The newly released Pew Research Center survey on the US Jewish community reveals important trends. However, claims that it shows a “massive” or “major” shift in American Jewry should be weighed carefully against the larger historical picture.
It is the first large survey in a decade to look at the Jewish community, and was conducted from a pool of 70,000 respondents, of which 3,475 were interviewed.
The survey estimates there are 5.2 million American Jews, similar to the number found by the National Jewish Population Survey of 2001. It provides a fascinating overview of the wide spectrum that make up US Jewry in this century.
Among the significant findings: Around 22 percent said they were “Jews of no religion.” These respondents consisted of Jews who identified as Jews but said they were atheists or agnostics. In contrast, the survey did not include those born Jewish who identified themselves as members of another religion.
The survey appears to show that the number of Jews of no religion is growing, with 32% of those born after 1980 identifying this way. “US Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance,” Pew noted.
The phenomenon of identifying with Judaism as a culture or ethnicity, and not being a member of a religious community, is likely related to the findings that remembering the Holocaust was the most common response to the question of what an “essential part of being Jewish means.”
The new survey found that around 70% of US Jews felt attached to Israel, similar to in 2001. It indicated that around 20% of Jews aged 18-29 do not think caring about Israel is important, whereas only 7 to 10% of those over 50 felt this way. Some would say this resembles a trend, but the survey did not ask how those over 50 felt about Israel when they were in their 20s. It may simply be that as Jews get older, their view of Israel grows fonder.
Around 43% of American Jews have been to Israel, with the proportion rising to 70% among Orthodox Jews. A 1990 National Survey of American Jews found that only 25% had been Israel, showing that there has been a remarkable increase in the numbers visiting, helped in no small part by programs such as Birthright Israel.
American Jews tend to be more optimistic about peace with the Palestinians than other Americans, with 61% saying it is possible versus only 50% of the general public. About half of American Jews think continued building of Jewish homes in the West Bank hurts Israel.
In general the survey reveals a very strong connection to and support of Israel, a positive trend that appears to be slightly increasing.
The statistics about intermarriage provide a wealth of information. Whereas 44% of Jews said they were married to non-Jews, the number rose to 58% among those marrying since 2005. Unsurprisingly, 98% of those identifying as Orthodox married Jews, whereas 50% of Reform Jews and 31% of non-affiliated reported doing so.
This, combined with the finding that almost 50% of those born Orthodox change their affiliation, points to increased intermarriage. But these statistics can be misleading.
Although it appears “just 17%” of those married before 1970 intermarried, this does not take into account all those who intermarried who no longer identify as Jews and thus are not included in the survey.
In 2001 it was reported that 13% of those who wed before 1970 were intermarried. Were more pre-1970 intermarriages discovered in the past 10 years or did more Jews come forward who intermarried and begin identifying once again as Jews? The shock expressed after data such as these is released, showing so much intermarriage, reminds us of the “Will your Grandchildren be Jews” article published in 1996 in the Jewish Spectator or the “Vanishing American Jew” article in Look in 1964. Reports of the disappearance or decline of American Jewish community due to intermarriage have been exaggerated in the past, and there is no reason to think the current rate of intermarriage is an existential threat. The Pew research provides an important snapshot of the Jewish community, but it should not be concluded that it reveals major shifts, because it does not.