Changing Patterns of Jewish Identity in the United States

Submitted by JessicaW on October 21, 2011

The Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies opened the fall season on September 21st with a Scholar-In-Residence lecture by well-known sociologist and National Jewish Book award winner, Dr. Steven M. Cohen. Cohen’s lecture took place in the Barone Campus Center’s Oak Room and was free and open to the public. The topic was changing patterns of Jewish identity here in the United States.

In his lecture, Cohen explained the 3 major demographic parts of Judaism: intermarried, Orthodox, and non-intermarried non-orthodox. Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Orthodox Jews even though it has raised its standards to fortify its presence in society. Cohen explained that Jews who have intermarried average about 1.2 children, while Orthodox Jews average 4 to 5 children. 8% of Jews over 18 are Orthodox, while 23% under 18 are.

Alongside the demographic explosion of the Orthodox, there has been a huge shift in identity among Jews in today’s society. One is the idea of the sovereign Jewish self, meaning that people decide when, where, and how they want to be Jewish. People now believe that they have the right to pick and choose aspects of the culture and religion as they go. Older generations believe that their purpose is to defend Jewish people against anti-Semitism, assuring Jewish acceptance in society. The younger generations – those in their 20’s today – focus more on the portrayal of the Jewish people in media, assuring their representation and reputation remains positive within society.

According to Cohen, there has been major transition into the spirit of the sovereign Jewish self. That is to say, there has been a decline in the sense of Jews feeling under attack, leading to a great number of younger Jews feeling more accepted in society, and Jews in general being able to decide more freely when and how they want to be involved in the Jewish communal life.

As the statistic above shows, this allowance is creating a larger population of younger Jews wanting to publicly identify as Jews. In the 1960’s, Jews were among the least popular religious groups in the United States, but since that time they have risen to become one of the most popular. With that, Cohen concluded that American society today is developing increasing acceptance of people choosing who they are and who they want to be.

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