Lack of Participation

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


American Jews

The Pew Research Center, named after Joseph Pew, CEO of Sun Oil, recently surveyed United States Jews.

According to that survey, there are an estimated 6,800,000 people who may be labeled Jews by one criterion or another. The survey found that the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community in America consists of those who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry. Two thirds of these Jews are not raising the children Jewish in any sense at all.

The overall intermarriage rate of Jews is 58%, up from 43% in 1990 and 17% in 1970. If Orthodox Jews are eliminated from this calculation, then the intermarriage rate of the Jewish community is 71%. Twenty-two percent of Jews say they have no religion, are not connected to any Jewish organizations, and are unlikely to be raising their children Jewish. 32% of Jews born after 1980, the so-called millennial generation, identify as Jews with no religion, compared with 19% of baby boomers and just 7% of Jews born before 1927.

Overall Jews are approximately 1.9% of all Americans. The reform movement is the largest of all religious groups among American Jews. 35% of Jews who responded to the Pew Research Center identified as Reform. Jews of no denomination are 30%, followed by conservatives at 18% and Orthodox at 10%. Less than one third of American Jews say they belong to a synagogue. 23% of US Jews say they attend synagogue once or twice a month, and 76% say they attend services on the high holidays.

Approximately 69% of Jews responding to the Pew research said they feel attached to Israel. 43% of such Jews say that they have visited Israel.

Among Jews who married other Jews, 96% are raising their children as Jews, compared to only 45% among intermarried Jews. 71% of all Jews who married during the past ten years intermarried.

The Pew study found that 65% of American Jews live in just six states. 20% live in New York, 14% in California, 12% in Florida, 8% in New Jersey, 5% of Massachusetts, and 5% in Pennsylvania. Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Ohio add another 15%.

The Orthodox share of the American Jewish population is growing faster than any other denomination because Orthodox Jews tend to be younger and have larger families than Jews generally. Furthermore, among the Orthodox only 17% fall off.

When asked by Pew Research what it means to be Jewish, 73% believed that it was remembering the Holocaust, and 69% thought it meant leading an ethical life.

The birth rate among Jews is considerably lower than among the American population generally. Jewish women aged 15 to 35 have a birth rate of 1.4, while the American birth rate overall is 1.9.

There has been a good deal of speculation as to the reasons for our high intermarriage rate and failure to participate in Jewish organizations, and particularly in the Jewish religion. There are those who say this has to do with the length of the service, claiming that the Orthodox and the Conservatives have services on Saturday which last three hours and are therefore too long.

 Yet Reform Jews, whose services are far shorter than all other denominations, have less attendance than either the Conservatives or the Orthodox.

 Then there are those who say that failure to attend Jewish religious services or participate in Jewish organizations has to do with failure to provide an excellent Jewish education. Others say that on Saturdays, sports are very important to all Americans and that therefore the Jewish services cannot compete with the attraction of sports.  Finally there are those who say that all America is becoming secular, so that the Jews are merely following the majority trend. Yet, the real reason for the massive abandonment of Judaism in America lies elsewhere.

Sociologists have found that there is a lack of democracy among Conservative and Reform congregations. Sociologists have observed that a reason for failure to participate in synagogue events is mainly associated with the tendency of non-Orthodox congregations to develop a small clique of self-appointed elitists who use the congregation as an alternative status system and therefore give nonmembers the impression that they are not wanted.  These nonmembers of Jewish synagogues have almost always visited congregations on such occasions as bar mitzvahs and weddings and observed the lack of democracy among conservative and reform congregations. It is this stratification which is most responsible for the failure of our synagogues to attract more Jews. The evidence is that Orthodox congregations, and particularly Chabad, who have no trustees, welcome everyone. The exact opposite is true of our Reform and Conservative congregations, which seem to exist only for a few “shul politicians” whose principal entertainment is to fire the rabbi.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Assault on Democracy (2017).

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