Jews of No Religion and the Future of American Jewry

Image courtesy Pew Research Center
Image courtesy Pew Research Center

By Herbert J Gans

The study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” issued by the Pew Research Center in October 2013 has been widely discussed and debated. However, one piece of the portrait deserves further, discussion; the so called JNRs, Jews of No Religion who do not identify with or are not connected to any religion.

They are probably the fastest growing non orthodox sector of the American Jewish community, and Part Two of this article will speculate about how they might change that community in the next quarter century.

Part OneJews of No Religion

JNRs are a familiar category from past national Jewish population surveys, and according to Pew, they now constitute 20 percent of American Jewry and nearly a third of its young people, those born after 1980.

This article returns to the Pew study to begin to figure out exactly what makes them Jews. Although the survey data the study provides cannot offer definitive answers, it offers some intriguing clues: hypotheses or hunches that should be tested by intensive interviews and similar methods – and soon.

As I look at these data, JNRs fall into three overlapping categories. First, mostly they are Jews by Ancestry, second; a number are actually Jews by Some Religion; and third are Jews by Jewish Feelings.

Let me explain.

1. Jews by Ancestry

Nearly two-thirds of Pew’s JNRs say that their being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry.

Ancestry can have several meanings but it is commonly perceived as a culturally and even biologically inherited attribute over which descendants have no control. People for whom being Jewish is ancestral are born as Jews, but they may not be Jews by choice. Children of intermarriage are usually viewed as “half Jewish,” almost as if being Jewish was a racial trait, although in reality, they are half Jewish only by parental religion.

That so many JNRs see themselves as Jews by Ancestry is not surprising, for 60 percent of them are children of intermarriages. Moreover, only 12 percent have Jewish spouses or partners. Also, two thirds of JNRs say they are not raising their children as Jews.

2. Jews by Some Religion

The Pew researchers report that half the JNRs retain a religious connection, for 45 percent of them say they believe in “a God or a personal spirit.” Whether this resembles the Jewish god, or a generalized deity that can be called on for help in an emergency also needs to be explored.

About the same proportion of JNRs are still religious by practice, if only periodically, for 42 percent held or attended a Seder during their most recent Passover. Moreover, about a fifth attend a synagogue at least occasionally, not counting weddings, funerals or bar mitzvahs. Whether they attend by choice, say to be with the family, or by obligation must be investigated.

However, JNRs are just about totally disconnected from religion when acting on their own. Only one percent are synagogue or temple members by themselves and just three percent report individual membership in a Jewish organization.

These minuscule figures also suggest that once familial ties are lost or shed, many Jews of Some Religion will cease being so and become full-fledged JNRs.

In effect, the connections with Jewish ancestry and occasional religiosity may be weak. Thus, it is necessary to ask JNRs why and how they are still Jewish.

3. Jews by Jewish Feelings

If JNRs were asked how they are Jewish, many might indicate that they are Jewish when they have feelings, impulses and thoughts they describe as Jewish or that remind them that they are Jewish.

Some will have such feelings often, but most will have them more rarely, and generally the feelings will not be intense. They may even be only momentary. This may possibly be hinted at by a Pew question about the importance of being Jewish. Fifty four percent answered that being Jews was not too important or not at all important. Only 12 percent described it as being very important.

These kinds of answers also suggest the possibility that Jews by Jewish Feelings may no longer see themselves as having a Jewish identity. They might still claim such an identity in answering a researcher’s survey question but more intensive questioning might reveal that for many being Jewish is closer to being a label that can be easily applied and removed. Indeed, JNRs may imply that when they say, as they have in several studies, that they are “just Jews.”

Even if feelings of Jewishness are momentary, they have to come from somewhere. They can be invoked, originating with the individual, for example memories. They can also be evoked: by the actions of family, friends and strangers; and by events, such as anniversaries, memorials and other ceremonies.

They are surely often evoked if JNRs work in a heavily Jewish firm, industry or occupation in which they deal with other Jews, including JNRs, regularly. Moreover, half the respondents to the Pew survey reported that some of their close friends are Jewish, and 13 percent that most or all of them are. What proportion are also JNRs would help us understand more about their connections to
Jewish life.

