Jews Bound by Shared Beliefs Even as Markers of Faith Fade, Pew Study Shows

Denominations Shrink, Intermarriage and 'No Religion' Rises

Is Change Good? Adam Weinstein and Kimberly Smith illustrate an increasing trend of Jews marrying outside the faith. Some see that and other changes as threats to Jewish life, but a new generation seems to see it differently.
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Is Change Good? Adam Weinstein and Kimberly Smith illustrate an increasing trend of Jews marrying outside the faith. Some see that and other changes as threats to Jewish life, but a new generation seems to see it differently.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 01, 2013.
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Survey results point to an American Jewish identity that is at once filled with self-pride but is increasingly fluid, with widely varying ideas about what it means to be Jewish. Meanwhile, non-Orthodox birthrates are low, and non-Orthodox Jewish denominations are losing members fast, particularly among the young. Since 2000, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who married chose to wed non-Jews.

Compared with other Americans, Jews are disproportionately wealthy — though one in five belongs to a household earning less than $30,000 a year — and remain politically liberal in both their support for President Obama and the Democratic party and in their views of social issues.

Jews are more likely than the general public to think that Muslims and blacks are discriminated against, and the vast majority of them say that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

Yet the survey also uncovers a generational divide that manifests in attitudes toward Judaism, the Jewish community and Israel. And the survey points to a crisis for the liberal Jewish religious denominations, particularly for the Conservative movement.

Non-Jewish Jews

People who say they are Jewish but that they have no religion have little to do with the Jewish community, Pew reports. That could be bad news. Yet, Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a member of the advisory committee, notes that they could easily say that they aren’t Jewish at all.

“What is kind of impressive [is] that they still identify as Jews,” Benor said of the Jews of no religion. “A broad question is, who is comfortable enough to use the label ‘Jew’?”

For the researchers behind the Pew survey, you’re a Jew if you say you’re a Jew. Within that category, respondents were given the opportunity to define their Jewishness in religious and/or cultural or secular terms.

(Pew also surveyed Americans of “Jewish background,” who have a Jewish parent but claim allegiance to another religion or don’t consider themselves Jewish in any way, and “Jewish affinity,” who loosely identify with Jews even though they don’t consider themselves Jewish. Respondents in these last two categories weren’t counted as Jews, but their growth in numbers indicates a swelling acceptance of Jews among America’s broader population.)

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