Portrait of Jewish Americans

Massive new (and maybe biggest ever) study by respected US pollsters Pew shows that 22% self-identify as having no religion and 60% who have married since 2000 chose non-Jewish spouses
by Ant Katz | Oct 07, 2013
American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, according to a major new survey by the Pew Research Centre. But the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.

A huge new study by the highly respected US firm, the PEW RESEARCH CENTRE found that the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.

The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analysed by generation.

While 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation (born before 1927) identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion. By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials (born after 1980) – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

Intermarriage is a related phenomenon – with 79% of secular Jews in the survey having a spouse who is not Jewish, and 36% among Jews who practice religion. Intermarried Jews are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith. Nearly all Jews who have a Jewish spouse say they are raising their children as Jewish by religion (96%). Among Jews with a non-Jewish spouse, however, just 20% are raising their children Jewish and 25% are raising their children “partly Jewish.”

Intermarriage has soared over the past 50 years, with almost 60% of Jews who married since 2000 reporting that they have a non-Jewish spouse.
Among those who married in the 1980s the figure was roughly 40% and among Jews who got married before 1970, just 17% have a non-Jewish spouse.

The shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly distance themselves from religious affiliation.

In fact the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).

 These are among the key findings of the Pew Research Centre’s survey conducted among 3,475 Jews across the U.S. between February and June this year and published last week.

Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognise this: 62% 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.

Secular Jews are also much less connected to Jewish organisations and two-thirds say they are not raising their children Jewish.

The survey was unable to answer the question of whether being intermarried tends to make U.S. Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make U.S. Jews more inclined to intermarry, or a combination of both.

Pew10Whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage. Jews who are the offspring of intermarriages appear, themselves, to be more likely to intermarry than Jews with two Jewish parents.

The new Pew 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 with the Reform movement, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.

About three-in-ten American Jews (including 19% of Jews by religion and two-thirds of Jews of no religion) say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.

Growth in Orthodoxy expected

Orthodox Jews constitute the smallest of the three major denominational movements, but they are much younger on average and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population.
This suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow, say the researchers.

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, as could be expected with the growing tendencies among younger Jews to adopt a frum lifestyle - and is significantly lower among 18-to-29-year-olds (17%) than among older people – READ MORE ON THIS.

Within all three major denominational movements, most of the switching is in the direction of less-traditional Judaism. The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the Jewish religion entirely. Much less switching is reported in the opposite direction.

For example, just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.

Pew9The new survey also finds that 70% of Jews say they participated in a Pesach Seder in the past year, and 53% say they fasted on Yom Kippur in 2012. These measures of observance appear to have moved downward only slightly since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey which recorded 78% and 60% respectively.

This, however, appears to be attributable to the rising number of secular Jews. The rates of Pesach and Yom Kippur observance have remained stable among practicing Jews.

Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 94% of U.S. Jews (97% of practicing) say they are proud to be Jewish.

Three-quarters of U.S. Jews (including 85% of practicing Jews) also say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

And emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the past decade, though it is markedly stronger among practicing Jews - and older Jews in general.

43% of all U.S. Jews have been to Israel with 23% having visited more than once. 40% of Jews say they believe the land that is now Israel was given by God to the Jewish people.

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. (Only 12% think Palestinian leaders are sincerely seeking peace with Israel.)
Just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security - 44% saying that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.

What does being Jewish mean?

A key aim of the Pew Research Centre survey is to explore Jewish identity: What does being Jewish mean in America today? 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.

And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humour (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity.

But observing Halacha is less central to most American Jews. Just 19% of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Halacha is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And in a separate but related question, most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on Shabbos 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 or that they believe in God with absolute certainty. And just 26% of U.S. Jews say religion is very important in their lives. This is less than half of the 56% of the general U.S. population.

Not unsurprisingly, Orthodox Jews are an 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, far more (46%) say being Jewish is very important to them.

