Pew Survey Examines Changing American Jewish Identity

Image courtesy Pew Research Center
Image courtesy Pew Research Center

In the second major release this week dealing with the make-up and characteristics of the American Jewish community, the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project has published the findings of a comprehensive survey that examines changing Jewish Identity in the U.S. The survey suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion. This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public, whose share of religious “nones” is similar (20%).

A key aim of the survey is to explore Jewish identity in America: What does being Jewish in America mean today? To answer this question, the report examines the different ways in which people identify as Jewish, what they consider essential to being Jewish, how they are raising their children, whom they are marrying, their religious beliefs and practices, and their social and political views.

The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion (a group the survey calls “Jews by religion”) has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion (“Jews of no religion”), appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population. Indeed, just 7% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation are Jews of no religion, while 32% of Jews in the youngest generation (the Millennials) identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

Most U.S. Jews seem to recognize that secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America: 62% of Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.

Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. Observing Jewish law ranks lower; just 19% say it is essential to what it means to be Jewish. Orthodox Jews are a major exception: 79% of them consider observing Jewish law essential to what it means to be Jewish.

The survey shows that Jews of no religion (commonly called secular or cultural Jews) differ in important ways from Jews by religion. They are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. More than 90% of Jews by religion who are currently raising minor children in their home say they are raising those children Jewish or partially Jewish. In stark contrast, the survey finds that two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.

Intermarriage is a related phenomenon; it is much more common among Jews of no religion than among Jews by religion. Among respondents to the survey, 79% of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36% of Jews by religion. And intermarried Jews, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.

The survey also shows that Reform Judaism continues to be the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States. One-third (35%) of all U.S. Jews identify as Reform, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a different denomination, such as the Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal movements. About three-in-ten American Jews say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.

Though Orthodox Jews constitute the smallest of the three major denominational movements, they are much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the rest of the Jewish population. In the past, high fertility in the U.S. Orthodox community has been at least partially offset by a low retention rate: Roughly half of the survey respondents who were raised as Orthodox Jews say they are no longer Orthodox. But the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining and is significantly lower among 18-to-29-year-olds (17%) than among older people.

Additional key findings include:

  • Within all three major denominational movements, most of the religious switching that is occurring is in the direction of less-traditional Judaism (e.g., Orthodox to Conservative, or Conservative to Reform).
  • Overall, about seven-in-ten Jews surveyed say they feel either very (30%) or somewhat attached (39%) to Israel. In addition, 43% of Jews have been to Israel, including 23% who have visited more than once.
  • At the same time, many American Jews express reservations about Israel’s approach to the peace process. Just 38% say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. (Fewer still – 12% – think Palestinian leaders are sincerely seeking peace with Israel.) And just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security.
  • Most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on the Sabbath or does not believe in God. Believing in Jesus, however, is enough to place one beyond the pale: 60% of U.S. Jews say a person cannot be Jewish if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah.
  • By several conventional measures, Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole. Compared with the overall population, for example, Jews are less likely to say that they attend religious services weekly, that they believe in God with absolute certainty and that religion is very important in their lives. (Orthodox Jews are a clear exception in this regard, exhibiting levels of religious commitment that place them among the most religiously committed groups in the country.) But while relatively few Jews attach high importance to religion, eight-in-ten say being Jewish is very or somewhat important to them.

The full report details more of the survey’s extensive findings on the size, beliefs, practices and attitudes of the Jewish American population, as well as demographic characteristics such as education, income, religious intermarriage, child rearing, generational differences and affiliation with denominational movements. An interactive tool is available to show the shifts in denominational affiliation. The report also includes a chapter (chapter 1) that presents estimates of the size of the Jewish population and a second interactive tool that allows visitors to tally the Jewish population figures in different ways depending on broader or narrower definitions of who counts as Jewish.

The complete report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, is available here for download.

Also see, U.S. Jewish Population Substantially Larger Than Previously Estimated

About: Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions.