Pew two

Reflections on the 2020 Pew study

In Short

What might this mean for Jewish Americans?

The 2020 Pew Report provides a multi-dimensional picture of Jewish Americans.[1] This comprehensive analysis (some 200 pages) introduces us to the essential questions facing the Jewish future. There is a level of complexity, detail and analysis here that is both challenging to the reader but affirming to scholars who will have an extraordinary data base upon which to examine social and policy implications. Indeed, this report will be carefully reviewed against the backdrop of the earlier Pew 2013 Study, A Portrait of American Jews.[2]

The findings reflect the intersection of Jewish history and tradition with modernity. 21st Century American Jewish identity embodies the contradictions of our times, with its heightened social divisions, the tensions between the collective and personal, and the cultural wars over identity. 

As compared to earlier findings, the striking differences are centered around four core challenges: political polarization, anti-Semitism, religious divergence, and racial/ethnic diversity. Among its distinguishing features are the series of interviews with rabbis as a way of giving definition and meaning to some of the trend lines being reported. A brief analysis of the rise and presence of Jewish start-ups, including One Table[3], has been included. Specific attention is given to the economic characteristics of American Jews (Chapter 11), representing one of the first contemporary studies to focus on this field of research, as well as a section of the report (within Chapter 3) devoted to Chabad and its unique role. This study seeks to not only measure Jewish behaviors but also to uncover the “whys,” case in point, an analysis of the reasons that Jews belong or don’t affiliate with synagogues.

In this summary article, we are examining a relatively small sampling of the many content areas, data-sets, and complex analysis contained in this extensive report. For a more general overview of the findings, see Becka Alper and Alan Cooperman’s summary report.[4]

The American Story and its Jews:  Our status as part of the national landscape currently looks like this:

2.4% of U.S. adults are Jewish, including 1.7% who identify with the Jewish religion and 0.6% who are Jews of no religion. By comparison, the 2013 estimate for “net Jews” was 2.2%, including 1.8% who were Jews by religion and 0.5% who were Jews of no religion. 

Three-quarters of U.S. Jews say they derive a great deal of meaning from spending time with their family (74%), and six-in-ten find a great deal of fulfillment in spending time with friends (61%). Arts and literature (55%), spending time outdoors (51%), spending time with pets (43%), and jobs (38%) also are common sources of meaning and fulfillment. 

The State of Religion: As with the general tenor of religion, is liberal American Judaism in trouble?

According to the Pew Report, the numbers compare to the earlier 2013 Report:

On average, the Orthodox are the most traditionally observant and emotionally attached to Israel; they tend to be politically conservative, with large families, very low rates of religious intermarriage and a young median age (35 years). 

Just 12% of Jewish Americans say they attend religious services at a synagogue, temple, havurah or independent minyan at least once per week, compared with about one-quarter of US adults who say they attend religious services at least once a week. Fully half of Jewish adults say they seldom (24%) or never (28%) attend religious services, similar to the shares of the overall public who say they seldom (24%) or never (26%) go to services. Jews are more likely to say they go to religious services a few times a year (such as for High Holy Days) than Americans overall (27% vs. 15%). 

Compared with the public overall, U.S. Jews are far less likely to say that religion is important in their lives. However, Orthodox Jews are somewhat more likely to say religion is very important in their lives (86%) than Black Protestants (78%) and White evangelical Protestants (76%), two of the most highly religious Christian subgroups. Meanwhile, Jews of no religion are even more likely than religiously unaffiliated Americans on the whole to say religion is not too or not at all important to them (91% vs. 82%). 

The Status and Safety of Jews: With the rising numbers of anti-Semitic incidents and the growing perception that hate is a dominant theme within this society, what might this mean for the American Jewish future? The Study devoted significant attention to this theme, with the data here, as elsewhere, being extensive. Here is a brief snapshot reflective of some of these specific findings:

Fully nine-in-ten U.S. Jews surveyed say there is at least “some” anti-Semitism in America.

75% perceive a rise in anti-Semitism over the last five years. Half of U.S. Jews (53%) say they feel less safe today than five years ago, while four-in-ten (42%) say they feel that not much has changed, and very few (3%) say they now feel safer. 

More than one-third of Jewish adults under 30 have both experienced and heard instances of anti-Semitism in the past year (36%). 

Nearly four-in-ten Jews say they have seen anti-Jewish graffiti or vandalism in their communities (37%). Roughly one-in-five report having been made to feel unwelcome because they are Jewish, while 15% say they have been called offensive names, 8% say they have been harassed online, and 5% say they have been physically threatened or attacked. All told, 51% of U.S. Jews report at least one of these five types of encounters over the past year. 

The Well-Being of Jews: Here, we are reminded about the educational and economic attainment of our community:

Education: Jews continue to have high levels of educational attainment, on average. Six-in-ten are college graduates, including 28% who have earned a post-graduate degree. By way of comparison, three-in-ten U.S. adults overall are college graduates, including 11% who have earned a post-graduate degree. 