Other findings from the Pew Research Centre survey include:

  • Jews from the former Soviet Union and their offspring account for roughly one-tenth of the U.S. Jewish population; 5% of Jewish adults say they were born in the former Soviet Union, and an additional 6% say they were born in the U.S. but have at least one parent who was born in the former Soviet Union.
  • Pew8Jews have high levels of educational attainment. Most Jews are college graduates (58% - compared to the general U.S. population’s 29%). 28% (10% for all U.S.) have a post-grad degree.

  • 25% have a household income exceeding $150,000, compared with 8% of adults in the public as a whole. 20% of U.S. Jews report household incomes of less than $30,000 per year – with six-in-ten Jews in this low-income category are either under age 30 or 65 or older.

  • 39% of U.S. Jewish adults live in a household where at least one person is a member of a Shul. This includes 31% of Jewish adults (39% of practicing Jews) surveyed said that they personally belong to a synagogue, temple or other congregation.

  • Jews think several other minority groups face more discrimination than they do. 72% said gays face a lot of discrimination in American society, and an equal number said there is lot of discrimination against Muslims. 64% believed blacks face a lot of discrimination. Only 43% felt that Jews face a lot of discrimination.

  • 15% of those surveyed said that in the past year they personally have been called offensive names or snubbed in a social setting because they are Jewish.

  • Over half (52%) of U.S. Jewry, including 60% of practicing Jews, know the Hebrew alphabet. 13 overall, including 16% of practicing Jews said they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew.

  • Jews are heavily concentrated in certain geographic regions: 43% live in the Northeast, compared with 18% of the public as a whole. Roughly a quarter of Jews reside in the South (23%) and in the West (23%), while 11% live in the Midwest. Half of Jews (49%) reside in urban areas and a similar number (47%) reside in the suburbs; just 4% of Jews reside in rural areas.

  • As a whole, Jews support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by more than three-to-one: 70% say they are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 22% are Republicans or lean Republican. Among Orthodox Jews, however, the balance tilts in the other direction: 57% are Republican or lean Republican, and 36% are Democrats or lean Democratic.

About the Survey

These are some of the findings of the new Pew survey, conducted from 20 February to 13 June, 2013, among a nationally representative sample of U.S. Jews. This is the most comprehensive national survey of the Jewish population since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. More than 70,000 screening interviews were conducted to identify Jewish respondents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Longer interviews were completed with 3,475 Jews, including 2,786 practicing Jews and 689 Jews not practicing religion.

Interviews were conducted in English and Russian by random digit dialing on both landlines and cell phones.
In order to reach Jewish respondents most efficiently, the survey focused on telephone exchanges in areas where previous surveys indicate that at least some Jews reside.

Overall, the survey covered geographic areas that are home to more than 90% of U.S. adults. Counties were excluded from the survey only if (a) no Jews had been interviewed in those counties in more than 150 Pew Research Centre surveys conducted over the past decade; (b) no other surveys in a Brandeis University database had ever interviewed a Jew in those counties; and (c) no synagogues or institutions of Jewish education were known to be located in those counties at the time of the Pew Research survey. Based on this geographic coverage, more than 95% of the Jewish population, including 99% of the practicing Jewish population, is estimated to have been eligible to be called for the survey.

Pew Research were advised on the survey questionnaire, methodology and analysis of results from a panel of eminent Jewish researchers including several of the leading figures in the study of American Jewry: Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, Sarah Bunin Benor, Steven M. Cohen, Sergio DellaPergola, Shlomo Argov, David Dutwin, Jane Eisner, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun, Leonard Saxe, Jack Wertheimer, Joseph and Martha Mendelson, and Leon Wieseltier.

Related Reads on the Pew Forum website:

US Jewish Population calculator by your own definition of “Who is a Jew?

Trends in US Jewish denominational switching

How US Jewry self-identify as 'Jewish'

How population estimates are calculated

Intermarriage and Other Demographics 

How US Jewry feel on their Jewish Identity

US Jewry: Religious Beliefs and Practices

Changes since 2000/2001 National Jewish Population Survey

Connection with - and attitudes toward - Israel

US Jewry: Social and Political Views

People of Jewish Background and Jewish Affinity

Related Reads – download these PDFs

The following ducuments have been uploaded in PDF format for the convenience of users and can be downloaded from the website and forwarded to friends or family members - or printed to be read later:


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