Earlier this month, on Oct. 1, 2013 the Pew Research Center released their new poll entitled "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" showing a growing a trend of American Jews identifying only culturally as Jews, but not religiously. What is even more troubling about the results is that this new trend is widely represented among the youngest American Jews, putting the future of the religion in peril in the U.S.
The poll identified the Jewish population totals in the U.S., their religiosity and included a number of results on the views of Americans Jews. Pew determined that there is a total of 6.7 million Jews, with 5.3 million Jewish adults in the country representing 2.2 percent of the total adult population, with 4.2 million or 1.8 percent of the total population considering themselves as "Jewish by religion." While a large portion 1.2 million or a half a percentage of the total population view themselves as Jews, but without practicing the religion, which are being called "Jews of no religion."
Counting the number of Jewish children is different with a total of 1.8 million children with some Jewish identity or religious affiliation and representing 2.4 percent of the total number children in the U.S. Only a million children correspond to the criteria as Jews by religion and Jews with no religion. With additional three million children raised in a household with at least one Jewish adult and are being raised "Jewish or partly Jewish."
In history there have very few government controlled surveys counting the number of Jews in America, the last time the American Census that asked about Judaism and Jewish identity was in 1957. The 1957 census entitled the "Current Population Survey" was the last time the nationwide census asked Americans about their religion. The census 56 years ago found Jews over the age of 14 represented 3.9 million and 3.2 percent of the segment of the American population.
Through the years there have been national surveys tracking the number of Jews, including; "Gallup, the American National Election Studies, the General Social Surveys and the American Religious Identification Surveys," and previous Pew Research Center surveys. All these other surveys that were usually used to determined the count of American Jews have been privately created, and have not represented a complete picture of the situation.
The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey was the last major community commissioned survey counting the Jewish population in the U.S. The survey's results found that there are "5.2 million adults and children." This survey was plagued with a reputation of inaccurate population totals, and methodological problems, and its legitimacy seriously questioned.
The Jewish Federations of North America decided against conducting again the National Jewish Population Survey after the problems they had in 2001, even though, they also conducted 1990 survey, a monopoly of the Jewish surveys for 20 years. Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner requested that Pew conduct the survey. The survey was conducted from February until June 2013 with 3,475 Jewish Americans from all over the U.S. interviewed by phone to obtain the results.
The problem in the new Pew survey is not the total Jewish population, but the rise of Jews of no religion. They represented only 7 percent of the Jewish population in 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, Pew now finds the number skyrocketing to 22 percent of the population. The trend is highest amongst young Jewish adults, while America's oldest Jews still have the strongest ties with the religion. On the opposite side now only 78 percent of Jews identified as Jewish and called Judaism their religion, when ten years ago 93 percent identified as Jewish, calling Judaism their religion.
Pew itself does not see the numbers as alarming, stating; "This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the US public… Americans as a whole -- not just Jews -- increasingly eschew any religious affiliation." Pew found that only 26 percent of Jews find religion important in their lives, a far cry from the national opinion of Americans in other religions, with 56 percent finding religion an important part of their lives.
Age gap is the major factor in religiosity among Americans Jews, with the oldest American Jews having more religion than the youngest generation. The greatest generation born between 1914-1927 is 93 percent "Jews by religion", the numbers fall with each generation, but remains above 80 percent until Generation X born between 1965 and 1980 where the number dips to 74 percent being "Jews by religion." The number falls even more when it reaches the Millennial generation born 1980 and afterwards, where religiosity drops to only 68 percent.
The survey also looked at how the Jewish population is divided by denomination, with the least amount of Jews affiliated as Orthodox Jews at 10 percent, the most religious denomination, and largest segment affiliated with one of the least religious Jewish denominations, Reform with 35 percent, and 30 percent not identifying with any of the denominations. Conservative Judaism, a traditional denomination that used to dominate the survey and nation is down to only 18 percent. The numbers for Conservative Jews dropped the most, because they tend to intermarry, while Reform Judaism is more open, welcoming and accepting of intermarried couples. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen explained; "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."
