Who by Religion? The “Jews of No Religion” Category is Misleading – a response to Herbert J. Gans

By Zohar Rotem

I want to thank eJewishPhilanthropy for starting an important conversation on the issue of “Jews of No Religion” (JNRs), and Herbet J. Gans for introducing the issue so succinctly (here, and then here). I agree with the broad strokes of Gans’ analysis, but wish to point out that the distinction between Jews “by religion” and Jews “of no religion” – featured prominently in Pew’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” – is ultimately misleading. It is misleading, first, because many of the so-called “Jews by religion” are not really that religious at all, whereas some Jews “of no religion,” in fact, are religious (which Gans has pointed out too). In turn, the disaffiliated sector of American Jews is larger than just the so-called “Jews of No Religion.” A further confusion is introduced by the assertion that “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish.” Let’s take a look at the facts.

In the introductory chapter of the Pew report, the Pew authors explicitly equate “Jews of no religion” with “secular or cultural Jews” (Pew 2013, p. 8). But is this true? Does being a Jew by religion necessarily mean that one believes in God, for example? Does it mean that one affiliate with a Jewish denomination? Attend synagogue regularly (beyond just the High Holidays)? Perhaps the meaning of being a Jew by religion is that one understands Judaism to be primarily a matter of religion? The answers to all these questions is no.

Net Jewish Jews By Religion Jews of No Religion
Judaism mainly a matter of ancestry/culture 62% 55% 83%
Believe in “God or a universal spirit” 72% 80% 46%
Believe in God/spirit with absolute certainty 34% 39% 18%
Synagogue Member 31% 39% 4%
Attends Synagogue Monthly or More 22% 29% 4%
Never Attends Synagogue 22% 13% 52%

Jews in general are less likely than most other Americans to say that they believe in God. Almost one in four Jews (23%) and one in six (16%) Jews “by religion” say that they do not believe in God at all.

On the other hand, almost half (46%) of the so-called “Jews not by religion” say that they believe in God or a universal spirit, including 18% that believe with absolute certainty.

While most Jews by religion (79%) identify with a Jewish denomination, clearly not all do. On the other hand, one in three Jews “not by religion” (34%) volunteer that they identify with a denomination (mostly Reform). Neither is being a “Jew by religion” strongly correlated with Jewish religious practice. For example, only 29% of Jews by religion (and 22% of all Jews) attend synagogue religious services more than a few times a year; and, on the other hand, there is a small fraction (4%) of Jews “of no religion” who turn out to be regular synagogue attendees.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jews themselves do not seem to think that Judaism is primarily a matter of religion. Even among Jews “by religion” a majority (55%) think that being Jewish is mainly about ancestry and culture, not religion. Only 15% of all Jews (and 17% of Jews by religion) said that Judaism is mainly a matter of religion.

So how did this confusion come about? This has to do with Pew methodology. In screening participants for their study, Pew pollsters used a question which they have replicated countless times in various studies of religious groups around the world. They asked simply “What is your present religion, if any? Are you …” and went on to provide response options including Protestant, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish … and finally atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” The designation of someone as a Jew “by religion” rested solely on their response to this question.

Now, take my wife and me, for example. We both share similar levels of Jewish connection and engagement; we both celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays at home or with friends following a secular Israeli practice; and we both raise Jewish children. Yet, after reflecting on this question, we concluded that while she would likely respond “Jewish” to the crucial Pew question, I would likely identify myself as the atheist that I am. She would be a Jew “by religion;” I would fall into the JNBR category. But this distinction tells you nothing about how we differ when it comes to Jewish practice. (We don’t.)

The increased propensity (especially among the young) not to identify with any religious group is an all-American trend that is only marginally relevant to the challenges currently facing the organized Jewish community. Jewish communal leaders reading the Pew report would do well to ignore the “by religion” designation, and instead look more closely at actual measures of Jewish behavior. If they do, they will find a picture more complex, and in some senses more daunting than the one suggested by the number of 22% Jews of no religion. What should concern the organized Jewish community, for example, should be the majority of Jews (61%) who are not connected to Jewish institutions in any way (an issue I’ve explored elsewhere).

Raising Jewish children?

Raise their children… Net Jewish Jews By Religion Jews of No Religion
Jewish by Religion 59% 71% 8%
Partially Jewish by Religion 14% 15% 11%
Jewish Not by Religion or mix* 8% 7% 11%
No Religion 14% 3% 60%
Another Religion 4% 3% 5%
Other Mix 1% <1% 4%
Total (may not add to 100% due to rounding) 100% 100% 100%

*“Mix” means multiple children in the same households being raised in different ways.

Herbert J. Gans (following many others) makes the point that Jews “of no religion” are likely to raise their children not Jewish. This, too, is true but again potentially misleading. Simply put, the true statement that two thirds of “Jews of no religion” do not raise their children Jewish, hides the fact that these children are not being raised in another religion. Rather, they are mostly (60%) being raised with no religion at all, what some have called “American civil religion.” Since we know that being Jewish (for all Jews) is primarily a matter of ancestry and culture, not religion, the Jewish identity of these children should not be written off. When they grow, these children will come to decide to what extent their Jewish ancestry is an important part of their identity. More important, however (for the organized Jewish community), is the question of whether these children will come to participate in Jewish communal/institutional life. Surely, whether these children – most of whom are the children of intermarriage and many of whom may marry someone who is not Jewish – find relevance in Jewish communal institutions is up to the organized Jewish community. Whether or not Gans’ predictions pan out will depend on the way Jewish institutions reach out to unaffiliated Jews and welcome them into the Big Tent.

Zohar Rotem, Ph.D, is Manager of Research and Evaluation at Big Tent Judaism.