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Based upon the data and the various population studies that are now available, it appears that an extraordinary disintegration of the American Jewish community is in process. There was a time when every Jew could take it for granted that he or she would have Jewish grandchildren with whom to share Seders, Sabbath and other Jewish moments. However, the clear data indicates that this expectation is no longer well founded. Indeed, our studies show that within a short period of time the entire complexion of the American Jewish community will be altered inexorably.
The research targeted three key quantifiable elements of Jewish survival: intermarriage rates, birth rates, and levels of Jewish education. When all of these factors are tabulated and correlated, a troubling picture emerges of the future of American Jewry. Skyrocketing intermarriage rates, declining birth rates, and inadequate of Jewish education continue to decimate the American Jewish people.
The information presented here is drawn from the findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS); the 1991 New York Jewish Population Study (1991); numerous data runs from the North American Jewish Data Bank coordinated by Dr. Ariela Keysar Ph.D. (1993-1996); an independent Questionnaire Survey conducted by Gordon and Horowitz (1994); as well as research sponsored by Brandeis University, Yeshiva University, Harvard University as well as several other publications.2
The intermarriage rate for the various denominations were obtained from the North American Jewish Data Bank from data extrapolated from the NJPS 1990. In order to obtain a sufficient number of cases for the data to be statistically significant, the age cohort from 18 to 39 were used for all the denominations. As for average number of children per family, the information was also obtained from the North American Jewish Data Bank for all denominations except for the Orthodox denomination where there were insufficient cases analyzed by the NJPS 1990 to draw any conclusive findings. Accordingly, a questionnaire designed by the co-authors was disseminated to the 8th Grade students from 20 randomly selected Orthodox Day Schools across the United States. The main question directed the student/parent (or in many instances the School Administrator/Principle) to stipulate the number of siblings the 8th Grade student had in his/her family. This data was then collated and used to ascertain the mean average of family size in the two main categories of Orthodox Schools enumerated in this study i.e. Centrist Orthodox and Yeshiva/Hasidic Orthodox.
How Many Jews Are There in America?
According to the NJPS, 5.5 million people in America today constitute the core Jewish population3 . Of these, about 1.1 million persons classified themselves as having been born Jewish, but having no identification with any religious group; 185,000 identified themselves as Jews by Choice, i.e., converts. (For the purpose of this article, all Jews by Choice have been considered Jewish, regardless of the denomination recognizing the conversion.) Thus, affiliated Jews numbered about 4.4 million in 1990, and constituted about four-fifths of all identified Jews.
The NJPS also categorized by denomination the Jews who identified themselves as Jews by religion: 42% identify themselves as Reform; 38% are Conservative; 7% are Orthodox; 5% are "Just Jewish"; 1% are Reconstructionist. The remaining 6% identify themselves as "other."4
Intermarriage Rates and the Dwindling Jewish Population
The rate of intermarriage has risen dramatically in the past 30 years, from an average of 9% before 1965 to 52% in 1990. The 1990 NJPS5 , summarized in part on TABLE 1, indicates that Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews are far more likely to intermarry than Orthodox Jews. Secular Jews have doubled their intermarriage rate, while Reform and Conservative Jews have tripled theirs. Secular Jews in the 18 to 39 year age group have an intermarriage rate of 72%, while those over age 39 have an intermarriage rate of 35%. Younger Reform Jews now at a 53% rate, compared to a 16% rate for the older group. Among younger Conservative Jews, the intermarriage rate has increased to 37%, compared to 10% for those over age 39. Only Orthodox Jews have reversed this trend: Their intermarriage rate has fallen from 10% among those over 39 to 3% of the 18-39 group today6 .
Jewish women aged 50 and above have had an average of slightly more than 2.25 children, whether they were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular. However, among women aged 35 to 44, there is a drastic inter-denominational difference in family size. Among those who married, estimated final birth rates have dropped an average of 25% among Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews, who now have a little over 1.6 children per family. At the same time, the estimated final birth rate among the Orthodox aged 35-44 has doubled to 4.5 children today.
