American Orthodox Jews: Demographic Trends and Scenarios


World-renowned demographers, Sergio DellaPergola and Uzi Rebhun, scrutinize the stats and report that the future may not be as rosy as we think.

If the world’s strategic balance of power, Wall Street, globalization and the American economy, El Niño, continental drift, the San Andreas fault, and other major variables behave more or less as they have done in recent years, the demographic future of American Orthodoxy might be rather stable. Continuation of the demographic trends observed among the Orthodox population over the last decades, and the patterns typical of other Jewish groups in the United States are bound to produce a moderate decline in the number of Jews nationally, and an increase, ranging from very moderate to quite significant, in the share of Orthodoxy out of that total. However, the absolute number of the self-identifying Orthodox may vary quite substantially according to different circumstances that may unfold.
These cautious scenarios emerge from a new set of demographic projections based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). The survey, promoted by the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), covered a large representative countrywide sample of households including at least one person currently Jewish or of Jewish ancestry,* and provided a detailed sociodemographic profile of the American Jewish population and of its denominational composition.
Jewish population projections, besides trying to account for a reasonable level of future birth and death rates, and for international migration, also reflect changing patterns of Jewish identification, affiliation or disaffiliation. While concerns have been expressed in general about the future of Jewish population and community in the United States, demographic and sociocultural trends clearly differ between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Other, or non-affiliated Jews. Under the good health conditions of contemporary developed societies, the average life span currently approaches 75 years for males and 80 for females, and continues to increase. Fifty years from now,. the majority of currently-living U.S. Jews will still be alive. Hence, the different effects of demographic trends among those who identify with either or none of the major denominations tend to show up quite slowly as they are diluted within the slow fading away of the current generations. It would be a mistake to simply and straightforwardly project family size differences between denominations as multipliers of their future population growth. In the following, we review recent trends in Jewish denominational preferences, marriage, fertility and migration patterns, and examine the possible demographic implications for the future of American Jewry and for American Orthodoxy in particular.
How many and who?
According to the 1990 NJPS, the distribution of American Jews aged 18 and over by denominations at birth was 23% Orthodox, 34% Conservative, 26% Reform, and 17% Other and non-denominational. The distribution of current denominational preferences was 6% Orthodox, 35% Conservative, 38% Reform, and 21% Other and non-denominational. Accounting for the child population, the total number of the self-identifying Orthodox was estimated at 378,000, or 7% of a total American Jewry assessed at 5,515,000. These figures on the size of Orthodox Jewry have been the object of some controversy. Having agreed that the label Orthodox subsumes a great variety of different groups, some observers thought that total was unrealistically low, and suggested their own corrected estimates. It is entirely possible that the rate of non-response to NJPS was higher among Orthodox, especially Chassidic or Chareidi, than among other Jews, but it should be noted that later tests (such as local Jewish community surveys or studies of specific sectors of American Jewry) did not conclusively support that claim.
Clearly, the Orthodox constitute a relatively small minority of American Jewry, but their visibility is greater as they carry responsibility for a disproportionate share of the services being provided to the Jewish community at large. One case in point is Jewish day schools, still to a large extent sponsored by Orthodox organizations, and whose pupils are drawn from a much broader and denominationally heterogeneous spectrum of families. In this respect, a comparison of data on Jewish education enrollment drawn from NJPS and from an ongoing educational census conducted at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, indicated a good correspondence between these two independent sources. The NJPS figure of 443,000 children aged 6-18 who received any formal Jewish education was on target, confirming the general validity of the survey. If, however, the new NJPS now being planned by the CJF for the year 2000 were to demonstrate that a significant undercount affected the Orthodox population in 1990, appropriate corrections should be introduced into our following evaluation.
Denominational retention and passages
Because people may switch their ideological preferences, and their lifestyles and demographic behaviors accordingly, the size and composition of Jewish denominations change all the time. It is in the best interest of all parties that the response rate to the new survey will be as high as possible. As noted, comparing the denominational distributions of American Jewish adults currently and when they were born or raised shows that the Orthodox suffered the strongest losses. The share raised as Orthodox in 1990 was 44% among Jews aged 60 and over, 19% among those aged 40-59, and 12% among those aged 20-39, pointing to a narrowing preferential basis over time. A plurality of the older age group was raised in an Orthodox environment, whose family roots often were abroad. In America, the Conservative movement grew the most among the second immigrant generation, it attracted many people with an Orthodox background, and it became the movement in which the largest share of Jews aged below 60 were raised, and the current preference of a plurality of those aged 60 and above. The Reform movement garnered the plurality of current preferences among Jews below 60. At the same time, that part of American Jewry not identifying with any of the major denominations is quickly growing among the younger generations.
To sharpen the analysis, let us address the two partially overlapping, yet different notions of retention and resilience. Retention is the proportion of those born or raised within a given Jewish denomination who prefer the same denomination at a later stage in their life; resilience is the ratio between the number of those who currently identify with a denomination and those born/raised within that denomination. Here losses due to non-retention of old followers may be partially compensated by gains of new followers, chozrim b’teshuvah. In 1990 both retention and resilience indexes were the lowest among the Orthodox, moderate among the Conservative, and higher among the Reform and among the aggregate of Other and non-denominational. Interestingly, both indicators were much higher among younger Orthodox (20-39 in 1990, born 1950-1970) than among the older. Indeed, on a country-wide basis, Orthodoxy retained 42% of those born in its fold aged less than 40, against only 18-19% of those aged 40 and above. Similarly, the ratio between the number of those currently identifying and those raised as Orthodox was 51% for those below 40, versus 21-22% for those over 40. While this points to a recovering ability of Orthodoxy to keep its own children, losses were still significant among adults born or raised in Orthodox homes during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Part of the transfers from Orthodoxy to another denominations may have occurred at a later age, possibly in connection with marriage or residential mobility. A significant proportion of the young adults below 40 were still unmarried, and the majority will move from locales with a stronger to places with a weaker Jewish infrastructure.
Recent demographic trends

