There are several striking similarities between Orthodox Jews and the right wing of American Christianity, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
Based on data collected during the course of the center’s 2013 study of American Jewry, the new report found that the Orthodox “more closely resemble white evangelical Protestants than they resemble other US Jews” in a number of key ways.
Both groups say that religion is very important in their lives (83% and 86% respectively) as opposed to only one fifth of other US Jews; three quarters of both groups reported attending religious services at least once a month; and more than three quarters of Orthodox Jews and evangelicals said that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God, “more than twice the share of other American Jews (35%) who express this belief.”
The two groups also exhibited similarities when it comes to partisan politics and views on government, with both groups falling on the more conservative side of the spectrum.
While American Jews overall lean left, 57 percent of the Orthodox identified as Republicans. They also tended to “express more conservative views on issues such as homosexuality and the size of government; that is, they are more likely than other Jews to say that homosexuality should be discouraged and that they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a bigger government with more services.”
In a society that is increasingly tending toward secularism, Orthodox Jews were also similar to evangelicals in the role which religion plays in their lives, with 83 percent saying it is “very important” to them. Only 20 percent of other Jews expressed a similar sentiment, versus 56 percent of the general population.
“On this question, Orthodox Jews look more like white evangelical Protestants – one of the most religiously committed major US Christian groups – than like other Jews. Fully 86% of white evangelicals say religion is very important in their life,” Pew commented.
In the matter of belief in God, there was again a similar correlation between Orthodox and evangelical attitudes.
Other findings reinforce commonly held beliefs about the Orthodox world, indicating that its members tend to marry earlier, have significantly more children, send their children to Jewish schools in greater numbers and concentrate in the northeast to a greater degree than members of other denominations.
The level of academic achievement was recorded as higher among Modern Orthodox Jews than their haredi counterparts, with 29 and 10 percent respectively having post-graduate degrees.
“There are only modest differences among Jewish denominations when it comes to annual incomes,” however, the report noted, although community studies in New York have found higher rates of poverty among hassidim.
“The findings for the Orthodox are part of the larger story of the shrinking Jewish middle. The two wings of the Jewish identity spectrum are booming – the Orthodox on the right, and the nominally Jewish or partially Jewish on the left,” said Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College who studies American Jewry.
“In the middle, committed non-Orthodox Jews are in numerical decline owing to late marriage, non-marriage, intermarriage, and low birthrates. We see parallel results in America, with the solidity of evangelical Christians, growth in no-religion Americans, and decline in Anglo Catholics and mainstream Protestant churches.”
Bar-Ilan University’s Yoel Finkelman, the author of a book on the American haredi media, said that he does not see much that was surprising or unexpected in the report, but that the section of retention rates struck him as interesting.
“Many people were and still are leaving Orthodoxy, but the idea that 70% of current Orthodox Jews were raised Orthodox means that 30% were not,” he said.
“It suggests that the so-called “teshuvah movement” [promoting a return to religion] is still an important factor.”
“The comparison to evangelical Christianity, which got a lot of attention in the press, is interesting, but seems to me true only in terms of measurable [benchmarks], but there are very, very important differences between evangelical Christianity (as a mainstream and in some places majority culture, or at least significant minority culture) and between Orthodox Judaism (everywhere a minority or enclave culture).”
We can expect reports such as Pew’s to “become the wave of the future in Jewish quantitative sociology,” because it is “no longer possible to speak of the American Jewish community in the singular,” he added.
Asked about the report, Orthodox Union CEO Allen Fagin told The Jerusalem Post that its findings vis-a-vis the Orthodox community’s attachment to Israel are significant.
“The attachment of the Orthodox community in general to Israel is significantly higher than it is among the general Jewish population. The report teases out further differences within Orthodoxy and these are trends that everyone here and in Israel need to pay some attention to, because it behooves all of us to be focused on the relationships among all segments of Jewry in the US,” he said.
“Modern Orthodox Jews display stronger attachment to Israel; they are more likely than haredi Jews to say that they are very emotionally attached to Israel (77% vs. 55%), that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish (79% vs. 45%) and that the US is not supportive enough of Israel (64% vs. 48%),” Pew reported.
“If the data are accurate it’s an interesting piece of information and one that I think we need to pay attention to as we think through on a long-range basis how the American Jewish community will respond to and interact with our brothers and sisters in Israel and the degree in general of American support for Israel,” Fagin said.
“And in a few ways, non-Orthodox Jews more closely resemble white Episcopalians than they resemble Orthodox Jews,” quipped Rabbi Avi Shafran of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America when queried about the reports of similarities between Orthodox Jews and evangelicals.
“The comparison of Orthodox Jews and evangelicals in the report isn’t misleading at all; the report makes clear that it is referring only to the importance of religion in the lives of each group, and, as a result, their stances on various political or social issues. But the exaggeration of that simple observation by some media is indeed misleading.
The report isn’t comparing the groups in any religious or essential way,” he said.