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.
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.
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.)
Ten years ago, 93% of American Jews told surveyors that their religion was Judaism. This year, only 78% of those who were raised as Jews and identify as Jews said that their religion was Judaism.
That change mirrors trends among Americans at large in their attitude toward religion, and it’s boosted, no doubt, by sky-high incidence of not having a religion among younger Jews. Just 7% of Jews born between 1914 and 1927 say they have no religion; 32% of Jews born since 1980 say they have no religion.
It’s not clear what the theological difference is between Jews with and without religion. It doesn’t seem to be about God, as only 39% of Jews by religion report that they are certain that God or a universal spirit exists.
What is clear is that Jews of no religion act differently.
Jews of no religion are far more likely to marry a non-Jew. While 79% of married Jews of no religion have intermarried, only 36% of married Jews by religion have done the same.
They also raise their children differently. Of the relatively few Jews of no religion who are parents, 67% say they are not raising their children Jewish. That’s compared with 7% of Jews by religion who aren’t raising their children as Jews.
Jews of no religion also think differently about their relationship to other Jews. Only 36% of Jews with no religion say they feel a “special responsibility to care for Jews in need,” compared with 72% of Jews by religion. That seems to be tied to their philanthropic behavior. Just 20% of Jews of no religion said they give to Jewish organizations, compared with 67% of Jews by religion. Only 10% of Jews of no religion said that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish.
“Their patterns of connection with Jewish life seem highly attenuated,” Wertheimer said of the Jews of no religion. “They have no religion, yet the majority of them have Christmas trees.”
Pew offers less data on people of Jewish background, but it’s clear that their relationship to the Jewish community is even more distant. Of these, 70% say they are Christian.
Most Jews care about Israel, but many are skeptical of the Israeli government — and that skepticism is most pronounced in younger Jews.
That’s despite a Jewish lobbying apparatus in Washington, and a Jewish leadership nationally, that is far more likely to back the Israeli government than to criticize it.
“Every Israel number is much lower among young people than their grandparents,” said Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewry and an adviser to Pew on the survey.
When Secretary of State John Kerry asked American Jews to help push the Israelis to agree to enter negotiations with the Palestinians last June, American Jewish leaders balked.
Only a handful of left-wing groups advocated on Kerry’s behalf. The rest demurred, telling the Forward that it wasn’t the Israelis who needed to be pushed to the table, and that the onus lies entirely on the Palestinians.
American Jews don’t seem to share that view. According to the Pew survey, only 38% of all U.S. Jews believe that the Israeli government is making a “sincere effort” to come to a peace settlement. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, that number is even lower, at just 26%.
The majority of American Jews do think that a two-state solution is possible. Most seem to oppose Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with only 17% saying that the settlements help Israeli security.
A growing number of young Jews, meanwhile, are critical of America’s relationship with Israel. A quarter of Jews aged 18 to 29 think the United States supports Israel too much. Among Jews aged 50 and older, only 5% think so.
Marrying Outside the Tribe
Intermarriage rates are high among America’s Jews, according to the new Pew survey, especially among the non-Orthodox, where more than two-thirds of recent marriages were to non-Jews.
The study presents strong evidence that intermarried Jews are far less Jewishly engaged than in-married Jews. That could have an impact on a decades-old debate over how best to handle rising intermarriage rates. While some Jewish leaders have called for accepting intermarried families into the Jewish community in a bid to keep them within the fold, others have critiqued that approach.
For Wertheimer, the survey results are a vindication of his skepticism of the welcoming stance. “Others had been promoting the idea that we’re seeing very significant upward leaps in the percentage of intermarried families raising their kids as Jews, but that has not materialized here,” Wertheimer said. “I think the figures on intermarriage should be very sobering to those who have been arguing that we can draw significant percentages of intermarried Jews into Jewish life.”
For Cohen, the worrying results aren’t a reason to give up on intermarried Jews. “Just because it’s hard to engage most intermarried Jews in Jewish life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” he said.
According to the survey, 44% of married Jews are married to a non-Jewish person. Yet more recent Jewish marriages are far more likely to be intermarriages. Of Jews married before 1970, only 17% are married to non-Jews. Of Jews married between 1995 and 1999, 55% are married to non-Jews. Jews who married in the past five years married non-Jews 58% of the time.
