Jewish Millennials and Co. -- Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

November 10, 2014

Unaffiliated, unreachable, unmoved, unfazeable younger Americans, aged 18-23 in some cases, or “millennials” in others, have been in our sights this season as we observe religious trends. 

Relying on a variety of polls which use a variety of methods and definitions, and, always ready to point to a few counter-trends, we’ve reported on those who track the religious or irreligious young through various cohorts or with various religious identities. They all point to changes which find young Americans sharing more and more with “secular” Western European cultures than with their “grandparental” own.

Of course, there are gradations among the studied populations. We have sighted  “downs” among the young Catholics, Protestants, “Mainliners,” Evangelicals, and Southern Baptists, but have not reported on the situations, commitments, and identities of young Jews.

Traditionally, “being Jewish” was the profound marker for so many. Today, according to, for example, the Pew Research Center, “the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.”

A year ago, Pew reported on generational changes among Jews. “Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called ‘Jews by religion’).” Only 68% of Millennial Jews do so now. Whereas only 7% of Greatest Generation Jews are “Jews of no religion,” 32% of Millennial Jews describe themselves as having “no religion.” They “identity as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture.” Only 15% of Jews say that “being Jewish” is “mainly a matter of religion.”

None of this is really news to most synagogue-going Jews, who have seen attendance at worship steadily declining. The reasons for this change are complex, many of them shared with trends among non-Jews. Families are smaller—except in hyper-Orthodox Judaism, where children, children, children are big on the scene. Demographics play some part, as Jews disperse to some extent from their population strongholds—mainly in the Northeast. This analysis can wait for another day.

For now: today's Sightings was prompted by an article “Jews in Middle America fret about attracting Millennials,” by Sharyn Jackson in USA Today (Nov. 3, 2014). She turns the focus away from East Coast metropolises to Memphis, Tenn. and Des Moines, Iowa. In neither place is enough going on to jolt statistical measures. But the stories of experiment and “signs of life” in these smaller cities give clues for those who would like to reverse some trends, and to see some reanimation among the dispersed.

The Des Moines story focuses on an East Coaster who took a job as an admissions counselor at Drake University there. Lilianna Bernstein liked Des Moines from the first. “[T]his year Forbes magazine ranked it America’s best city for young professionals.”  

Lonely Jews look for each other and experience their culture, for example at Hillel House, the gathering place for Jews on 70 campuses “in 17 countries.” There they find “Jewish-themed” events, housing, social life, and more. Some help the new young Jews find jobs, company, and awareness of what all “being Jewish” can mean.

Still, as in Memphis, there is a long way to go, as an “age gap” remains in Des Moines' synagogue. Consider these Hillel bases, then, as parables, which can suggest larger meanings on a scene where vitality has been rarely seen, but is encouraged and welcomed again.

Not all “down” stories have to be “only down.”


Pew Research. “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Religion & Public Life Project, October 1, 2013, Religion Polling and Analysis.

Jackson, Sharyn. “Jews in Middle America fret about attracting Millennials.” USA Today, November 3, 2014, News.
Image Credit: paulprescott /

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0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


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