The American Jewish Community Will Look Different in 50 Years
Today, the majority of American Jews are in the Reform and Conservative denominations. A new study by Yale SOM’s Edieal Pinker finds that in the coming decades, those groups will shrink and the number of Jews identifying as Orthodox will grow—a trend with implications for Jewish organizations and U.S. politics.
American Jews make up 39% of the global Jewish population—the largest group outside Israel. So demographic trends within the U.S. Jewish population have important implications for Jewish life everywhere—and for American public life, especially in places where Jews make up a significant portion of the citizenry.
And, according to new research from Yale SOM’s Edieal J. Pinker, major changes are underway: the American Jewish population is currently undergoing a demographic and denominational transformation. “If trends continue,” Pinker says, “50 years from now, the U.S. Jewish community is going to look totally different than you think of it today.”
At the heart of the changes is a major increase in the percentage of American Jews who identify as Orthodox, a number that is expected to swell from 12% today to an estimated 29% in 2063. Over the same 50-year time period, Reform and Conservative Jews, who tend to be more theologically and politically liberal, will go from being 50% of American Jews to 39%, and the total number of people in those denominations aged 30-69 will decline by 46%, the study projects.
“This is important information if you are running a Jewish nonprofit that’s active in trying to develop the health of the community,” Pinker says. “If you’re unaware of these trends, then you’re flying blind.”
Pinker’s projections rely on a detailed survey of American Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, which surveyed nearly 5,000 people who either self-identified as Jewish or had a Jewish background.
“Pew is a snapshot,” Pinker explains. “It’s saying, ‘Here is what we’re seeing right now in the Jewish community.’ I used their data to project into the future what’s going to happen, or what could happen.”
He started by examining Pew’s data on American Jews who identify with the three major denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—and also created broad categories for people who identify as Jewish but do not align with a particular denomination, as well as those who identified as partly Jewish (for example, people who think of themselves as culturally but not religiously Jewish).
“The Jewish community is very diverse in the U.S., and I wanted to have a big-tent approach here, to not exclude people because they didn’t formally identify with some established denomination,” Pinker says. “And I think that’s in line with how people today think of modern Judaism—that it’s moving away from labels.”
Marriage and child-rearing trends vary widely within these groups, according to Pew. For example, Orthodox Jews are the most likely to marry other Jews and raise their children as Orthodox. Orthodox families also have many more children than other Jews and the American population as a whole—around four, on average. Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative Jews have a smaller number of children and only a minority of them raise their children in those denominations. Those in the “partly Jewish” or “no denomination” categories are even less likely to raise children in the faith.
Pinker also used Pew’s data to calculate rates of movement between these denominational groups. For example, many people who leave the established denominations in which they were raised as children come to identify as partly Jewish in adulthood. This pattern helps to constantly replenish the number of people who identify as partly Jewish, despite the fact that their children usually do not identify as Jewish at all.
Projecting all of these trends into the future yielded an entirely new picture of American Jewish life. In the next half-century, the total Jewish population will dip slightly in the short term and then rebound, largely due to high Orthodox fertility rates. Moreover, by 2063, the numbers of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, and partly Jewish and non-denominational Jews will be roughly equal.
“If the community as a whole becomes more traditional, it will be voting in a different pattern than we’ve become used to in the United States, where the Jewish community has been viewed as a very reliable voting bloc for Democrats.”
The growth of Orthodoxy is particularly noteworthy, because it may, among other changes, upend long-held political assumptions about American Jews. “If the community as a whole becomes more traditional, it will be voting in a different pattern than we’ve become used to in the United States, where the Jewish community has been viewed as a very reliable voting bloc for Democrats,” Pinker says.
Moreover, Jewish institutions that have traditionally drawn leaders from the Reform and Conservative populations may need to build new relationships within the Orthodox community. “It may change their priorities,” Pinker says. “And there could be tension over that in some areas.”
Also important is the huge expected decline in Reform and Conservative Judaism—a shift that is already in motion. “If you ask people in this community, ‘How are membership levels in synagogues or enrollments in schools?’ they’ll say, ‘Well, they’re down.’ So they know they’re struggling, but to see it this starkly should be a real wake-up call.”
For people who care about the future of those denominations, Pinker says, the time to act is now, and understanding the patterns is an important first step. “I’m looking to provide a service to this community, by providing this data, and letting people take action,” he says. “The community that wants to take ownership of its destiny needs to be looking at data.”