The U.S. Census Bureau asks many questions in its decennial survey of Americans, but never about their religion. The bureau considered doing it once, for the 1960 census, and actually put out a test question in March 1957. To the query “What is your religion?” 3.4% of Americans 14 years and older answered “Jewish.”
After a hail of criticism, the idea of probing religious identity was dropped, and experts could only take educated guesses, especially about a segment of the population as small and complex as the Jews.
The guessing is over. Thanks to the Pew Research Center with support from the Neubauer Family Foundation, we can answer that question and many more with the first national, comprehensive and independent survey of American Jews to be conducted outside the organized Jewish community. To the extent that numbers don’t lie or prevaricate, this survey’s conclusions are as definitive as can be.
(Full disclosure: Jane Eisner, the Forward’s editor in chief, first suggested that Pew undertake the survey and served on its advisory panel.)
The findings point to a dramatic generational shift in identity and practice in which young Jews are increasingly likely to have no religion, despite saying they are Jewish. In doing so, they are rewriting the norms of behavior that have long characterized Jewish life, abandoning the traditional support for Jewish families, Jewish institutions and Israel and opting instead for an individualized Jewish life filled with pride and possibility, but only loosely engaged in community.
There is no persuasive way to sugarcoat these devastating findings, though some religious and communal leaders are already trying to do so. Unlike previous surveys sponsored by Jewish organizations and therefore somewhat suspect, the Pew data are unassailable. We shouldn’t argue about the facts. What we should do is argue about what they mean and how to constructively respond.
Here are some ideas: