Leonard Saxe - Judaism Unbound Episode 140: The Pew Study, 5 Years Later


Len Saxe, Director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg, to kick off a unit of episodes reflecting on the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 Jewish population study, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” [1] in honor of the fifth anniversary of its publication.

 Image Credit: Brandeis University

Image Credit: Brandeis University

(0:01 - 13:14): To begin the episode Saxe names a few key takeaways from Pew’s 2013 study: “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” [2] emphasizing that there are more Jews in the United States than many had previously believed (nearly 7 million), and that the Jewish population is incredibly diverse — in both practice and identity. He speaks to the difficulty of measuring how many Jews there are in the United States, citing longstanding policy to avoid asking about religious identity in the census as a major reason for that difficulty. [3]

(13:15 - 30:26): Saxe gives his take on the widely analyzed conception of “Jews of No Religion,” arguing that it may have been less of a blockbuster discovery than many others perceived. He looks at the role that funding can play in the social sciences, highlighting the importance, in any study, of being transparent about funding sources. Through the example of Hillel (centers for Jewish life on college campuses), he explains how institutions often have estimates for their number of Jewish constituents that are drastically different from the real number, when investigated in a local population study. [4] Saxe also provides his perspective on a recent (2018) Pew study on American religion that was not focused only on Judaism. [5]

(30:27 - 46:32): Responding to Dan’s question about whether denominational movements have misread the Pew study in some respects, Saxe argues that one key point to internalize is that — whatever amount Orthodox Judaism is growing — it is still a very small percentage of the overall American-Jewish population. He sheds light on another growing group — those who self-identify as “just Jewish” — and asks whether the connotations of that phrase may have shifted in recent generations. [6] He also looks at another phenomenon that has developed and shifted a great deal over the past few decades: interfaith marriage and its role in contemporary Judaism. Through the lens of local population studies that Saxe has led, he describes five different forms of Jewish communal participation that can be found in communities all around the country. To close the episode, he argues that Jewish institutions and leaders have been too “crisis-focused,” and that a shift towards the idea (pioneered by Daniel Kahnemann) of “thinking slow” would be well-advised. [7]

 Image Credit: American Jewish Population Project (Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies)

Image Credit: American Jewish Population Project (Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies)

[1] Learn more about Len Saxe by reading his bio. Check out the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies’s American Jewish Population Project, with population estimates for almost every metropolitan area in the United States, by clicking here.

[2] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” can be accessed here.

[3] Learn more about the historical reasons for the absence of questions about religion in the United States census here.

[4] Read more from Saxe regarding discrepancies between Hillel’s Jewish population estimates and his studies’ numbers here.

[5] Explore “The Religious Typology,” a new way to categorize Americans by religion, released by Pew in August 2018, and investigate its “Sunday stalwarts” designation (one of its categories, discussed in this episode), by clicking here.

[6] Read more about growth in the quantity of Jews identify as “just Jewish” or “non-denominational” here.

[7] Purchase Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, here.