Jewish America is on the brink of a massive generational shift in identity and practice, according to the first-ever independent study of American Jews, conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Young Jews are increasingly likely to say that they have no religion, despite saying they are Jewish. In doing so, they are rewriting the norms of behavior of American Jews, the survey reports. These “Jews of no religion” are far less likely to marry other Jews, raise their children Jewish, give to Jewish charities, belong to Jewish organizations, feel connected to the Jewish community and care about Israel.
Looked at one way, the fact that these young people consider themselves Jewish at all points to a growing diversity within the American Jewish community. Looked at another way, the fact that their ties to faith and community are so weak suggests that their Jewish identity is increasingly unimportant.
“I don’t know how to spin this report as being a good news story,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who acted as an adviser to Pew on the study. “It’s a story of a community that’s contracting.”
The landmark report, based on contacts with 70,000 people in all 50 states and on interviews with nearly 3,500 Jews, is the largest survey of American Jews in more than a decade, and the first to be done outside the organized Jewish community.
Conducted in the first half of 2013, the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews will probably drive American Jewish policy for the next decade.
Pew undertook the survey at the suggestion of Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, who approached the research group after the Jewish Federations of North America chose in 2010 not to conduct the decennial National Jewish Population Survey it had run in 1990 and 2000. Eisner also served on a committee advising the study.
The study received funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Neubauer Family Foundation.
Pew estimates that there are 6.7 million American Jews overall, including 5.3 million adults. Those numbers are higher than the 5.2 million total Jews estimated by the last NJPS, which was criticized widely in part for underestimating the number of Jews.
But while the raw number of Jews in this country has grown, Jews make up an increasingly small proportion of America’s overall population, and the low non-Orthodox fertility rates suggest that this trend will continue.