The NJPS found that mixed married households contained 770,000 children under 18 years of age. According to the NJPS, only 28% of these children were being raised as Jews; 41% were being raised in another religion; and 31% were being raised with no religion at all.
Moreover, while 28% of children of intermarriage are being raised as Jews, only 15% of the entire group ultimately marry Jews themselves7 . Thus, it is clear that nearly all the children of intermarriage are lost to the Jewish people.
The Connection Between Intermarriage, Orthodox Observance and Jewish Education
Just as the decision to intermarry is the product of countless previous decisions about how to live one's life, so too the decision not to intermarry seems to be the product of a lifetime of Jewish living and learning. The research indicates that a stronger commitment to a higher level of Jewish education and observance leads to a lower likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation8 . The combination of Jewish commitment and having experienced a complete Orthodox Jewish day school education results in an intermarriage rate of not greater than 2%9 . All the research indicates that it is essentially the Orthodox who are committed to such a complete Day School education.
The longer children are in Orthodox day school, the less parents are likely to face the "Guess who's coming to Seder?" issue10 . Almost all Orthodox families today give their children the greatest number of years of Jewish education; this seems to be crucial to their exceptionally low intermarriage rate. Contemporary Orthodox children generally have at least twelve years of Jewish day-school education, while the peak number of years of Jewish education in the Conservative and Reform movements is generally from four to eight years11 of Hebrew school, much of it being part-time.
Intensive Jewish education impacts adults as well as children; indeed, the recent growth in the Orthodox movement has come from five sources: higher marriage rates, increased family size, low intermarriage rates, propensity of those raised Orthodox to remain within the fold, and the influx of baalei tshuvah, or returnees to Jewish life. During the past twenty years, tens of thousands of American Jews who were raised in non-observant homes have committed themselves to an Orthodox lifestyle. Each young adult who "returns" brings along the likelihood of an entire family remaining within the Jewish people.
In summary, the most recent analyses of Jewish population indicate two distinct trends in American Jewry. During the period from 1945-1990 -- and particularly from 1960 to 1990 -- the Orthodox have steadily increased the duration and intensity of their children's education, their birth rate, and the percentage of those raised Orthodox and remaining Orthodox. At the same time, their intermarriage rate has been reduced by two-thirds (see above). Also, for the first time in American history, significant number of Jews who were not raised Orthodox are becoming so. During the same period (1960-1990), intermarriage among other denominations of Judaism have evidenced different trends. The level of education among secular, Reform and Conservative Jews has (with a few notable exceptions), remained about the same; their birth rate has declined, and their rate of intermarriage has multiplied. Once a Jew intermarries, he or she as an individual remains Jewish, of course, but the likelihood of that person having any Jewish descendants is close to nil.
Long-Range Implications for Today's Jews
As the Chinese proverb says, "If we don't change our direction, we will end up where we're headed." Elihu Bergman, Assistant Director of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, in a controversial yet disturbing report, had projected in 1975 that unless current trends were reversed, the American Jewish community would decrease by 85% - 98% by the year 2076. This prognosis now seems to apply to descendants of today's Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews. As far as the Orthodox are concerned, the opposite trend has become apparent. As illustrated in TABLE 2, multiple research studies have come to the same conclusion: Within three generations there will ; be almost no trace of young American Jews who are currently not being raised in Orthodox homes with a complete Jewish Day School education. Clearly, this is discomforting news for all of us to whom Jewish survival is of deep concern. We feel little hope that the less traditional approaches will have the same results as the more intensively traditional approach.
The Impact of the Jewish Orthodox Day School
The strongest counter-assimilation effect is exerted by Orthodox day schools; the less time-intensive forms of Jewish education have almost no effect on intermarriage. Since most Orthodox families now send their children to Orthodox day school (usually for at least 12 years), the graduates of today's Orthodox day schools will probably be the forebears of most of the Jews who will exist in this country in the future. This prediction is already beginning to come true: While only 5% of Jews aged 25-64 are Orthodox, 10% of those aged 18-24 are Orthodox.