Income: One-in-four American Jews say they have family incomes of $200,000 or more (23%). By comparison, just 4% of U.S. adults overall report household incomes at that level. At the other end of the spectrum, one-in-ten U.S. Jews report annual household incomes of less than $30,000. At the time of the survey (which was mostly fielded before the coronavirus outbreak in the United States), half of U.S. Jews said they lived comfortably (53%).  

Age and Geography: Jewish Americans, on average, are older and are more geographically concentrated in the Northeast than Americans overall. 

The Jewish Divide: The Jewish political landscape remains divided. The data introduced by Pew supports the findings of various Jewish political organizations during the 2020 campaign.[5]

71% said they were Democrats or leaned Democratic. Among Jews of no religion, 77% were Democrats or leaned that way.

In the run-up to the elections, 75% of Orthodox Jews said they were Republicans or leaned Republican, compared with 57% in 2013. And nearly nine-in-ten Orthodox Jews (86%) rated then-President Donald Trump’s handling of policy toward Israel as “excellent” or “good,” while a majority of all U.S. Jews described it as “only fair” or “poor.” 

Surveyed roughly five to 12 months before the 2020 presidential election, U.S. Jews expressed generally negative views of then-President Donald Trump: 73% of all Jewish adults (and 96% of Jews who are Democrats or lean Democratic) disapproved of his performance in office, while 27% gave him positive approval ratings (including 88% of Jews who are Republicans or lean Republican). 

Most Jewish Americans rated Trump’s handling of U.S. policy toward Israel as “only fair” (23%) or “poor” (35%), while four-in- ten rated his handling of this policy as good (17%) or excellent (23%). Orthodox Jews were particularly inclined to give Trump high marks for his policies toward Israel (69% “excellent”). 

The political divide however bleeds into a more problematic communal saga of separation, as reflected in this particular disclosure:

The survey finds some signs of tension between Jewish Americans who identify with different branches or streams of Judaism in the United States. For example, about half of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. say they have “not much” (23%) or “nothing at all” (26%) in common with Jews in the Reform movement; just 9% feel they have “a lot” in common with Reform Jews. 

Reform Jews generally reciprocate those feelings: Six-in-ten say they have not much (39%) or nothing at all (21%) in common with the Orthodox, while 30% of Reform Jews say they have some things in common, and just 9% say they have a lot in common with Orthodox Jews. Jews with no denominational affiliation are even less inclined to see commonalities with Jews at the other end of the religious spectrum: Fully 74% of Jews with no denominational affiliation say they have not much or nothing at all in common with the Orthodox. 

In fact, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and Jews with no denominational ties are all more likely to say they have “a lot” or “some” in common with Jews in Israel (77%, 61% and 39%, respectively) than to say they have commonalities with Orthodox Jews in the U.S. And Orthodox Jews are far more likely to say they have “a lot” or “some” in common with Israeli Jews (91%) than to say the same about their Conservative and Reform counterparts in the U.S. 

Israel Connections: Similar to the 2013 findings, the heightened levels of connection to Israel among older American Jews was confirmed in this survey, compared to a lesser degree of support among younger folks.

Among Jews 50 and older, “caring about Israel was seen as essential to what being Jewish means.” An additional 37% indicated that support for Israel was “important” but not essential.

By contrast, for Jews under 30, one in three (35%) felt that such support was essential, while one in four (27%) noted that “it’s not important to what being Jewish means to them.” Also, among younger Jews four in ten (37%) found that US policy was “too supportive” of Israel.

Nearly half of U.S. Jewish adults have been to Israel (46%), including roughly one in ten Jews under 46 who report that they have been on a Birthright trip to Israel (8%). 

The Counting Wars: Controversy and disagreement dominated the pages of eJewishPhilanthropy and other sites concerning the numbers of Jews of Color. Pew noted only a 2% increase in connection with the actual number of non-white Jews and these overall numbers fall well-below the projections introduced by others around this question.[6] Yet, the racial composition of younger American Jews is providing us with a different perspective, as we move forward:

In the 2020 survey, roughly nine-in-ten U.S. Jewish adults identify as White, non-Hispanic (92%), while 8% identify with all other categories combined. This compares with 94% White, non-Hispanic and 6% in all other categories in the 2013 survey.

18% of all U.S. Jewish households contain at least one person – adult or child – who is Hispanic, Black, Asian, or another race or ethnicity, including those who are multiracial. 

Using the broadest definition of racial and ethnic diversity, one-quarter of Jewish adults under 30 (26%) either fall into the HBAO (Hispanic, Black, Asian or other Race) category, have ties to a region outside the U.S. or Europe within the last generation, or identify as Sephardic and/or Mizrahi, compared with 10% of Jews ages 65 or older. 

