(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
The Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released yesterday, has received a lot of attention in both the Jewish and the mainstream media. I don’t have anything more to add about the results themselves; many pages have already been written in the last 48 hours. But after reading both the data and some of the spin, I have several comments about what we can and can’t conclude from the data.
1) Orthodox Retention
There has been discussion of the retention rates among various age cohorts of Orthodox Jews, i.e. what percentage of Jews raised as Orthodox currently identify as Orthodox. This percentage is significantly higher among the younger age cohorts than among the older cohorts, leading some to conclude that the Orthodox world is more effective at retention at the present time than in the past.
This conclusion is not supported by the data. Let us consider an alternate hypothesis: The attrition rate of Orthodox Jews has remained constant over time. What results would we expect from this hypothesis? The percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who currently identify as Orthodox should decrease with increasing age (since older people have had more time to leave Orthodoxy), and this is in fact what we see in the data. But we can be more precise in our predictions from this model: The percentage should decay exponentially.
To test this, I fit the numbers to an exponential curve. I made the following assumptions and simplifications (which were quick-and-dirty, but you can try it yourself with different assumptions): I assumed that 100% of Orthodox-raised Jews identified as Orthodox at age 18 (and all attrition occurred after this). I collapsed each age range (e.g. 18-29) to a single data point at the center of the age range. For the highest age group (65+), I assumed it went up to 90.
Of course we can’t conclude that there has in fact been a steady rate of attrition either! My point is just that this would be consistent with the data. There are many possibilities – it would also be consistent with the data that everyone who leaves Orthodoxy leaves during their 20s (which would mean that the attrition rate is in fact much lower for the current 20somethings). There’s just no way to determine from these data (which only provide a snapshot of the present time) which model is correct, without data from past generations.
2) Denominational Identification
First of all, the exact question asked on the phone survey was “Thinking about Jewish religious denominations, do you consider yourself to be [RANDOMIZE: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform] something else, or no particular denomination?” (Kudos to the survey writers for randomizing the order of denominations! Shame on the report writers, who did not randomize or alphabetize the order when reporting the results.) So the survey participants were asked about denominational self-identification. Any discussion of the results (whether by Pew itself or by the media) that references denominational affiliation is not accurately reporting the results; there was no question that asked about denominational affiliation.
This distinction is particularly important when it comes to the “Reform” label. Reform Jewish identity is complex and multifaceted, but there are many people for whom the “Reform” label doesn’t mean affiliation with the Reform movement or affinity to Reform Judaism as a system of religious belief and practice; it means “I don’t do anything; I’m Reform[ed].”
This phenomenon is supported by the survey data themselves: 20% of the “Jews with no religion” category (i.e. people who first described their religion as “none”, then answered in response to a followup question that they consider themselves Jewish aside from religion) identified as “Reform”. Of all the Jews who identified as “Reform”, only 34% are synagogue members (so this category does not represent URJ members), and 16% said that they never attend Jewish services (including high holidays).
This means that any results about the “Reform” population have to be taken with a grain of salt, and can’t be translated into generalizations about Reform Judaism or the Reform movement. This goes both for the results that make Reform look bad (e.g. low rates of Hebrew literacy or of seeing being Jewish as very important) and for the results that make Reform look good (being the largest denomination and having the highest “retention” rate).
What we can conclude is not that Reform Jews are likely to be Jewishly inactive in various ways, but that people who are Jewishly inactive in various ways are much more likely to identify as “Reform” than any of the other denominational labels.
The intermarriage rates are based on the percentage of the “net Jewish” population, i.e. those who consider themselves Jewish. Now that there has been substantial intermarriage for more than one generation, there are many people who were raised by one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent and who have gotten married themselves. Such people may identify as Jewish or as non-Jewish, or may be on the fence. It’s probably fair to assume that people who are on the fence are more likely to marry non-Jews than people who identify unequivocally as Jewish.
Therefore, in the same way that unscrupulous school administrators can improve their average test scores and graduation rates by getting rid of students who are likely to lower those stats, Jewish leaders who want to lower the intermarriage rate may be motivated (consciously or otherwise) to alienate intermarried families so that their children don’t identify as Jewish (so that if those children go on to marry non-Jews, it won’t count as an intermarriage). This may explain the behavior of some parts of the Jewish community.
Note also that the intermarriage rates by denomination are based on current self-identification. If someone was raised Orthodox and then marries a non-Jew, it is unlikely that s/he currently identifies as Orthodox. Given that, the most surprising part of the 2% Orthodox intermarriage rate is that it’s so high – these are Jews who are married to non-Jews and continue to identify as Orthodox.
Finally, the intermarriage statistics are only for current, intact marriages. Therefore, the apparent rise in intermarriage over time may be somewhat misleading. The report notes that “some research indicates that “in-marriages” (marriages between people of the same religion) tend to be more durable than intermarriages; if this is the case, then the percentage of intermarriages in the 1970s and 1980s may have been higher than it appears from looking only at intact marriages today.”
One result that raised some eyebrows was that only 76% of Ultra-Orthodox respondents refrain from using money on Shabbat (suggesting that 24% do use money on Shabbat). The explanation for this may be simple: The question wording was “Do you personally refrain from handling or spending money on the Jewish Sabbath, or not? [INTERVIEWER NOTE: IF ASKED, “REFRAIN” MEANS TO NOT DO SOMETHING]” This double negative may have been confusing (especially for respondents whose first language wasn’t English), and the clarification was only for people who requested it. Some significant number of Ultra-Orthodox respondents may have answered “no”, thinking they were saying “No, I don’t handle or spend money on Shabbat.”