2014 Religious Trends
The Shrinking Jewish Middle
Editors' Note:This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Jewish community here.
The Pew Research Center's Portrait of Jewish Americans, points to one critical inference: the coming shrinkage of what may be termed the "Jewish Middle," those located in the central region of the Jewish identity spectrum, roughly encompassed by those affirming a Jewish denominational identity other than Orthodoxy. The number of middle-aged non-Orthodox Jews who are engaged in Jewish life is poised to drop sharply in the next twenty to forty years.
The Centrality of the Jewish Middle
As a group, on average, those in the Jewish Middle are not as consistently and intensely engaged in Jewish life as are the Orthodox. And, on average, those who call themselves Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform are more active and committed than those call themselves "partially Jewish" or "Jewish and something else," "Just Jewish," or atheist, or agnostic, or no-religion Jews. (Jews of No Religion should not be confused with committed secular Jews, small in number in the U.S., who, by definition, are deeply connected to Jews and Jewish life and culture.)
The drop in the number of Jews in the middle of the identity spectrum is visible today only among children and young adults. But, in coming decades, the adverse impact of the small number of children in their households will become increasingly visible, clear and apparent. Put simply, the number of middle-aged non-Orthodox Jews who are engaged in Jewish life is poised to drop sharply in the next twenty to forty years. And, absent significant policy changes, their numbers will continue to drop for years to come.
Aside from an axiomatic, if not primordial, commitment to the Jewish identity of every child of a Jewish parent, why should we care if thousands of children of Jewish parents are raised as non-Jews or barely-Jews? Of what consequence is it that coming generations contain far fewer engaged non-Orthodox Jews?
The critical concern is that a large Jewish Middle is vital to the sustenance of so many major institutions in Jewish life. Not only do most engaged non-Orthodox Jewish feel that being Jewish is very important to them, as they say in response to questions on numerous surveys, including the Pew study. Most feel likewise about Israel and about being part of a Jewish community as well as other aspects of being Jewish.
Moreover, they manifest their commitment in affiliative behavior that directly and indirectly benefits the institutions they populate and support. Clearly, Conservative and Reform synagogues depend heavily upon these moderately to highly affiliating Jews. So too do Federations, JCCs, and numerous Jewish organizations. Jews of the Middle patronize Jewish cultural events, museums, periodicals, and publications. They are the mainstays of a vast Jewish educational enterprise on behalf of their children. In this regard, Jewish day and overnight camps, youth groups, Israel trips, Jewish Studies programs, and day schools all immediately come to mind. All these features of contemporary Jewish life—and more—depend upon hundreds of thousands of Jews who, while not Orthodox, nevertheless display high rates of Jewish engagement however measured.
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. In 1992 he made aliyah, and taught at The Hebrew University, having previously taught at Queens College, Yale, and JTS. He has written hundreds of scholarly articles and policy-related reports, as well as a dozen books including The Jew Within (with Arnold Eisen) and Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experience (with Charles Liebman). He was the lead researcher on the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 and a consultant to the recently conducted Pew study of American Jews.