American Jews are losing faith — in religion, that is. More than one in five Jews, 22 percent, now say they have no religion. And as U.S. Jews overall pull away from formal expressions of Judaism, they are upending traditional notions of Jewish identity and what it means to be a Jew today.
Those are some of the key findings gleaned from a major new study of American Jewry released this week by the Pew Research Center, the first of its kind in more than a decade. The portrait it paints of American Jewry is complex, as the survey seeks to understand the forces of secularism that are exerting great pressure on Jews and the Jewish community — for better or worse. As well as documenting increasing rates of intermarriage, the study reveals a deep generational schism between those in the World War II-era “Greatest Generation” and those referred to as “Millennials,” Jews who came of age around the turn of the 21st century.
For instance, 93 percent of those in the Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion. For Millennials, 68 percent identify as Jews by religion, but 32 percent say they have no religion or identify as Jewish ethnically or culturally.
Religious affiliation in America has, of course, been falling for members of many faith groups, as the institution of religion itself (like that of the family unit) has weakened in recent decades. In fact, the percentage of Jews who say they have no religion is roughly similar to the percentage of Americans who are popularly referred to as “nones” — those who profess having no religion.
Yet the growth in the number of Jews who say they have no religion is dramatic, and it carries with it huge implications for the Jewish community as a whole. A Pew analysis of the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), the last one that was done, found that 7 percent of Jews fell into the no-religion category. That figure has jumped more than three fold since then, to 22 percent, which translates to 1.2 million Jews in an American Jewish population of just over 5 million.
“Where have the Jews by religion gone?” the survey asks, almost poignantly. Some converted to other religions, but most, the authors write, became Jews of no religion — “people who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic of ‘nothing in particular’ but who were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent and still consider themselves Jewish aside from religion.”
Tellingly, according to Alan Cooperman, the Pew Forum on Religious Life’s associate director of research, even 55 percent of those in the study who say they are Jews by religion report that being Jewish is largely a matter of culture and ancestry, rather than religion.
At the same time, the 213-page study, which surveyed 3,475 Jews from Feb. 20 to June 13 of this year, reveals American Jews to be fiercely proud of their Jewishness and their sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Ninety-four percent of Jews surveyed (including 83 percent of those who say they have no religion) feel “proud to be Jewish,” and three-quarters of Jews say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
In addition, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed feel “very attached” or “somewhat attached” to Israel; these figures, the survey notes, have remained consistent over the last decade, even as 44 percent of Jews feel that Israel’s continued West Bank settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.
And in a surprise to Cooperman, 43 percent of Jews surveyed say they have been to Israel, with 23 percent saying they have been more than once. Another surprise: self-reported Hebrew proficiency is higher in younger Jews than in older ones. “If I were a Jewish educator,” Cooperman said, “though the overall numbers are small, I might see this as a good-news finding.”
But the storm clouds that have been building for years, in terms of Jewish communal life, show no signs of brightening.
According to the study, Jews of no religion (secular or cultural Jews) “are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children as Jewish.”
The numbers are stark: 90 percent of Jews by religion who are currently raising children under 18 in their homes are raising them Jewish or partially Jewish, the study reveals. For Jews who say they have no religion, two-thirds say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish.
The intermarriage figures also tell a story about the way the Jewish community is changing. Nearly six in 10 Jews who have gotten married since 2000 have married non-Jews. (In the 1980s the figure was four in 10; for those who married before 1970, 17 percent married non-Jews.)
The childrearing choices that flow from the decision to marry in or marry out, so to speak, are dramatic when it comes to religion, according to the study. Nearly all Jews who say they have a Jewish spouse report that they are raising their children as Jewish by religion. Among Jews with a non-Jewish spouse, the figure drops to 20 percent, while 25 percent of intermarried families say they are raising their children as partially Jewish.
“For people concerned with Jewish continuity, the apparent growth of Jews who say they have no religion is important,” said Cooperman. “The question is, will these folks pass along a sense of Jewish identity to future generations?”
The Jewish “nones,” Cooperman said, “are not lost to the Jewish community, but they’re engaged at much lower levels — they are less likely to be synagogue members, less likely to be involved in Jewish organizations, less likely to give money.”