As stated earlier, long-term Jewish survival depends on four choices that each individual Jew makes: the level of personal observance; the choice to marry another Jew; the desire to have two or more children if possible; and the absolute priority of providing maximal Jewish education for oneself and one's children. The relationship among these factors is plain in the data. Choosing Jewish observance is a result of parents having chosen a Jewish education, which in turn is likely to lead to choosing a Jewish spouse. Choosing a Jewish spouse is likely to lead to providing a stronger educational and ritual base for one's children, who then perpetuate the cycle.
Of course, it is never too late for any Jew to enter, or re-enter the cycle of Jewish tradition. During the past 20 years, an enormous outreach, or kiruv, movement has developed throughout the world, offering a variety of programs designed to reach out to disaffected Jews. Such outreach programs have been launched by all the major denominations.
Jewish survival depends on religious observance and education because only a long-term, intellectually and spiritually challenging process of Jewish practice and education can provide Jews with the reasons and the commitment not to marry the attractive, friendly Gentile in the office or apartment next door.
Potential solutions for Non-Orthodox Jews|
These studies, and their implications, present non-Orthodox Jews with a dilemma. They may not want to become Torah observant -- but they don't want their grandchildren drinking eggnog around the Yule log, either. What can they do? Without necessarily completely adopting the Orthodox lifestyle themselves, they may still be able to identify what the Orthodox are doing which is successful, and try to apply what they learn.
The data does not comment on whether Orthodox Jews are better as people, or as Jews, than anyone else. It does indicate, however, that they are the one denomination successfully transmitting Jewish tradition. As a group, the Orthodox are demonstrably succeeding at passing on the tradition and at inspiring their children to sustain and perpetuate their own Judaism.
Orthodox parents and Orthodox day schools seem to give their children enough good reasons for staying Jewish that even when the children are grown and have the option to intermarry and disappear from Jewish life, virtually none of them do. Somehow, they reach adulthood with solid answers to the question of "Why be Jewish?" Perhaps parents whose children are enrolled in schools of other denominations might analyze why their children's schools are not doing the same for their charges.
Parents who are not Orthodox-day-school educated -- or who may even already be intermarried -- may feel uncomfortable at the prospect of providing their children an Orthodox education. Notwithstanding this unease, during the last two decades, tens of thousands of parents ranging from totally unaffiliated on the one hand to an affiliation to the Conservative denomination on the other, have their children enrolled in Orthodox day schools.12
Although less effective, parents might want to begin by increasing their own Jewish education by enrolling in a class for adults, and then sharing with their children what they have learned. Couples for whom Jewish education is a charged issue can still work together to find ways to provide more Jewish education and exposure for their children than they are currently receiving.
After all the trend lines have been drawn and graphs have been analyzed, population studies point to a single conclusion: Regardless of their own personal denominational affiliation, the most important choice that can be made by anyone who cares about the survival of the Jewish people is the choice to support increased religious observance and a full Orthodox day school education for the maximum number of children.
The American Jewish community is now at a critical crossroads. There is finally a dawning recognition that Jewish continuity and survival cannot be sustained in what has been an American lifestyle devoid of serious Jewish education and Jewish living. One might have believed in the 1950's or 1960's that it was sufficient to have minimal Jewish exposure. Examples of such exposure includes simply to be a member of a Temple, have Jewish friends, play basketball at the Jewish Center and live in a generally Jewish neighborhood to ensure that one's children would be Jewish. However, we now have the data and studies to know that children who are left without an education leading to deep Jewish beliefs and practices have little chance of having Jewish descendants. This is a critical moment for every American Jew and Jewish organization. The American Jewish community need to radically alter it's approach to Jewish life. The first step toward this change is to understand that the present approach is incompatible with Jewish survival, and must be dramatically changed.
1 Antony (Chanan) Gordon is a Sir Abe Bailey Fellow (1988) and Fulbright Scholar (1989) who graduated with a Masters in Law from Harvard Law School (1990). Mr. Gordon was the recipient of the Edward Nathan & Friedland Scholarship for four successive years for being the most distinguished law student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa where he received his BA (cum laude) as well as LL.B (cum laude).
