About religion and the Jewish Identity study at PEW Research, the wrong takeaway is going to be that religion, especially the religion of Orthodox Judaism presents the magic formula with which to stem the tide of assimilation. Indeed, Orthodox Judaism a long time ago has been turned into an identity-fetish, an identity-commodity as if it were something fixed, stable, and enduring. And that can’t be a “good” thing, if what you want is to understand something about American Judaism and even Orthodox Judaism itself, or to plan community policy for the future of American Jewish life.
Keep in mind that according to the PEW results, humor is broadly understood to be a key, essential marker of American Jewish identity. Some of the results themselves are also actually funny, i.e. funny and odd. Even discounting the fact that, according to the poll, even Jews “with religion” don’t necessarily think that religion is the most important marker of Jewish identity; and that even Jews “with religion” mark a sense of humor above the practice of Jewish law; and that’s very funny, and actually says something rather charming about Jews “with religion,” and the deconstruction of Jewish religion.
As for the PEW results, the first thing I noticed and asked about on my FB feed was that Orthodox Jews continue to remain only 10% of the Jewish population-community. If after all these years of so called assimilation, as more and more liberal Jews supposedly disappear into the mainstream, shouldn’t the percentage of orthodox Jews grown larger? Apparently the story about the retention of orthodox youth is a misleading or false one.
On this matter, here’s Alan Brill over at the blog Book of Doctrines and Opinions:
The survey tolls the end of the triumphalist sense of an Orthodox return. The losses from Orthodoxy are several times larger than the gains. The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, Just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox. This was despite the millions spent on an army of kiruv workers during those years.
The big news is that 17% of the 20-somethings have left Orthodoxy but a whopping 43% left Orthodoxy from the millennial and gen x generations, and these younger generations were raised after the triumphal rise of a more committed Orthodoxy. Old news was that 59% of the baby boomers raised Orthodox left, but that was a different era when many were non-observant Orthodox to start.
Now that I come to think about it, a lot of my own very good friends grew up orthodox, but no longer are. You know who you are. Like any cultural form, Orthodox Judaism has a lot to recommend for itself. But let’s not be ridiculous. More religion, Orthodox Judaism, and anxiety about religion and identity boundaries won’t “save” American Judaism, whereas a little more humor just might.