Overall, the size of Orthodoxy does not seem to be bound to dramatic growth…

The NJPS findings on the frequency of intermarriage have received much attention. The fact that much lower rates prevail among the Orthodox than among the rest of American Jewry was expected, although somewhat intriguingly about 10% of the Orthodox who married during the 1980s did so with non-Jewish spouses who did not convert. Less noted was the fact that the propensity to marry has significantly declined across the board among Jews as among total whites in the United States. Besides a clearly younger female age at marriage, marriage patterns of the Orthodox were not truly distinctive. Rising ages at marriage and the declining propensity to marry at all reflect the extended span of professional training related to the high educational achievements of American Jews, and the penalizing if not prohibitive cost of housing even for a population with income levels above the national average.
Consequently, since the 1970s the whole childbearing schedule has been delayed and in spite of postponed births, the span of years effective for reproduction has shortened causing a steady decline in total fertility. The 1990 NJPS found an average of 1.6 children ever-born alive to Jewish women aged 40-44 (regardless of marital status), substantially below the minimum of 2.1 children needed for inter-generational replacement. There was minor variation around that average across denominations, with the clear exception of the Orthodox whose average we estimated at 3.7 children. While higher and pointing to faster population growth, fertility of the Orthodox was far below the known stereotypes of exceptionally high fertility.
NJPS documented the non-identification with Judaism of the majority of children of mixed marriage, implying a serious reduction of the Jewish reproduction potential. A continuation or moderate reduction in recent fertility levels can be assumed. Besides, the already noted patterns of inter-denominational mobility imply a redistribution of reproduction from the denominations who experience a net loss of followers, to those with a net gain. If, as estimated in 1990, the Orthodox have an average of 3.7 children but over time one half of them pass to other denominations, and the Reform have 1.5 Jewish children, but gain another 20% from other denominations, in the long run this corresponds to a fertility rate of 1.9 for the Orthodox and 1.8 for the Reform.
International migration further affects the size of American Jewry and the distribution of Jewish denominations. After the large wave of the early 1990s, immigration from the Former Soviet Union has significantly declined, possibly due to changes in U.S. legal provisions concerning refugees. The F.S.U. reservoirs themselves are approaching saturation, as Jews remaining there are in large part very elderly, very assimilated, or socially very successful. It is reasonable to assume that future immigration is bound to decline. Regarding Jewish emigration from the United States, its main component is aliyah to Israel, whose yearly volume has only rarely passed the 2,000 mark. As to the ideological preferences of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. since 1970, the1990 NJPS provided the following rough estimates: 9% Orthodox, 10% Conservative, 40% Reform, and 41% Other and non-denominational. Prospective emigrants, according to NJPS, were 13% Orthodox, 37% Conservative, 31% Reform, and 19% Other and non-denominational. While all denominations gain on balance from international migration, the benefits mostly go to the Reform preference and to the non-denominationally identified.
Two projected scenarios
Based on these data and assumptions, we turn to two demographic scenarios with one main difference. The first assumes no passages between denominations, i.e., unlike the well-established trend in the past, each section of U.S. Jewry succeeds in keeping all of its progeny within the denominational fold in the long run; the second projection assumes interdenominational passages — what we have called resilience — as observed among Jews aged 20-39 in 1990.
In general, the initial Jewish population estimate of 5,515,000 in 1990 is bound to a modest increase until the year 2000 or shortly after, followed by progressive reduction during the subsequent decades. Among the reasons for these expected changes, the so called echo effect of the baby boom, which produced a temporary increase of births to parents born during the 1950s and early 1960s, and the initially significant impact of immigration. Later on, low Jewish fertility and the consequent aging of the Jewish population would produce a number of deaths significantly higher than the number of births. The size of American Jewry would peak at about 5.7 million around the year 2000, declining thereafter to 5.6 around 2020, and slightly less than 5 million around 2050.
