Rising kashrut observance among millennials is a hopeful sign for both American Jewry and Israel
The new Jewish year opened with some encouraging Jewish news: According to a Pew Research poll cited by NPR last week, more than a quarter of the so-called millennial generation of American Jews now keeps kosher, almost double the percentage among their parents’ generation. This isn’t because Orthodox Jews have more children; as the NPR report noted, many millennial kashrut observers didn’t grow up in kosher homes. Nor have they become Orthodox themselves: The Pew data shows that only half of kashrut-observant millennials observe Shabbat. But by deciding to keep kosher, they have opted for a more distinctly Jewish identity – and that’s good news for anyone who cares about either American Jewry or Israel.
For decades now, soaring intermarriage rates and growing disinterest in organized religion have raised fears regarding the future of American Jewry. Indeed, the same 2013 Pew poll that NPR quoted greatly reinforced these fears: Inter alia, it found that while 93% of Jews born in 1914-27 consider themselves “Jews by religion,” that is true for only 68% of millennials, or people born after 1980; the remaining 32% of millennials define themselves as “Jews of no religion.” And by every conceivable measure, “Jews of no religion” are bad news for both the Jewish people and Israel.
A whopping 67%, for instance, raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to only 7% for Jews by religion, while 79% have non-Jewish spouses, more than double the 36% among Jews by religion. Fully 54% say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, more than five times the rate among Jews by religion (10%); 55% feel little or no attachment to Israel, more than double the rate among Jews by religion (23%); and only 10% care about being part of a Jewish community, less than a third the rate among Jews by religion (33%).
In short, “Jews of no religion” are on a fast track to leaving the Jewish people altogether. Thus anyone who cares about American Jewry’s survival should be rooting for young Jews to become more attached to the Jewish religion.
And millennials who opt to keep kosher are necessarily doing exactly that, because keeping kosher requires them to recommit to Judaism every day anew: Day after day, they must decide what to eat or not eat, what to buy or not buy. Thus the fact that 27% of American Jews aged 18-29 keep kosher, up from 16% among the 50+ group, is a ray of light in the otherwise gloomy Pew data.
It’s also encouraging with regard to a related worry: that young American Jews are growing away from Israel. The Pew data unequivocally proves that the more American Jews care about Judaism, the more likely they are to care about Israel. That’s why Jews by religion deem caring about Israel “essential” to their Jewish identity at more than double the rate of Jews of no religion (49% to 23%), and why even among Jews by religion, the proportion who consider caring about Israel “essential” generally correlates closely with attachment to traditional Jewish praxis, rising from 31% among nondenominational Jews to 42% for Reform, 58% for Conservative and 79% for modern Orthodox (the ultra-Orthodox are anomalous; at 45%, they resemble Reform Jews).
This correlation was inadvertently highlighted by a front-page New York Times story last month in which rabbis who criticize Israel complained about congregational backlash. “Rabbis are just really scared because they get slammed by their right-wing congregants, who are often the ones with the purse strings,” said Conservative Rabbi Jill Jacobs. She didn’t bother analyzing that telling statement, but I will: Major synagogue donors, by definition, are people who care deeply about maintaining organized Jewish religious life. And those are precisely the people who, as the Pew data shows, tend to be most supportive of Israel, and hence most likely to object to anti-Israel sermons.
Even Peter Beinart, who has made a career out of blaming Israeli policy for “distancing” young American Jews from Israel, admitted in a surprising pre-Rosh Hashanah op-ed that the main culprit is actually their alienation from religion. “The greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s religious illiteracy,” he wrote, before adding that, “the best way to ensure that American Jews stay connected to Israel is to ensure that they stay connected to Judaism … If you care deeply about Jewish tradition, you’re likely to care deeply about Israel,” whereas if you’re indifferent to the Bible and the synagogue and Jewish holidays, “you’re likely to be indifferent to Israel too.”
Thus the fact that some young American Jews are becoming more attached to Judaism offers hope for their attachment to Israel as well.
It’s also worth noting, as Mitchell Bard did last month, that decades of Gallup polling among Americans overall show a tendency for people to become more supportive of Israel as they age. In 1982, for instance, 49% of Americans aged 18-29 sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians; today, when those same people are 55+, 74% of them support Israel. In 1996, 32% of 18- to 29-year-olds favored Israel; today, those people are aged 36-47, and 58% of them do so.
Why this happens isn’t clear, though I suspect moving from the left-wing hotbed of college campuses to the real world plays a role. But assuming American Jews resemble other Americans in this regard, one would expect millennials to become more supportive of Israel as they age regardless of their Jewish identity. When you combine this with a salient indicator of enhanced Jewish identity like increased kashrut observance, the widespread assertion that Israel is “losing” the millennial generation seems, at least, premature.
None of this justifies complacency: If we want to ensure that young Jews remain attached to the Jewish people and Israel, investing in their knowledge of and attachment to Judaism is vital. But as the upsurge of kashrut observance among millennials shows, it’s not yet too late. For far from losing interest in being Jewish, some young American Jews are clearly hungry for a Judaism with more to offer than just the latest liberal talking points.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post