“In 1975, when Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators around the world. By 2000, there were over 85,000. If present trends continue, by the year 2019, one out of every three people in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”
The statistics I quoted above were taken from a reputable academic publication, and they are absolutely correct. But nevertheless they are absurd, because we know that in this case, “present trends” won’t continue. It’s absurd to imagine a world in which 1/3 of the population consists of Elvis impersonators.
I was reminded of this statistic while reading some of the analyses of the recent Pew Forum report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” While to be fair the coverage of the report has been diverse, quite a bit of it has been “the sky is falling,” especially for Conservative Judaism.
One of the problems of doing Jewish demography is obtaining accurate, consistent data and comparing it over time. The Census Bureau is not permitted to ask questions about religion, and therefore any data is obtained by privately-funded research. Each research team designs its own survey questions and devises its own methodology. It’s therefore important to make sure that when you are comparing figures over time, that you’re not in fact comparing apples and oranges.
Much media coverage has painted a picture of a community in decline. For example, 22% of Jews surveyed in 2013 report that while they consider themselves Jewish, they have no religion. This compares to only 7% who answered that way in the 2000 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS). The percentage of Jews of no religion has more than tripled in little more than a decade!
But as JJ Goldberg points out in The Forward, and as those of us who follow Jewish demography know, the 2000 NJPS was notoriously unreliable -- so much so that its release was delayed by two years and the Jewish Federation movement, which funded the survey and its 1990 predecessor, got out of the business of doing demographic studies altogether. That’s why the Pew Study was done by Pew, a general, not Jewish, non-profit think tank.
In order to understand survey data you need to know the methodology involved. For example, the 1990 NJPS terrified the organized Jewish community with its finding of a 52% intermarriage rate. But this figure was later revised significantly downward, because in calculating the intermarriage rate they counted as a Jew anyone with one Jewish parent, whether or not they were raised as a Jew, whether or not they were halachically Jewish, whether or not they considered themselves Jewish. I have two nieces who are Unitarians with a born-Jewish father and a lapsed-Catholic mother. My nieces would have been counted as Jews by the 1990 NJPS, and should they marry non-Jews would be counted as part of the intermarriage rate.
So to counteract that fairly dubious methodology, the 2000 NJPS set aside those with “weak Jewish connections” and didn’t ask followup questions about Jewish identity. So if you exclude Jews with “weak Jewish connections” it’s not hard to come up with the figure of 7% of Jews who have no religion, and come up with a tripling of that category in a decade. But if you look back to the 1990 NJPS, you had a figure of 20% Jews with no religion -- statistically identical to the current 22% figure when you account for the margin of error.
Far from a community in decline, the American Jewish community is shown to be larger than previously thought. The Pew survey shows about 6.5 million Jews, not the 5.2 to 5.5 million previous surveys thought there were. In addition there are more than a million non-Jews who have some affinity for Judaism, and many attend synagogues or practice Jewish rituals without formally converting.
It would be interesting to explore what the 22% of Jews who claim that they have “no religion” actually mean, because many of them observe practices that most of us would claim are religious in nature. 46% say they believe in God, 24% attend services at least a few times a year. Forty-two percent attended a Passover seder last year, 22% fast on Yom Kippur, 11% have a kosher home. So clearly, being a Jew without religion is a complicated phenomenon.
The survey has been seen as particularly challenging for Conservative Judaism. Whereas once the plurality of American Jews were Conservative, today only 18% are; and only 11 of Jews 30-and-under.
But too little attention, in my opinion, has been paid to one significant figure. Ninety-four percent of Jews report that they are proud of being Jewish. This is quite remarkable. For much of American Jewish history, large numbers of Jews did whatever they could to escape being Jewish. They changed their names, they had “nose jobs,” they converted to other religions or denied their Jewishness. The phenomenon of the “self-hating Jew,” so well-known from American Jewish literature, is clearly no more.
There are lots of other surprising data -- for example, the 1990 NJPS reported that only 28% of children of intermarriage were being raised as Jews, yet the Pew survey shows that over 50% of young men and women who are the products of intermarriages consider themselves to be Jewish. So there is a lot of good news here. Our community will never be able to make any inroads with people who don’t even consider themselves to be Jewish, or who do consider themselves Jewish but wish they weren’t.
Goldberg writes “if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future.” Or as Yogi Berra reportedly once said, “making predictions is very difficult, especially about the future.” In the 1890s everyone “knew” that Reform Judaism was American Judaism, and in the 1950s Orthodox rabbis in droves took Conservative pulpits because everyone “knew” that Orthodoxy in America had no future.
Goldberg’s article is worth quoting at some length:
Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative. It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.
Over the past quarter-century (it continues), the data show a community that has grown in number. Intermarriage leveled off in the late 1990s after rising steadily through much of the 20th century, and has remained stable for the past 15 years.
By some measures, Jews appear to be increasing overall levels of Jewish practice and engagement. Most surprising, significant numbers of children of intermarriage have grown up to become Jewish adults, far exceeding even their own parents’ intentions. . .
The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”
In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”
Like I said: Whoops.