Jewish identity and behavior exist on a continuum, with non-Jews becoming Jews and others abandoning the Judaism into which they were born. This is another way to think about the population—those on the way in and those on the way out. It is much more fluid and dynamic than a simple binary approach of who is in or out as a permanent state of being. At what point in space and time is someone included or excluded as a Jew as they move back and forth on this Jewish continuum?
Preservation Versus Expansion
Fluid definitions raise important policy questions of defining who and what is a Jew. The continuum finds born Jews who are no longer Jewish in identity and/or behavior and people not born Jewish who are Jewish in both. The specter of loss and decline, the promise of gain and growth are both presented. Trying to keep born Jews to be Jewish is one mind-set, helping non-Jews to be Jewish is another. One is a preservation strategy—the other is an expansion strategy. One considers biology paramount—the other focuses on belief and behavior. Creating hard, narrow definitions of who is in and out may be more comforting. The other strategy is more fuzzy, elusive and uncertain—but holds greater promise for growth and ultimately, vitality.
People who choose to be Jews are likely to be members and participants—it is a way that they express their commitment and involvement to their chosen religion and community. Some who were born Jewish may take their participation or membership as a given: they may select to belong to a synagogue or a Jewish community center or opt out. Those who choose to be part of the community tend not to take institutional affiliation for granted. Indeed, they are looking for outlets to express their Judaism and to find ways to have a sense of belonging.
The Potential to Grow the Jewish People
If the Jewish community is to remain vibrant, it must find ways to proactively build diverse Jewish communities around the world. Diversity provides strength—a base of different kinds of people brings energy and ideas.
The potential for Jewish population growth around the world is vast. We estimate millions of people who 1) have Jewish heritage; 2) have formally converted to Judaism; or 3) are on the path to Judaism. Such individuals exist in Latin America, Africa, India, and around the globe. A community in Uganda, the Abayudaya, has been practicing Judaism for almost a hundred years. They recently went through a formal conversion with a Conservative Beit Din.
The Potential to Grow the Jewish People in the United States
In addition to over six to seven million Jews in the United States, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research also found some 4.2 million with Jewish heritage: those with a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent, or more distant Jewish ancestor. Of these 4.2 million, there are 700,000 people with diverse backgrounds who are not currently Jewish, but are aware of a Jewish ancestor. When asked, they claim their Jewish heritage as part of their ethnic or religious identity, even if they do not answer Jewish when asked about their current primary identity.
Of course, these numbers would be much larger if more people knew more about their Jewish ancestry. Many who are not currently Jewish have historical ties to Judaism but do not know about their origins. Ethnic histories over the centuries are quite complex and are lost to many. Millions of people have Jewish ancestors, especially those of Portuguese, Spanish, and African descent, but are unaware of it.
The study also found an even larger population of some 6.7 million adults who are not Jewish, but who have a connection to Judaism or the Jewish community. This includes some who are married to Jews and feel identified with the community and others who have an affinity with Judaism or Jews based on intellectual or emotional identification. They are entwined in the Jewish community but are not self-defined as Jews. This group includes some 600,000 individuals “connected non-Jews” of diverse backgrounds who are connected to the Jewish people through marriage, friendship, extended family, community, or personal interest.
Some of these individuals are living as Jews in terms of synagogue attendance or ritual observance but have not yet formally become Jews through a conversion or affirmation process. Some may practice Judaism and another religion but have not yet decided to practice only Judaism. Some are so entwined within the Jewish community that they feel Jewish, according to their own self-assessment. They participate in Jewish life and may be raising their children as Jews. Some are on the path to formal conversion. (See Table 2)
New blood brings new life and new excitement. New community members also bring new ideas, fresh perspectives, new ways of thinking about things and often, new energy. We need both born Jews and behavioral Jews in our counts and our community structure.