a man sits before preschool kids blowing a shofar
Child-rearing strongly shapes stronger connections with things Jewish, even beyond marrying someone Jewish, write the authors of a new study for The Jewish People Policy Institute. (Photo/JTA-Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Fewer marriages and births means fewer people doing Jewish

On Jan. 16, 1949, Toby Fassman married Max Cohen. At 24, Toby was among the last of her circle of friends in Brooklyn to marry, and several jokingly remarked that Max had rescued her from lifelong singlehood.

Today, if a 24-year-old Jewish woman were heading for the chuppah, most would presume that she’s either Orthodox or reckless. Indeed, of 25- to 54-year-old American Jews who are not haredi, fully half are unmarried. While marriage rates peak around age 40 at 71 percent, they drop again to just 57 percent among those 10 years older. Of those 45 to 54, 13 percent have never been married and another 21 percent are divorced or separated.

These patterns of marriage — and non-marriage — are just a few of the startling findings we reveal in a new report published by the Jewish People Policy Institute in which we analyze data from the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans survey.

Of course, the rise of singlehood, late marriage and non-marriage is not at all unique to American Jews, but is endemic to American society. As the Pew Research Center reports, “The share of Americans who are married is at its lowest point since at least 1920.”

But for Jews and Jewish life, the postponement of marriage or lifelong singlehood hold disturbing consequences for Jewish community. While intermarriage has long been understood as inhibiting Jewish engagement and connection, the same is almost as true of non-marriage.

Take, for example, synagogue membership among non-haredi Jews aged 25 to 54: It reaches a healthy 65 percent among the in-married, but only 22 percent among the non-married and only 13 percent among the intermarried. While almost all in-married Jews attend Passover seders (93 percent), the number is lower for the intermarried (53 percent) and non-married (59 percent).

All over the Jewish world outside of Orthodoxy, we see shrinking numbers and fewer young Jews involved in organized or institutional activities. And all the wonderful innovations — independent minyans, Chabad houses, Base Hillels, Moishe Houses, social justice initiatives — are nowhere near compensating for the losses in legacy institutions.

Let’s look at child-rearing, which strongly shapes connections with things Jewish. Those raising a child in the Jewish religion vastly surpass childless adults in Jewish engagement, and the childless in turn surpass those raising non-Jewish children.

Take, for example, synagogue membership: 65 percent among those raising Jewish-by-religion children; 25 percent for those with no children at home; and 0 percent for those raising non-Jewish children.

For Jews (and others), what is new is the extended years of singlehood and religious detachment, posing unprecedented challenges to Jewish families, communities and institutions.

So, recognizing that children are so vital to Jewish engagement, we can ask: How many Jews in the parenting years (25-54) outside of the haredi world are raising Jewish children? The startling answer is less than a third, and even less (21 percent) if we’re talking only about children whose religion is Jewish. Fully 60 percent of this 25- to 54-year-old group has no children at home and 8 percent are raising non-Jewish children.

What will it take for Jewish engagement at home, in the community, in institutions and elsewhere to thrive?

Probably the most critical answer: Jews will need to start marrying, marry younger, marry Jewish spouses and raise Jewish children.

Over the past few decades, among those Jews outside of Orthodoxy, the relevant trend lines have moved in the opposite directions: less marriage, later marriage, intermarriage and fewer Jewish children — probably about 1.4 for non-Orthodox Jews, far below the 2.1 needed for population replacement.

There are strategies that reverse these trend lines. It turns out that Jews who are more connected to other Jews through their adolescent and young adult years are more likely to marry, to marry younger, to marry Jews and to have Jewish children. Camps, youth groups, Israel travel, campus activities and young adult communities all build Jewish social networks.

Those connections also build friendships that lead to marriage or romantic connections. Only by increasing the opportunities for Jews to marry Jews will we be able to significantly bend the trend lines.

Creating more Jewish marriages and filling more Jewish baby strollers inevitably leads to seeing more Jews in the pews, as well as other places where Jewish engagement gets acted out.

We may not be able to move the average marriage age below 24. But perhaps by providing opportunities we can increase the sheer number who marry and who marry at a younger age, when they stand a better chance of becoming engaged Jewish parents.

Steven M. Cohen
Steven M. Cohen

Steven M. Cohen is a sociologist and the director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University

Sylvia Barack Fishman
Sylvia Barack Fishman

Sylvia Barack Fishman is a professor in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.