(May 24, 2021 / JNS) What does the new Pew study, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” say about the status of the Jewish denominations, and what has changed since the last study was conducted in 2013? Not much, except when looking at young adults. In the younger generation, there are interesting shifts worth examining—structural trends that could influence the community going forward.
Two key points: First, Jews under 30 are considerably more likely to be either Orthodox or “nothing in particular,” with the liberal denominations losing ground. Second, it seems that many in the latter group see their Judaism as more cultural than religious.
Who identifies as what?
Overall, the 2020 findings are similar to those from 2013: 37 percent of American Jews are Reform; 17 percent are Conservative; 9 percent are Orthodox; and 4 percent identify with smaller branches, like Reconstructionist, Renewal or Humanistic. Thirty-two percent do not identify with any branch. According to Pew, such minor changes can be attributed to a different methodology used in the survey process.
However, when looking at age-group breakdowns, things get a little more interesting. There is a significant growth of younger Orthodox Jews—3 percent of those 65 and older, versus 17 percent for those 18-29. Overall, 11 percent of those under 30 were haredi (ultra-Orthodox), versus 1 percent of those over the age of 65.
For the “no particular branch” we see a similar trend—22 percent of the 65-plus age group was “nothing in particular,” versus 41 percent for the 18-29 cohort.
And what about the liberal denominations? Among Reform Jews, we see a drop from 37 percent in the middle age group (30-49), versus 29 percent in the younger group.
Among Conservative Jews, the decrease is even sharper and earlier. In the middle group (30-49), 11 percent identify as such, while this number drops to 8 percent among the younger group. In the older age group, the proportion of Conservative Jews stands at more than 20 percent, even as high as 25 percent for the oldest cohort.
What is Judaism?
Another finding worth noting is the percentage of American Jews who do not see themselves as “Jews by religion.” This finding refers to more than a quarter of American Jews who say they have no religion, but view themselves as Jewish by ethnicity, culture or family background. The age breakdown here is also telling—among those 65 and older, 84 percent see themselves as Jews by religion, while among the 18-29 age group, only 60 percent do so.
When looking at the overlap between denominational identity and whether Jews see themselves as “by religion” or not, we see that, on the one hand, virtually all Orthodox and Conservative Jews see themselves as Jews by religion. On the other hand, nearly one in five Reform Jews see themselves as Jews of no religion, and only 15% of the “no particular branch” see themselves as Jews by religion.
What do we learn from these trends?
How can we explain these changes regarding the younger generation?
- The increased proportion of Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox population, which is mostly haredi (60 percent), has higher birthrates (3.3 children per individual, versus an average of 1.4 for non-Orthodox) and high retention rates (67 percent versus 41 percent for Conservative and 66 percent for Reform).
- The dramatic decline in the proportion of Conservative Jews. This branch has faced the biggest challenge in retaining its younger generation. A small elite from the Conservative world—those raised in day schools and the movement’s summer camps—become more religious. Some of these do not belong to any denomination officially, but in practice, are quite active and involved in Jewish communal life. However, the majority become less observant.
- The dip in the proportion of Reform Jews. The decrease in the proportion of Reform Jews in the younger generation hints, among other things, that younger, single and childless Jews simply tend not to belong to synagogues and not identify with specific denominations. Another partial explanation of the finding that the drop in the proportion of younger Reform Jews is not steeper lies in the reality that many of those leaving Conservative Judaism become Reform (30 percent according to Pew). Since Conservative “migrants” to Reform Judaism tend to be equipped with a richer basis of Jewish knowledge, this is a significant contribution and reinforcement to the Reform branch.
- The increase of those who identify with no particular branch/Jews of no religion. As noted, there is a significant overlap between these two groups. The trend of detachment from religion among young American Jews reflects a broader American trend. It should be pointed out that most of these non-denominational Jews and those of no religion engage in some Jewish practices, but attribute far less importance to it than other Jews. However, there is a possibility that many American Jews feel that they do not need formal structures and organizations to belong to society at large and express their Jewish identities as they once did.
Of course, the Pew survey is only a snapshot of American Jews in 2020, but the trends revealed in it can be useful in mapping out future scenarios.
The numerical and financial decline of Conservative Judaism, while many of its members continue to move in a liberal and less traditional direction on the one hand, and the increasing connection of Reform Jews to tradition and Israel on the other foretells that the border between the two dominant branches of American Judaism will only grow fuzzier.
In this regard, it is worth noting that during the COVID-19 crisis, the two movements combined some of their administrative functions due to financial constraints. Therefore, it is possible to envision a scenario in which, rather than comprising three main branches—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform (or religious, traditional and liberal)—American Judaism will comprise a stronger Orthodox denomination (especially haredi); one large liberal Conservative and Reform denomination; and a growing number of Jews who do not identify with any branch, and, for the most part, do not formally engage with the organized Jewish community.
For a majority of those who desire a strong Jewish connection, Judaism could turn into more of a culture or family tradition, rather than a religion anchored in an organized community.
Dan Feferman is a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. His research focuses on emerging trends in the American and Israeli Jewish communities. He is the host of the Jewanced Podcast.
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