Within this general outline, what the future size and share of the Orthodox movement will be out of the total may largely depend on the ability to keep the children within the fold. In the hypothesis of no losses at all, and taking into account that the initial age composition in 1990 was not at all young, the projected number of U.S. Jews identifying as Orthodox would rise from less than 400,000 in 1990 (7% of the total Jewish population), to over 550,000 in 2020 (10%), and over 900,000 in 2050 (19%). The higher than average fertility of Orthodox families would generate a rejuvenating age composition, and a substantial increase of their share out of the total U.S. Jewish child population below age 15, from 10% in 1990 to 22% in 2020, and as much as 44% in 2050.
If on the other hand the retention power of Orthodoxy over its younger generation were not to improve substantially as against the performance observed in 1990, the size of the group would only grow minimally, to about 415,000 in 2020, and 430,000 in 2050. Their share of American Jewry would only grow from 7% to 9% by the mid of the 21st century, and their share of Jewish children under 15 would reach 11% in 2020, and 13% in 2050. Interestingly, the reduced growth of the Orthodox denomination would not be entirely compensated by an increase of the other denominations. Since fertility of the latter is lower, interdenominational transfers would turn into a general erosion in the overall size of U.S. Jewry, which would account for about 60,000 fewer people in 2020, as against the previous scenario, and about 300,000 less in 2050. In other words, fewer Orthodox would also mean fewer Jews in America. The reality will probably fall somewhere between these two scenarios.
Concluding Observations
The role and significance of a religio-cultural movement do not need to be related to the size of that movement. The future of Orthodoxy as a distinguished minority of the total Jewish community and as a small and unique component of American society, is secured beyond doubt. However, a group’s viability is in many respects determined by its underlying demographic trends. The larger or smaller size of a group, coupled with a much younger or older age composition, ultimately will have a definite impact on the scope and quality of interaction within the group, and of its outside-oriented activities. One decisive factor for the future of Orthodoxy — and of the other Jewish denominations in the United States — will be its retention grip over the respective younger generations. Overall, the size of Orthodoxy does not seem to be bound to dramatic growth, which in turn raises interesting questions related to the future needs of Jewish community service markets.
The unique internal openness of the American Jewish community, as demonstrated by the substantial circulation of people through the different options available, also provides one of the keys to figuring out what the future of American Jewry will be. Rather than viewing the different denominations as discrete and competing entities, it seems appropriate to project them as complementary and, to some extent, collaborating ones. An American Orthodoxy of a few hundred thousand or even a million souls, isolated within its own fold, will eventually lack the autonomous resources needed to accomplish all of its communal endeavors. Operating in the context of a larger community of customers, the services provided by Orthodoxy would take on more vigorous Jewish, and possibly economic viability. Projected trends on population size and composition, and the needs they portend for the future of Jewish community service, clearly imply that while on the one hand Orthodox Jewry offers crucial services to all of Jewry, on the other hand it is dependent on a wider constituency to insure its viability. This interdependency is a reminder of the shared needs and destiny of Klal Yisrael.

Sergio DellaPergola, of the A. Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of numerous studies of Jewish demography. He is Senior consultant to the Israel Center for Social Policy Studies, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israel Humanitarian Fund, and the American Jewish Committee. An observant Jew, Professor DellaPergola is one of the foremost demographers of the Jewish world.

Uzi Rebhun, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at the A. Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and currently Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. His research focuses on the American Jewish community, the Israeli population, and Jewish education in the Diaspora.

*All population censuses and surveys rely on operative rather than normative definitions of “who is a Jew.” The NJPS “core Jewish population” included 4,210,000 persons who were born Jewish and reported their current religion as Jewish; 185,000 persons who reported to be currently Jewish but were born Gentile; and 1,120,000 persons who identified as Jewish when asked, but reported “none,” “agnostic” or “atheist” to a question on their current religion. The total was 5,515,000. There were furthermore 210,000 persons born or raised Jewish and converted out, and 1,115,000 persons of Jewish parentage with other current religions. See B.A. Kosmin, S. Goldstein, J. Waksberg, N. Lerer, A. Keysar, J. Scheckner, Highlights of the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, New York, 1991.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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