The last two decades have been difficult for the Conservative movement as we have experienced a decline in our position in the Jewish community. The number of people who affiliate with our synagogues have gone down as has our share of the American Jewish population. In such a tough environment you look for any positive developments you can find, including news that you may have stopped shrinking.
The recently released Pew report on Jewish Americans in 2020 found that there is stability in our community compared to the last evaluation in 2013. The Jewish population in the United States is growing at about the same rate as the nation as a whole and the Conservative movement makes up about the same percentage of the community as it did eight years ago (18% to 17%).
These statistics are good news. For all the doom and gloom about the future of American Judaism, we are actually a growing people. Intermarriage has not destroyed Jewish continuity but may be factor in our growth. I remember being in a session at a Rabbinical Assembly convention years ago in which a demographer made the contrarian argument that intermarriage will fuel Jewish population growth. It now turns out he may have been right. His logic was unassailable: if two Jews marry each other and have two Jewish children that is 4 total Jews in one household; if those same two Jews marry two other non-Jews and each have two Jewish children that is 6 total Jews in two households (with an additional 2 non-Jews supporting the community).
The important caveat in the demographers argument is that the interfaith families need to raise their children in a Jewish environment, and it turns out this is mostly the case. For people 18-49 with one Jewish parent, 47% identify themselves as Jewish. The positive of this statistic is that nearly half of children in interfaith households grow up to be Jewish. The question is, what is the nature of the Jewish identity for these young Jews?
According to Pew, many of these people identify as “Jews of no religion”, meaning that they have a sense of ethnic solidarity, but do not participate in the religious aspects of Judaism. This development will have a profound effect on American Judaism in the years to come. We are becoming a much more polarized people, where the centrism of the Conservative movement is increasingly out of step. Jews under 30 are much more likely to be either Orthodox or completely secular than their parents and grandparents. The authors write that “among young Jewish adults … two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness appear to be gaining ground – one involving religion deeply enmeshed in every aspect of life, and the other involving little or no religion at all.”
The Jewish community does not exist in a vacuum. We are subject to larger trends in religious life in America, as described in the recently released 2020 Census of American Religion put out by the Public Religion Research Institute, which has also found that while there has been a decline in Christianity over the past twenty years, the falloff has slowed and is beginning to stabilize. Still, 36% of 18–29-year-olds are unaffiliated, compared to only 10% in 1986.
Tends are fascinating because they are not set in stone. What exists today is a result of developments of the past but are not guaranteed to continue in the future. However, it is clear that Judaism will need to adapt to a new reality as a younger cohort ages into leadership positions. Who knows, perhaps the Conservative movement will play an important role in balancing the secular and Orthodox ends of the community’s increasingly fractured spectrum.