Marriage as a Measure: Among non-Orthodox Jews who married during this past decade, the intermarriage rate is 72%. In retrospect, among Jews who married during the first decade of the 21st Century, approximately 50% selected a non-Jewish partner. By contrast in the 1980’s 42% married out, while 37% of Jewish marriages in the 1990’s fell into this category. 

What demographers have noted is that “adult Jews who are themselves the offspring of intermarriages are especially likely to intermarry.” Correspondingly, the intermarriage rate for this next generation is 82%, compared to 34% of those who have two Jewish parents.

COVID as a Factor: In a related Pew study, conducted last August in connection with the pandemic, Jews were more severely impacted by the virus than other faith-based groups, possibly because of the high density of Jews residing in the metropolitan New York area. Over half of Jews (57%) reported knowing someone who had contracted the virus or who had died from it. From that study, one in ten Jews by religion indicated that they had COVID 19 and an additional 6% were “pretty sure” that they had the virus although it had not been “officially diagnosed.” 15% of Jewish adults said they had difficulty paying for medical care for themselves or their family in the past year, and 11% said they had difficulty paying their rent or mortgage. One- in-ten said they had a difficult time paying for food (8%) and roughly one-in-five (19%) had trouble paying other types of bills or debts.

On the economic side, the data is likewise revealing: 

  • 43% of the Jewish respondents said they or someone in their household lost a job or suffered a pay cut because of the pandemic; this number correlated to the national average (42%).
  • “Because of high average levels of education and income seem to have cushioned Jewish Americans from some of the worst economic fallout.” Jews experienced fewer economic challenges in paying for medical care (4%) compared to 11% of all Americans; managing mortgage and rental payments (6%) in contrast to 16% of the entire population; and paying bills (9%) as against 25% of all Americans.

Other Findings:

Relationships with other Faith Communities: Nearly four-in-ten U.S. Jews feel they have a lot (4%) or some (34%) in common with Muslims, and fewer say they have a lot (2%) or some (18%) in common with evangelical Christians. 

Sexual Orientation: About one-in-ten U.S. Jewish adults identify as gay or lesbian (4%) or bisexual (5%); 88% say they are straight, 1% say they are something else.

Ideas that Define American Jewish Engagement and Identity:

  • Holocaust Remembrance: 76%
  • Living an Ethical and Moral Life: 72%
  • Working for Justice and Equality: 59%
  • Intellectually Curious: 55%
  • Maintaining Family Ties: 52%

Collective Identity and Connection: An overwhelming majority of U.S. Jews say they feel a great deal (48%) or some (37%) sense of belonging to the Jewish people. And eight-in-ten say they feel at least some responsibility to help Jews in need around the world. 

Data Analysis: What Might this Mean for Jewish Americans? Some weeks ago, I released, on this site, a document seeking to forecast this report.[7] While that statement may supplement some of the findings here, its sweeping and generalized commentary did not capture either the complexity or depth of the 2020 Study. 

Here, then, are a few of the take-aways from the Pew Report:

  1. In its most general terms, the weakening of the religious engagement quotient, especially among Reform and Conservative Jews, suggests the continuing challenges facing these denominational groupings. Religious identity and affiliation represents the central marker in defining and determining Jewish practice.
  2. Yet, the study seems to affirm the profound influence of the American experience on how Jews see themselves as part of this nation’s story and culture.
  3. The growing concerns around anti-Semitism in America may eventually undermine the community’s sense of security and belief in the American promise.
  4. Through intermarriage and assimilation, are we seeing the undoing of the essential ingredients in sustaining a people, its collective history, shared experiences and common interests?
  5. The same economic divisions that define American society at large are also present within the Jewish community.
  6. It is through the privatized and personalized connections with “being Jewish” we find a type of internal Jewish glue that continues somehow to evoke and maintain a sense of pride and connectivity.  
  7. Jewish identity today represents an amalgamation constructed by both external forces (anti-Semitism, Israel, culture, etc.) and internal ingredients (ethnic foods, music, family, etc.) creating a new American Jew.[8] This cross-cultural fusion has produced an assortment of identities and practices, each with claims to being “Jewish” to one degree or another.
  8. The sharpening political and cultural divide, present within this nation but also within our community, creates roadblocks for communal consensus but also opens opportunities for communal engagement and institutional reimagination and collaboration.
  9. The leadership equation remains an essential ingredient in re-envisioning Jewish life.
  10. As the Pew Study suggests, there is an extraordinary resilience and pride on the part of America’s Jews to the idea of peoplehood and collective responsibility, even as we identify the deep divisions amongst us.

Steven Windmueller is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.


[1] https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[2] https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

[3] https://onetable.org/

[4] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/11/10-key-findings-about-jewish-americans/

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/11/10-key-findings-about-jewish-americans/

[6] https://forward.com/fast-forward/446946/jews-of-color-controversy/

[7] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-few-before-pew-some-insights-and-trends-concerning-the-jews/

[8] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-jewish-marketplace-introducing-the-new-american-jew/