Jewish identity in the US is undergoing a significant shift, with one in five Jews identifying as having no religion, according to a Pew Research poll released on Tuesday.
According to the study, which surveyed almost 3,500 Jews between February and June, there has been a generational diminution in identification as a “Jew by religion.” This development echoes broader trends within American religious life, the study asserted.
Members of the so-called greatest generation are 93 percent likely to define themselves as Jews by religion, while only 68% of millennials – those born after 1980 – are apt to describe themselves in such terms.
Thirty-two percent of millennials “describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”
The Pew findings came a day after Brandeis University published a study asserting that demographers have been seriously underestimating the number of US Jews, pegging the country’s total Jewish population at some 6.8 million.
More than 4.2 million adult Americans identified their religion as Judaism, according to the Brandeis report, which asserted that “the number of adults who consider Judaism their religion was more than 33% higher than the parallel number observed in the National Jewish Population Survey [of] 2000-01.”
According to the Pew results, among those who define themselves as Jews by religion, just over half consider Jewish identity “a matter of ancestry and culture,” with a majority considering belief in God to be unnecessary to be considered a Jew. Belief in Jesus as the messiah, however, still constitutes a disqualification for being described as Jewish for most respondents.
Among those polled as a whole, 62% said “being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture,” as opposed to only 15% who considered it a “matter of religion.”
Considering one’s selfidentity in religious terms, no matter how defined, the report noted, correlates strongly with raising one’s children as Jews and with the practice of endogamy.
“Intermarriage is a related phenomenon,” the report added. “It is much more common among secular Jews in the survey than among Jews by religion: 79% of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36% among Jews by religion.” Intermarried Jews are also much less likely to raise their children Jewishly or to socialize within a Jewish context or belong to Jewish institutions.
Concurrent with evolving attitudes toward Jewish identity cited in the report, “intermarriage rates seem to have risen substantially over the last five decades” and “among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse.”
However, the respondents cautioned against mistaking correlation with causation, hedging that it is “not clear whether being intermarried tends to make US Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make US Jews more inclined to intermarry, or some of both.”
Still, it continued, “whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage,” which it deemed “circular or reinforcing, especially when child rearing is added to the picture.”
While Orthodoxy is growing, it is still overshadowed by the Conservative and Reform streams; Reform constituting the largest denomination of American Judaism with one third of all US Jews identifying with the movement.
While around half of those surveyed who were raised Orthodox say they have left the movement, the “falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining,” and due to a high birthrate, the Orthodox “share of the Jewish population [ is expected to] grow.”
Despite changing attitudes toward Jewish identity seen in the shift towards a non- religious Jewish selfdefinition, once described by sociologist Samuel Heilman as a “symbolic ethnicity,” Pew reports that “94% of US Jews ( including 97% of Jews by religion and 83% of Jews of no religion) say they are proud to be Jewish.”
Three-quarters of US Jews stated that they had “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
However, while American Jewry’s overall “emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the past decade,” the report stated, such sentiments are “markedly stronger” among those who define their identity in religious terms and those belonging to the older generation.
Seven in 10 Jews said they considered themselves either very or somewhat attached to Israel, and over 40% of Jews surveyed stated that they had visited the Jewish state.
However, just under 40% consider Israel to be making “sincere” efforts in making peace with the Palestinian Authority.
One of the primary goals of the survey was to determine what being Jewish means in the contemporary US, and according to Pew, 73% of Jews responded that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to their sense of Jewishness.”
Sixty- nine percent cited living ethically in this regard, and over “half ( 56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them.” Forty- three percent cited Israel, and 42% stated that a “good sense of humor” is an essential part of Jewish identity.
However, despite the fact that the majority of American Jews frame their Jewish identity in religious terms, only “19% of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Jewish law ( Halacha) is essential to what being Jewish means to them.”
INTERMARRIAGE AMONG secular Jews is much more common than those that identify as Jews by religion, a new study notes.
Despite the tends cited in the article worrying many American Jewish leaders, however, San Francisco Federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz said that this generation's challenges can "also bolster the core mission of our Jewish Federations – to support the Jewish community while making the world a better place – while reminding us that changing and innovating to engage the next generation is not just the right path but the essential one."
Gorovitz stated that she preferred "not to see the bogeyman of ‘assimilation’ as an impossible negative but, rather, as the changing face of a community that has integrated into a society that is more accepting than any in our long history. Our reasons to keep our traditions – or to remain apart – in America have increasingly had less to do with self-preservation or survival and more to do with seeking community, meaning, connection, and continuity."
It is the job of the organized Jewish establishment, she said, "to redefine and expand the concept of Jewish Peoplehood to ensure that our tent is appropriately broad and flexible.”
While around half of those surveyed who were raised Orthodox say they have left the movement, the “falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining” and due to a high birthrate, the Orthodox “share of the Jewish population [is expected to] grow.”
However, the numbers may not tell the entire story, wrote Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, California.
"Think about the orthodox Jewish friends and family you know. Does it make sense to say that over half of them are no longer orthodox," he asked. "83% of people raised as orthodox Jews under the age of 30 stay...So the people who were raised orthodox and no longer are orthodox are mostly older people," Fink said.
The numbers could signify "a shift in who attends orthodox schools," he mused. "In other words, 20-30 years ago it was far more likely for a family to send a child to an orthodox school and identify as orthodox even if they were not totally observant of halacha. There was more cross-pollination and there were fewer non-orthodox options. So you wind up with more people from previous generations identifying as being raised orthodox even though they weren’t truly orthodox through and through. This is rarer today because we are more insular and non-orthodox or unaffiliated Jews feel less comfortable in orthodox institutions."
A lowered rate of denominational change could also be attributed to a strengthening of orthodoxy and a swing to the right, he added.