Canadian Jewish sociologists and religious leaders are challenging the widely held assumption that Jewish demographic trends here trail the United States by a generation in the wake of a major new poll that found growing rates of intermarriage and assimilation south of the border.
The Pew Research Centre survey of 3,475 U.S. Jews, released Sept. 30, caused a stir among North American Jewish leaders when it was widely reported that it found an intermarriage rate of 58 per cent among American Jews.
However, the actual Pew finding was 44 per cent, up from 31 per cent in 2001, while the 58 per cent figure referred to Jews who were married between 2000 and 2013. The latter statistic has nevertheless left many worried about what North American Jewry will look like in years to come.
Charles Shahar, chief demographer at Federation CJA in Montreal, said Canadian intermarriage data from the 2011 census won’t be available until next month, but projections from the 1991 and 2001 census put the current number at about 27 per cent.
Both he and York University sociologist Randal Schnoor said the common view that it’s just a matter of time until Canadian intermarriage rate catches up to the American one is too simplistic, mostly because the Canadian Jewish community is more traditional than its U.S. counterpart.
“In general we are showing similar trends, but I’m not convinced they are going to reach the same levels,” Schnoor said.
The 2011 census puts Canada’s Jewish population at 391,665, comprising 1.2 per cent of the Canadian population, Shahar said, noting that studies comparable to the Pew findings don’t exist in this country and that Canadian Jewish population figures are drawn from census data.
“The intermarriage rate for Canada in 1991… was 16.6 per cent, and in 2001, it was 20.7 per cent. Anything after that is a projection, so for 2011, it was 26.5 per cent, and for 2021, we’re projecting that it will be 33.5 per cent,” Shahar said.
Shahar said the Toronto and Montreal Jewish communities – which account for 71.4 per cent of the Canadian Jewish population – are unique.
The projection for the intermarriage rate in Montreal for 2011 is only 16 per cent because of the Sephardi element, Shahar said.
“It’s more conservative in religion. So is Toronto… I suspect that the projections I gave you are even a little high, and that our intermarriage rate is going to be well below the American rate for a long time,” Shahar said.
Schnoor suggested that Canada’s lower rate could be attributed to a more traditional community.
“A good marker of that is day school enrolment. Day school enrolments in Toronto are 33 per cent approximately, and in Montreal, 60 per cent approximately. In the United States, it’s about 17 per cent overall. That’s a big difference, and that’s a reflection of the fact that Canada is a more traditional, Jewish place.”
Another reason could be “the immigration patterns of such a large proportion of Reform Jews from Germany to the United States. We didn’t have that immigration, [and] that really formed the bedrock of the American Jewish community, a much more liberal foundation, which we don’t have here,” he added.
Although Canada’s intermarriage rates are much lower than in the United States, “you can’t deny that the intermarriage rates have gone up and up,” Schnoor said.
McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld said the reason for the climbing rates in North America might have to do with “a postmodern belief by many Jews that they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can remain Jewish in some way that may be meaningful to them while marrying outside the faith and being fully immersed in the non-Jewish world.”
Schnoor took an optimistic approach to the reason behind the rising numbers, suggesting that “Jews are able to intermarry because they are so accepted. In fact, they’re desired partners… Sixty or 70 years ago, that was not the case, because North American Jews were suffering so much anti-Semitism. The problem has shifted so that, instead of wanting to beat us up, now they want to marry us.”
According to the Pew study, 32 per cent of U.S. Jews born after 1980 – the millennial generation – identify as Jews of no religion, are disconnected from the organized Jewish community and are much less likely to raise their children Jewish.
That’s compared to the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, of which only 19 per cent identified as Jews of no religion.
But Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, said the study didn’t “differentiate between people who really have no religion and people who say no religion, but wind up having a bar mitzvah, or come to a Shabbat dinner, or they might mark other religious occasions and holidays.”
Chabad of Markham spiritual leader Rabbi Avraham Plotkin also challenged the Pew findings on the millennial generation, because they were polled “at a point in life when Jewishness means the least [to them].
“I think if you would have asked the hippies in the… ’60s, they would have told you the same thing. And if you look at the same [people today], they are now the conservative people who are paying for the big buildings in the Jewish community,” Rabbi Plotkin said.
“When you ask people of that age, you’re not asking the 60-year-olds what they felt when they were 20.”
Another statistic that seemed to elicit more questions than answers was that 94 per cent of U.S. Jews said they were proud to be Jewish.
“There is a tremendous amount of pride in Jewish identity and we are challenged to ask, how do we build on that?” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said.
“How do you take something that’s positive, but relatively weak, and find ways to enhance it, deepen it and strengthen it?”
Weinfeld agreed that “it’s terrific if people say they are proud to be Jewish, but the next question is, what does that mean in terms of specific actions?”
“There is a growing population of Jews who are hard to fit within the traditional categories, so you can be just Jewish or partially Jewish. The big challenge going forward is what to do with these partially Jewish Jews.”
Rabbi Debra Landsberg, spiritual leader of Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El, said that labelling Jews is “always tricky.
“[For the] Jews saying they are still proud of being Jewish… I have no doubt that there are many in that category for whom Jewishness is something vast and mysterious and ethically demanding and can’t be summed up as religion,” she said.
Rabbi Lansberg said the way Jews are often forced to fit into “categories of identity” does not speak to a younger generation.
“I think it behooves us to switch it and say, ‘We’re not going to start talking about status, let’s start talking about dreams, hopes, vision, commitment and connectedness.’ How do we grow and develop that? Status questions [should be] secondary,” she said.
Rabbi Plotkin said Jewish community leaders need “to tap into the 94 per cent who are proud and to cultivate that pride and to teach them that it’s not enough just to be proud but to translate it into living Jewish.”