in Jewish identity programming: “It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.”

I have done nothing more in this column than lay out the facts. I bring you data and bring you reaction to that data from the experts and leaders of the community. Many others have chimed in, and in the next issue it’ll be my turn. I have a strong feel for where all this is headed.

Let me close with one final sobering observation. Of all the quotes I have read, of all the solutions proffered, there is one word that has not appeared anywhere in the expert’s response. It is one five letter word that is the basis of our entire existence, the building block of who we are as a Jewish people yet unrecognizable in its purest, most raw form. One word. I have been looking for it, searching for it, yearning for it. One word—and I haven’t found it in the reams of opinion I have read.

The word is…Torah.

To be continued…..

By Robert Katz

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