Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of Being Jewish in America.
Date: April 12th, 2015

What are the various cost constraints with being Jewish in America?  Prof. Carmel Chiswick, a research professor of economics at George Washington University, uses the lens of economics to reveal the various constraints facing a religious minority in the United States and how this affects Jewish culture.  We walk through her latest book Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition.

We start the conversation with a general overview of Jews in America, including the size of the population, their immigration history, and other demographic features.  It is pointed out that Jews are both an ethnic group, and a group with a distinct religion.  We chat a bit about how Jewish (in terms of religion) Jews are in America.  Prof. Chiswick then discusses the difference between Great Tradition and small tradition Judaism.  The former focuses on the essential religious components of Judaism, including the Torah,  Talmud, Mishnah and several key holy days.  Small tradition Judaism, on the other hand, is a reflection of different cultural practices and emphases that can vary across different groups of Jews (e.g., Spehardi or Ashkenazi) and across time.  This is mixed with some personal reflection on her own life growing up Jewish, which gives this academic topic a much more personal touch.  Carmel explains why she chose to write her book with these personal stories, noting that she uses economics everyday to understand her own daily choices.

We then begin a discussion of how economics is used to explain Jewish behavior and traditions.  Carmel gives us a good introduction of how actions not only have a financial cost but a time cost as well, resulting in what economists call the “full price” (or “real cost”).  She points out that there are a variety of constraints on Jews in America that affect how they make decisions about worship and other aspects of life.  For example, as an individual becomes wealthier, the cost of their time also increases and this has an impact on how synagogue worship has been conducted given that Jews have been an upwardly mobile community.  We also talk about the issue of human capital and education and the constrained choices that have to be made here.  Carmel reflects upon her family’s decision whether to send their children to Hebrew or public school, as well as the reliance upon summer camps and other activities that are designed to preserve Jewish religious culture in an environment where time becomes more valuable for professional parents.

Carmel next lays out some of the contemporary challenges facing Jews in America.  Most notable among these challenges are the new demographic categories that are emerging, principally “young adult singles” and “empty nesters.”  With marriage ages increasing quite substantially over the past few decades, there is a growing population of individuals in their 20s and early 30s who are not married, do not have children, and who do not feel as connected to the synagogue.  Whereas people often connect with religious institutions when they have children, and synagogues often cater to the needs of this group, the decade or so wherein individuals are not married or having children becomes a time when they can drift away from their faith.  We also discuss the issue of intermarriage and how that might affect the Jewish population in the future.  Interestingly, the rise of “young adult singles” also gives rise to another demographic group known as “empty nesters” who are not actively raising kids yet are not grandparents either.  Once again, this becomes a life cycle point where people do not feel as connected to the synagogue.  (Note: These issues arise again in next week’s podcast with Daniel Libenson, who discusses some attempts to deal with this new environment.)

We finish off with some of Carmel’s personal observations on what she has learned in her years studying the economics of religion, being Jewish in America, and writing her highly readable book.  Recorded: April 7, 2015.


Prof. Carmel Chiswick’s bio at the George Washington University.

Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition, by Carmel U. Chiswick.

Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture (ASREC).


Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of American Judaism.

Daniel Libenson on the Jewish Future (forthcoming April 19).

Linda Weiser Friedman on Jewish Humor.

Colleen Haight on Jewish Peddlers in 19th Century America.

Jeff Levin on Judaism and Health.

Mark Glickman on the Cairo Genizah.

Mark Koyama on the Economics of Jewish Expulsions.

2 Responses to “Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of Being Jewish in America.”

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