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December 18, 2013

American Jews Worry About Declining Religiosity Among Young

by Jerome Socolovsky

During the recent holiday of Hanukkah, a 9-meter tall menorah - the maximum height allowed by Jewish law - stood behind the White House.

Two Orthodox rabbis, hoisted aloft in a bucket crane, lit the candles, as a U.S. Air Force band played traditional songs, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman relayed a “Happy Hanukkah” from the president to a small crowd that assembled despite the bitter cold and rain.

The weather did not dampen the spirits of Jews who feel that America has treated them better than most countries in their long and often troubled history. Having a giant Jewish symbol alongside the White House Christmas tree seemed like additional proof of America’s welcome.

Many Jews still have a feeling of vulnerability, though, and a major new survey by the Pew Research Center has rekindled worries about assimilation.

​​Provocative survey

The survey, titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” indicates they have declined as a share of the U.S. population - from about 3 percent in the 1950s to less than 2 percent now.

It also suggests they are becoming less observant, with 32 percent of young Jewish adults describing themselves as “having no religion” and instead identifying on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

Survey director Alan Cooperman acknowledges that the findings have triggered alarm.

“The level of interest in this from the Jewish community is greater than I’ve seen in any previous survey that we’ve done,” he said, adding that there is particular concern that young Jews are less likely than their parents to join a synagogue or support Israel.

“Surveys do not predict the future,” Cooperman said, “but it does raise the question, are those younger Jews going to become more attached to Israel as they get older? Or is the American Jewish population going to become less attached to Israel?”

​​Jewish hertiage

Around 58 percent of Jews are marrying out of the faith and, Cooperman noted, “intermarriage is correlated with lower religiosity.”

Still, Cooperman said Jews are admired by almost all religious groups in America. “Even many Christian groups indicate warmer feelings toward Jews than they do toward other Christian groups in the United States,” he said.

Vice President Joe Biden - a Catholic - recently praised Jews for their contributions to American culture and society, and their key roles in movements for justice and equality.

“The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage,” he said, noting that one out of every three American Nobel laureates has been Jewish.

Still, many Jews worry that influence may be on the wane.

Heidi Lamar grew up in the liberal Reform Jewish movement and later turned to Orthodoxy. She believes the liberal branches of her faith have no future because of intermarriage and low birth rates.

“I believe that you’re going to see Reform and Conservative Judaism just dying out,” she said after watching a presentation of the survey at a local community center.

It carried a different lesson for Conservative Rabbi Marvin Bash. “It indicates how much more we have to try to develop committed Jews,” he said.