Young: Greater secularization of U.S. Jews isn't devastating

No one today can predict what the Jewish

No one today can predict what the Jewish future looks like. But I feel confident in saying that it exists, and in many diverse forms. (Credit: iStock)

Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and

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A new Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, showing that religious affiliation is on the decline and intermarriage is on the rise, has sparked much soul-searching in the Jewish community.

Are Jews in America, at least the non-Orthodox, slowly disappearing through assimilation? Can, or should, this trend be reversed? Or will American Jewish culture change and find new forms of existence?

The numbers are sobering. More than one in five Jews in the United States -- including about a third of those born after 1980 -- are non-religious and identify as Jewish by ancestry or culture only. (For those born before 1946, the figure is about one in 10.) Forty-four percent of married Jews have a non-Jewish spouse, including 58 percent of those married after 2000 (up from 17 percent for pre-1970 marriages). Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, has called the results "devastating."

Behind statistics, there are always complex human stories. I am one of Pew's "Jews of no religion." I was born in the Soviet Union, where being Jewish was an ethnicity, and a suspect one. My mother comes from a mixed marriage, and my father's mother took pride in her own Jewishness but had little nostalgia for the restrictive Orthodox religion of her childhood. As a teenager (my family emigrated when I was 16), I identified as Jewish, largely in response to state-encouraged anti-Semitic bigotry, but knew little about Jewish culture.

In America, I've had little formal connection to Jewish life (and have dated mostly non-Jewish men). Yet my Jewish identity is not in doubt. Moreover, as I've grown older and presumably wiser, my belief in humanist universalism has been tempered with appreciation for the human bonds and cultural values found through ethnicity- and religion-based communities. Like 70 percent of American Jews, I have a special attachment to Israel.

My Jewish friends, Russian- or American-born, have varied stories. Some embrace modern Orthodoxy; some are intermarried and partially observant.

In a society of unprecedented individual freedom, flexibility, and ethnic integration, trends like intermarriage are to some extent inevitable. Affluent, educated democratic societies also lean toward secularization -- America much less so than others, but even so, nearly 20 percent of all Americans and a third of those under 30 have no religious affiliation.

The concern among some over Jewish survival is somewhat misguided. Jewish life has evolved through history, lasting against all odds. Today, Jewish people face a new situation -- one in which religious identification is weakening but ethnic and cultural identification can be connected to a Jewish homeland for the first time in 2,000 years.

There are opportunities for Jewish culture to thrive, but some trends are troubling. Among non-religious Jews with children, two-thirds are raising them without any Jewish identity. The loss of America's secular Jewish culture, for decades a source of intellectual and cultural creativity, would be a loss not only to Jews but also to America. It is incumbent on secular Jews to preserve that tradition.

On the other side, some rhetoric from traditional Jewish quarters is regrettably hostile to secular Jewishness. Comparisons of intermarriage to a "silent Holocaust" are particularly offensive, as if people's personal choices were somehow equivalent to mass murder.

Perhaps traditionalists should talk less about "combating intermarriage" -- which sounds like an attack on mixed families, some of which are very much a part of the Jewish community -- than about encouraging "in-marriage."

No one can predict what the Jewish future looks like. But it surely exists, and in many diverse forms.