Intermarried Jews participate less in Jewish rituals. While 41% of Jews with a Jewish spouse report attending synagogue at least once a month, just 9% of intermarried Jews said the same. And while 91% of Jews married to a Jew participated in a Passover Seder, only 54% of intermarried Jews did.
They are also much less likely to raise their children as Jews. Only 22% of intermarried Jews said they were sending their children to some sort of formal Jewish educational program or organized Jewish youth program, compared with 82% of in-married Jews.
Funny Chosen People
In some of the most perplexing results returned by the survey, Jews seemed to have no clear idea of what it means to be Jewish.
There are many more Jews who believe that having a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish (42%) than there are those who believe that being a part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish (28%). Most Jews (73%) said that remembering the Holocaust was essential to being Jewish. Very few Jews (19%) said that observing Jewish law was essential to being Jewish.
Older Jews were slightly more likely than younger Jews to believe that caring about Israel was essential to being Jewish. And Jewish women were far more likely than Jewish men to think that leading an ethical life is essential to being Jewish.
Only 14% of Jews said that eating Jewish food was an essential part of Jewish identity.
Despite decades of claims to the contrary by conservatives, American Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal — much more so than the rest of the American public.
Republican Jewish activists and donors have been arguing for years that Jews are increasingly likely to vote Republican, and launched major and expensive efforts during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to draw Jewish voters to the Republican line. Exit polls at the time showed that those efforts had failed, and these latest results seem to confirm those findings.
According to the report, 70% of Jews are Democrats or lean Democratic; 23% are Republican or lean Republican. That’s far more Democratic than any religious group in the United States besides black Protestants.
Those figures stand despite a much higher proportion of Republicans among Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews, in fact, are far more Republican than the general public. While 39% of Americans are Republican or lean Republican, 57% of Orthodox Jews are Republican or lean Republican.
The liberal political leanings of American Jews go beyond simple party affiliation, the survey shows. Jews are more likely than ordinary Americans to support Obama, to believe in bigger government with more services and to sympathize with the plight of other minorities. And they are far more likely to believe that homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged.
There’s little good news in the survey for any of the Jewish denominations. By far the worst news, however, is for the Conservative movement.
The dominant religious stream of American Judaism just decades ago, Conservative Judaism has fallen fast in recent years. Figures in the new Pew survey suggest that it is set to fall further. “That’s pretty sobering for the Conservative movement,” Wertheimer said of the study’s findings.
Only 18% of American Jews say they identify with Conservative Judaism. The shift in the movement’s fortunes is brought into stark relief by a comparison of denominational affiliation by age. While 24% of Jews older than 65 identify as Conservative, only 11% of Jews aged 18–29 do the same.
The Reform movement, for its part, has 29% of people aged 18 to 29.
Retention levels are low among all three of the Jewish denominations, but the Conservative movement’s retention levels are the worst. Just 36% of Jews brought up Conservative say that they are Conservative today, compared with 55% of Jews raised Reform who say they are still Reform.
Orthodox retention is also low. Despite Orthodox birthrates that are nearly double the average of the general public, the Orthodox community has grown only slightly as a proportion of the overall Jewish community in the past decade, to 10%. That may be because only 48% of people raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox, though that community’s retention rate appears to be improving among younger generations.
The fastest-growing denominational group, meanwhile, are those who belong to no denomination. Nearly a third of Jews surveyed said that they identify with no denomination in the current survey. Just 6% said that they identified with smaller denominations like Reconstructionism and Renewal Judaism.
According to Cohen, the Conservative movement’s inability to hold on to members is due, in part, to Conservative Jews’ tendency to intermarry and to Reform synagogues’ openness to intermarried families.
“Conservative Jews marry non-Jews and they feel more comfortable in Reform temples, which conduct their services in English and which have other intermarried people sitting in the pews,” Cohen said.
For Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University who also advised the Pew study, the grim statistics facing the Conservative movement could be good for its members. Comparing the movement’s situation to that of the Orthodox movement in the 1950s and the Reform movement in the ’30s, relative lulls preceding large growth, Sarna said that the apparent collapse could force the movement into creative reinvention. It would be “wise to hedge all predictions,” Sarna wrote in an email.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
This story "Jews Bound by Shared Beliefs Even as Markers of Faith Fade, Pew Study Shows" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.