Feelings of Jewishness might be evoked as well by a variety of impersonal sources, including those coming from the news or social media. For example, they might be evoked by a story about the award of a Nobel Prize to a Jewish scientist, the arrest of a criminal with a Jewish name, a record breaking performance by a Jewish athlete, or an antisemitic incident.

Occasionally, Jews by Jewish Feelings might even act on their feelings, whether by going to a Jewish delicatessen, a social event, a concert by a Jewish performer or even a religious service.

Although invoked feelings are often personal and individually distinctive, they must eventually be capable of being shared, or at least accepted as Jewish feelings by others. Some of the programs of innovative Jewish religious and social organizations try to evoke feelings of Jewishness to keep JNRs within the communal fold.

What exactly JNRs feel, how they feel it, when and why and what if anything they do about it needs to be studied. The most likely feeling is pride, and the Pew Study reports that 83 percent of JNRs say they are proud to be Jewish.

Undoubtedly, intensive interviews would turn up many other feelings, such as nostalgia and sentimentality; also pleasure at and dismay about being Jewish. Embarrassment and anger may be felt when Jews become publicly visible for excessively conspicuous consumption and display, or for illegal acts. Fear and feelings of vulnerability are apt to follow violent or large scale antisemitic incidents.

Some further clues about feelings can be derived, at least as hypotheses, from another Pew study question, which asked its respondents to react to a list of items they considered “essential to being Jewish.”

These clues must, however, be viewed with reservations, because the items were suggested by Pew researchers, not by the survey’s respondents.

The most essential ingredient of Jewishness, agreed to by 60 percent of the respondents, was remembrance of the Holocaust, although Pew did not ask what memories and other aspects of that tragedy were essential to their being Jewish. The role Israel once played in creating a home for survivors was apparently not one of these, for only 23 percent thought “caring about Israel” was essential.

Fifty five percent agreed with the Pew item that “leading an ethical and moral life” was essential. About 40 percent of the sample indicated that “having a good sense of humor,” “working for justice and equality in society,” and “being intellectually curious” were also essential.

The first item may contain a residue of Jewish exceptionalism, but how and why the last three items were thought essential to being Jewish is intriguing. They could suggest feelings of loyalty to three notable cultural traditions still associated with Jewry: comedy, political liberalism, and love of learning.

Whether respondents believed that they themselves were perpetuating these cultural traditions, or that Jews should continue to do so ought to be studied. Perhaps some wanted to perpetuate these traditions or to be identified with them, and perhaps some were merely reacting to three positive stereotypes associated with Jews. No one can really tell what goes through people’s heads when they answer such survey questions.

Since Jewish immigrants brought the traditions with them from Europe, the Pew data raise the question of whether JNRs can still be considered members of an ethnic group. However, when respondents were asked whether they felt that “eating traditional Jewish foods” was essential to being Jewish, only nine percent agreed. Actually, so did a mere 16 percent of Jews by Religion.

Old country food preferences are often one of the last immigrant traditions to disappear, and while some familial traditions are probably still thought essential, one must remember that most of the respondents to the Pew Survey were the grandchildren and great grand children of immigrants – and some are probably the descendants of intermarried grandparents. Except among recent immigrants and many of the ultra orthodox, Jewish ethnicity appears to be ending.

Actually, when it comes to religion, the Pew respondents are very much like other Americans. A new Pew survey, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” issued in May 2015 reports that 23 percent of Christians (and 34 percent of young ones) consider themselves to be of no religion, figures virtually the same as for Jews.

Despite the concurrent global growth of ultra orthodoxy, people of many religions may be deciding that religion no longer provides usable answers to the most pressing questions of modern life, that too many of its demands are restrictive and too many of its texts are no longer credible.

Continued: Part Two – The Future of American Jewry

Herbert J Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University. The author of a dozen books, he is best known in Jewish sociology for his writings on symbolic ethnicity and symbolic religiosity.

Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, made many helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Cross-posted with Berman Jewish Policy Archive