The Orthodox denomination also faces the largest percentage drop of affiliation from Jews as they age, especially when they were raised Orthodox. It is also the denomination that gains the most Jews as they age especially if they were raised as Conservative or Reform, they become Orthodox later in life, mostly after the age of 50. It also gains from Jews who were raised with no denomination affiliation, especially among the ages from 30-49, with young families, indicating raising a family may still spark religion in those did not have any growing up.
The poll's main focus of was to answer questions about Jewish identity; According to the survey; "A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey is to explored Jewish identity: What does being Jewish mean in America today?" The answers were not the norm for a religion, veering away from religious practice to answers that emphasize history, but most significantly culture.
According to the poll the most important factors for Jewish identity are the following; the Holocaust with 73 percent; "ethical and moral life" at 69 percent, "working for justice and equality" at 56 percent, "having a good sense of humor" at 42 percent. Ranking low are actual elements of religious practice with "observing religious law" low at 19 percent and "eating traditional foods" ranking really low at just 14 percent. And even these total percentages see differences if looking at Jews by religion or Jews with no religion, with those without religion less likely to care about philanthropy for fellow Jews by 72 to 20 percent, and are less involved in Jewish organizations 67 to 10 percent. Overall however, 94 percent of Jews surveyed "were proud to be Jewish," a glimmer of hope in the weak state of the religion the survey portrayed.
Intermarriage is a major problem and threat, not only a myth of being an issue anymore. The survey stated; "Whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage." Since 2000, young Jews getting marrying, end up with a non-Jewish spouse by an overwhelming majority at 58 percent, this indicates a growth ever 20 years of 20 percent, that number was 42 percent in 1980 and only 17 percent in the years before 1970, the number is up to 71% of "non-Orthodox Jews" intermarrying. In the last 10 years the intermarriage percentage remained steady at 58 percent. A total of 44 percent of Jews are intermarried across all ages. Most of the intermarried Jews are coming from those who are Jews of no religion by 79 percent, and only 36 percent of Jews by religion tend to intermarry.
Many in the Jewish community believed that welcoming intermarried into the community would help ease the blow, increasing the chance they raise their children as Jewish, but it has not been the case. The difference between Jewish engagement is large between intermarrieds and inmarrieds; when it comes to synagogue attendance it is 41 to 9 percent, involvement with a Passover seder 91 to 54 percent, which has been by far the Jewish religious ritual most Jews participate in, and raising children as Jewish 82 percent to only 22 percent.
Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, stated; "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. 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."
Academics are trying to accentuate the positives in the survey; Professor Wertheimer commented on the results, stating; "I don't know how to spin this report as being a good news story. It's a story of a community that's contracting." While Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion believes at least the non-religious Jews still want to be considered as Jews, saying; "What is kind of impressive [is] that they still identify as Jews. A broad question is, who is comfortable enough to use the label 'Jew'?"
The results are not optimistic for the fate of the Jewish religion in the United States. We live in age of increased secularism, we live in an age of political correctness, both are factors that have decreased religiosity and increased intermarriage. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen agrees that "intermarriage is a major challenge to Jewish continuity."
A secular society finds that intricacies of religious observance a burden, especially to the youngest generation, who just want to fit in with their peers in all ways. While political correctness deters prejudice, and one of the major ways to deter intermarriage is for the community and rabbis to speak against it, but this goes against Jewish liberal political tendencies against prejudice, and further alienates those that have intermarried, leading the cycle to only worsen.
Something has to be done to stop the cycle until religious observance becomes a completely forgotten aspect of being a Jew, and once that is gone the next tie to go will be that "ancestral and cultural" affiliation. Increased Jewish education and increased involved in Jewish "social networks" can help reverse the trend, and but only curbing intermarriage rates can solve the trend of the increasingly invisible Jewish community.
- Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Pew Research Center. A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, Oct. 1, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.