The study, which put the country’s Jewish population at 5.3 million (1.8 percent of the U.S. population) and is the most comprehensive survey of Jewish attitudes since the 2001 NJPS, also reveals just how fluid Jews have become in their denominational lives. The term the study gives the phenomenon is “denominational switching.”
Overall, the Reform movement continues to be the largest Jewish branch by far, drawing 35 percent of all Jews. Eighteen percent of Jews identify with the Conservative movement, and 10 percent say they are Orthodox (either ultra or Modern). Nearly 30 percent of Jews say they do not identify with any denomination; this figure, perhaps surprisingly, includes 19 percent of those who define themselves as Jews by religion.
When it comes to denominational switching, the survey reports that Jews almost always move in a less-traditional direction. For instance, a quarter of those raised Orthodox have become either Conservative or Reform; 30 percent of those raised Conservative have become Reform; and 28 percent of those raised Reform “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”
But, Pew’s Cooperman notes, because younger Orthodox Jews tend to stay within the Orthodox fold in much greater numbers than their older counterparts, the Orthodox population will likely continue to grow as a percentage of the overall Jewish population.
“The study shows that there is growth at the secular end of the spectrum among the Jews of no religion, and potential growth at the traditional end of the spectrum, because of the high retention rate of young Orthodox Jews,” he said. “What’s shrinking is the middle, as the Conservative movement has the lowest retention rate.”
The study’s authors said that one of the survey’s main aims was to explore what being Jewish means in 2013. It found that only 19 percent of Jews say observing Jewish law is “essential to what being Jewish means to them.” (A majority also said that a person can be Jewish even if he or she works on the Sabbath or doesn’t believe in God.)
Much more important than Jewish law to Jews’ sense of their Jewishness is remembering the Holocaust (73 percent), leading an ethical life (69 percent), and working for justice and equality (56 percent). More than 40 percent also feel that caring for Israel is central to their sense of Jewishness. And in a surprise to probably no one, given the popularity of comedians from Joan Rivers to Jerry Seinfeld, 42 percent of Jews said that having a good sense of humor is essential to their Jewish identity.
Jewish religious practices, though they have trended slightly downward in the last decade, remain strong. Seventy percent of Jews say the attended a Passover seder last year, and 53 percent say fasted on Yom Kippur. (In 2000, the figures were 78 and 60 percent, respectively.) Overall, one in four Jews say they attend religious services at a synagogue at least once a week or twice a month. (The figure among Christian denominations is 62 percent; 74 percent of Orthodox Jews say they attend services at least monthly.)
The Pew survey’s findings, when they come to politics and attachment to Israel, reveal a stark divide between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the Jewish community.
Seven in 10 Jews identify as Democrats or lean Democrat, while 54 percent of Orthodox Jews say they’re Republican or lean Republican (36 percent of Orthodox say they’re Democrat or lean Democrat.) “The political leanings of Orthodox Jews as a whole is a figure we didn’t know before,” Cooperman said.
Sixty-five percent of Jews approve of the way President Obama is handling his job, while 54 percent of the Orthodox disapprove of the president’s job performance.
On U.S. support for Israel, 54 percent of Jews say America’s support for Israel is about right (31 percent say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel). But for Orthodox Jews, 53 percent say America is not supportive enough of Israel. And by a nearly three-to-one margin, Jewish Republicans are more likely than Jewish Democrats to say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (66 percent to 21 percent).
The survey questioned 2,786 Jews by religion and 689 Jews of no religion, 1,190 non-Jews of Jewish background and 467 people the study referred to as those having “Jewish affinity.”
Offering a kind of blueprint for Jewish communal leaders going forward, based on the Pew study’s findings, Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University and a consultant on the study, said those leaders should “let American Jews know intermarriage is a major challenge to Jewish continuity.
“They should strengthen Jewish social networks, on campus, in neighborhoods like Lower Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn. Build cafes, have film festivals, cultural institutions. Ramp up efforts to convert people through conversion-dedicated rabbis paid to address this unmet market.
And, finally, Cohen said, “let people come into the Jewish community without Jewish religion, as Jews by culture.”