The Conspiracy

Will American Jewry Survive?

Apparently, we have 20 percent more Jews. With the latest release of an American Jewish population study by researchers at Brandeis University, those fretting about the long-term prospects of the community can presumably breathe a little easier. If, as the study claims, there are over six million Jews in the United States today, it would follow that worries about Jewish continuity were overblown.

I am not especially convinced. An article in the Jerusalem Post points out that a researcher from Hebrew University, Sergio DellaPergola, and his collaborators have “publicly contested the [Brandeis] findings” and consider them too generous. But statistics on this scale will always be imperfect, so that wasn’t my sticking point. However, The Forward stated that the majority of those surveyed “do not belong to synagogues, do not participate in Jewish life cycle events or have not visited Israel.” In short, while they think of themselves as Jewish, they don’t necessarily lead Jewish lives. Furthermore, intermarriage continues at a high rate. Funnily enough, a telling intermarriage anecdote was cited on New Voices. On last Thursday’s Reading List, an article reviewing the population study was overshadowed by “Another A-List Intermarriage.”

So how, exactly, did the population numbers get bigger? The answer may lie in our conception of Jewish peoplehood. If being Jewish has fixed criteria (like the religious interpretation of matrilineal descent), then the population increase remains suspicious. But, if we are more liberal in our determination of who is Jewish, the increase becomes plausible. It is certainly a positive that people identify as Jews. However, if they remain unaffiliated with facets of Jewish life, I doubt such identification will continue. Unless we focus on and improve the quality of Jewish community life, any head count, no matter how accurate, will be of little use.

2 Older Responses to “Will American Jewry Survive?”

  1. David A.M. Wilensky
    December 28, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    I don’t think you can judge whether someone leads a Jewish life or not by whether they participate in lifecycle rituals, belong to synagogues or, least of all, have been to Israel.

  2. Max Moncaster
    December 29, 2010 at 3:46 am #

    I can agree with you on Israel. But I think the first two are fairly solid indicators. What other factors could you really use? There may be individuals who do neither and still live Jewish lives. However, if large amounts of Jews do not participate in two traditional aspects of Jewish community life, I think it does speak to a general trend about disengagement.

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