Richard M. Horowitz received his MBA from Pepperdine University in California. Mr. Horowitz is the President of Management Brokers Insurance Agency, Leviathian Computers and Dial 800 L.P. A renown philanthropist, Mr. Horowitz also serves on the Board of Triotech (OTC) as well as numerous non-profit organizations.
2 Barack Fishman, S and A. Goldstein, When They Are Grown They Will Not Depart : Jewish Education and the Jewish Behavior of American Adults. Waltham MA, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 1993.
Bergman, Elihu, The American Jewish Population Erosion : Midstream, October 1977 pp 9-19
Goldstein, A and S. Barak Fishman, Teach Your Children When They Are Young : Contemporary Jewish Education in the United States. Waltham, MA, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 1993.
Horowitz, B, The 1991 New York Jewish Population Study. New York, United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, 1993.
Lipset, S "Education Findings from the Jewish Population Study," Council of Initiatives in Jewish Education, n.d.
Rimor, M and E. Katz, Jewish Involvement of the Baby Boom Generation. Jerusalem, The Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, November, 1993.
Schiff, A.I. and M. Schneider. The Jewishness Quotient of Jewish Day School Graduates : Studying the Effect of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Behavior. New York, David J. Azrieli Graduate Institute, Report 1, 1994.
Schiff, A. I and M. Schneider, Far Reaching Effects of Extensive Jewish Day School Attendance : The Impact of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Behavior and Attitudes. New York : David J. Azrilei Graduate Institute, Report 2, 1994.
Schiff, A.I. and M. Schneider, Fortifying and Restoring Jewish Behavior : The Interaction of Home and School. New York : David J. Azreli Graduate Institute, Report 3, 1994.
3 Kosmin, B., S. Goldstein, J. Waksberg, N Lerer, A. Keysar, and J. Scheckner, Highlights of the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. New York, Council of Jewish Federations, 1991.
4 Supra footnote 3, p 32
5 Data runs by North American Jewish Data Bank ("NAJDB") based on NJPS 1990.
6 See TABLE 2 ( not in the html file email authors )
7 Kosmin et al, Highlights of the CJF 1990 NJPS. Data run by NAJDB (1995).
8 Analyses of the 1990 NJPS data by Sylvia Barak Fishman and Alice Goldstein (1993) report that Jewish adults with six or more years of day school Jewish education are more likely than those with minimal or no Jewish education to marry another Jew. Moreover, in their examination of the 1990 NJPS data, Mordechai Rimor and Elihu Katz (1993) concluded that the Jewish Day School was "...the only schooling that stands against the assimilatory process indicated by intermarriage and its related behaviors." Although Rimor and Katz agree with Fishman and Goldstein in principle, they maintain that nine or more years of Jewish education are necessary to make a strong impact on adult Jewish behavior.
9 The recent survey spearheaded by Alvin I. Schiff Ph.D and Marelyn Schneider Ph.D of Yeshiva University administered to a purposive stratified sample of 8, 536 graduates of 26 Jewish day schools in the United states, found that of those married, 4.5 percent married non-Jews. However, of those who married gentiles, a little more than half indicated that their spouses converted. These findings are very significant especially considering the fact that of the 26 Day Schools surveyed, 8 were Conservative (Solomon Schechter Schools) or trans-ideological schools. Moreover, there was a disproportionately small number of Orthodox sectarian "Litvish" Schools and Hasidic institutions (2 right-of-center Orthodox yeshivot)..
10 See also Lipset, S. " The Educational Background of American Jews," Los Angeles : Wilstein Institute. 1994; Rimor, M and E, Katz, Jewish Involvement of the Baby Boom Generation. Jerusalem, The Lois Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, November, 1993 p 14.
11 Schiff, A.I and M. Scheider. The Jewishness Quotient of Jewish Day School Graduates : Studying the Effect of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Behavior. New York, David Azrieli Graduate Institute, Report 1, 1994.
12 See Sciff A.I and M. Schneider (supra p 11).