The growth of American Jewry

Riddle me this: Assimilation rates are on the rise in the US, yet the other side of the coin is that more Jews than ever are identifying themselves as Jewish.

American Jewry 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
American Jewry 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The state of the American Jewish community has been likened to an ice cube melting at room temperature or, among those most alarmed about assimilation, an ice cube thrown into a pot of  boiling water. Concern about a shrinking US Jewish community has been fueled, in part, by socio-demographic studies. But, as has been suspected for some time, many of the key studies dramatically underestimated the Jewish population.
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Rather than a steady decline since 1990, it now appears that the population of those who consider themselves Jewish has actually increased by nearly 20% in the last two decades, going from about 5.5 million individuals in 1990 to an estimated 6.5 million as of 2010. More than 80% of American Jews identify themselves as Jewish by religion, while nearly 20% claim Jewish identity by some other criteria.  
Given the history of controversy over Jewish population estimates, how can we be confident that the ice cube metaphor has been crushed? At a presentation to scholars last week at the Association for Jewish Studies meeting in Boston, I described that the new estimates are based on a synthesis of more than 150 independent studies. The studies are national surveys conducted by the US government and other agencies that have investigated a host of problems and in each case included similar questions about religious and ethnic identity. The data is collected using the most sophisticated and high-quality social research tools available.
If American Jewry is growing in terms of the number of individuals who claim Jewish identity, how does one explain the malaise of many Jewish organizations? Synagogues, the core of Jewish communal life in the Diaspora, are scrambling for membership, and non-Orthodox central religious organizations are struggling to maintain themselves. Jewish federations  comprising a central organizational system are supported by fewer donors than ever, even if the total level of fundraising has increased. And, political controversy among Jewish groups is a potential threat to Jewish unity and support for Israel.
The simple explanation for this anomaly is that many American Jews who are highly educated and well-integrated in society, value their Jewish identity and even if highly motivated, are still ill-equipped to participate in Jewish community life. In a recent survey we conducted alongside the synthesis project, we found that the majority of the American Jewish population has limited Jewish education, lacks basic facility with Hebrew, gets little or no adult Jewish education, and participates only sporadically in Jewish life cycle events. As such, it should be no surprise that many American Jews do not participate regularly in religious or communal life.
If the story were to end here - that American Jewry is large and growing, but is less and less engaged - it would be singularly depressing. Understandably, some would conclude that it does not matter how many people claim Jewish identity if their behaviors are not in tune with Jewish values or beliefs.
We need to be cautious however in assuming that what has been is what will be. Since the 1992 release of the National Jewish Population Survey finding that 52% of recent marriages among Jews were to non-Jews, the Jewish American system of formal and informal education has been re-thought and revamped. From the teaching of Hebrew, to the expansion of Jewish day schools and summer camps, along with the development of programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, today’s youth have opportunities the were never open to their parents and grandparents. 
The story of contemporary American Jewish community is one of growth and change.  Although one could be disheartened by overall lack of education and engagement, a more positive approach is to view the willingness of American Jews to identify as Jewish as a “call to action.” Our job is to then capitalize on the motivation of Jews to self-identify and redouble our efforts to provide all Jews with meaningful Jewish education and socialization.
The writer is Professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Director of the Cohen Center.