December 2, 2013

Jewish Leaders Still Consider Kosher a Litmus Test for Jewish Identity

JERUSALEM — When the leaders of Jewish Federations of North America met here last month for the General Assembly, the major topic of discussion was rampant assimilation amongst American Jews. The new concern stemmed from the report by the Pew Research Center a month earlier that nearly 22% of Jews describe themselves without religion. Several of the leaders raised the concept of eating kosher food as a barometer of Jewishness, although the survey showed that 14% considered eating “Jewish foods” (not necessarily kosher) as an indicator of Jewish identity. 

The Pew study, which significantly raised the Jewish population in the US to nearly 6.5 million, also revealed that “among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion. Also, 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” The intermarriage rate stands at about 50%, according to the study. But the numbers of both categories probably explains why in some markets younger Jews are not replacing older Jews in the kosher set in supermarkets. Yet, KosherToday has learned, many of the leaders were openly discussing using observance of kosher and Shabbat to “bring back disenfranchised youth.”

The new survey also found that the number of Jews who participate in a Passover seder has dropped from nearly 90% in 1990 to 70%. Pew also found that 53% say they fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur in 2012, a marked downturn from surveys just two decades ago. In the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 78% of Jews said they had participated in a Seder in the past year, and 60% said they had fasted on Yom Kippur. Also of significance for kosher food industry officials is the fact that Jews are heavily concentrated in certain geographic regions: 43% live in the Northeast, compared with 18% of the public as a whole. Roughly a quarter of Jews reside in the South (23%) and in the West (23%), while 11% live in the Midwest. Half of Jews (49%) reside in urban areas and a similar number (47%) reside in the suburbs; just 4% of Jews reside in rural areas.