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
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.
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.
The 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.
Jews 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:
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:
Holocaust refugee’s son a powerful politician in Congo
(JTA) Like many powerful politicians in Africa, Moise Katumbi goes by multiple titles. He is widely seen as the leader of the opposition of his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the president of its TP Mazembe soccer team, which is one of Africa’s finest.
Now, Katumbi is also closer than he’s ever been to becoming the first African ruler descended from a Holocaust refugee.
Katumbi’s father, Nissim Soriano, was a Greek Jew who fled the island of Rhodes from the Nazis and settled in Congo in the 1930s when it was still a Belgian colony. Soriano built a fishing empire, and married the daughter of a local chief, Mwata Kazembe XIV Chinyanta Nakula, with whom he had two children.
Katumbi, who has said several times that he wants to become president, forged a crucial political union last month with former rival Jean-Pierre Bemba. The union helped Katumbi, a former regional governor, become the second-strongest politician behind only president, Felix Tshisekedi.
Katumbi doesn’t define himself as Jewish, “but he has a warm connection to Judaism and Israel”, said Menachem Margolin, a Brussels-based rabbi who has been a close confidant of Katumbi since 2018.
In public addresses, the African politician refers frequently to his Jewish roots, even calling himself “the Moses of Katanga, back to lead his people”. (Moise is the French spelling for the name Moses.) Katumbi was the governor of Katanga, one of the country’s 21 provinces and by far its richest in minerals.
Margolin, the Israel-born director of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, said his relationship with Katumbi started “because I’m a rabbi”, but he declined to elaborate, citing his need to preserve the privacy of those who approach him in his rabbinical capacity.
Last week, Katumbi was asked to become prime minister or appoint one of his allies to the post, according to the African Report. He has not yet responded to the offer. Katumbi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, spent three years in exile in Brussels, where he met Margolin, before his return to Congo in 2019.
Katumbi had to flee because prosecutors in the capital, Kinshasa, issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged corruption. Katumbi, who enjoys considerable popularity in Katanga, has argued the claim was bogus to prevent him from running for president. The warrant was finally lifted in 2019, allowing his return.
Congo has lived through decades of anti-democratic political dysfunction that has essentially bankrupted the war-torn Central African nation three times the size of Texas with an unparalleled wealth in natural resources.
Katumbi’s own family lost everything, including their name, in one of the Congo’s best-known upheavals: the rise to power of its kleptocratic former despot, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1965. Under Mobutu, his loyalists nationalised and divided among themselves businesses and possessions across the country, including the Soriano family’s fishery business. The family was also forced to change their Western-sounding name to something more African. They selected Katumbi, a name that appears in the lineage of the chief’s family.
Mobutu, who had seized power in a coup d’état, renamed the Republic of the Congo as Zaire. Following his ouster, the name was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In Greece, Soriano’s family, including his parents, had all perished in the Holocaust. Soriano’s sisters, however, came with him to the Congo and survived.
Katumbi, who is married and has six children, preaches reform and change in his speeches, a focus reflected in the very name of his party, Together for Change. His credentials go beyond rhetoric.
As governor of Katanga, Katumbi pulled off one of the most remarkable economic rehabilitation programmes in Africa in recent history.
Annual revenue in his region – the size of Spain which has 55% of the world’s cobalt production and 5% of copper – was about $100m (R1.5bn) in 2007 when he was elected governor at the age of 43. By 2013, two years before the end of Katumbi’s term, revenue had soared to $1.2bn (R17.7bn).
Katumbi achieved this partly by halting the export of raw materials and investing heavily in local processing and refinement. It was a bold gambit in a country where a culture of corruption and theft has stunted industrial growth for decades.
Yet that move, coupled with Katumbi’s political appointments and vigilance, paid off massively. Under his leadership, the production of copper cathodes in Katanga rose from 18 000 tons in 2007 to more than a million tons six years later, according to African Business.
Just less than a third of the province’s collapsing roads have been rebuilt in that period and access to water rose from less than 5% to 67% of the population. School attendance in Katanga, where about five million people live, rose from 400 000 children in 2007 to 1.2 million in 2013. The share of girls at schools tripled, from 15% to 45%.
It’s not anywhere near good enough, Katumbi told African Business.
“We not only have minerals in abundance, we have good rains, good soil. We should be as economically strong as South Africa,” he said.
Those who know Katumbi, an athletically built tennis and soccer player, speak of his laid-back demeanour, wry sense of humour, and excellent people skills in at least three languages, including English and French.
Africa, and Congo specifically – where about 70% of the population live in extreme poverty on less than $2 (R29.48) a day – have experienced many promising politicians who declare their intention to improve the lives of their constituents but end up doing the opposite.
Margolin believes Katumbi’s story will be different.
“He has what he takes,” the rabbi said. “He has the warmth needed to be loved by his people and the vision necessary to lead them and command the respect of international partners. I think something very special is about to happen in Congo.”
Time to substitute evidence for emotion about vaccine delays
This week, a balloon of hope that thousands of healthcare workers would be well on their way to long-awaited immunity against COVID-19 was deflated as the government announced it wouldn’t dispense the one million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as planned. The vaccine’s efficacy against the 501Y.V2 South Africa variant was unveiled at just 22%.
As this development was announced, my Facebook feed became increasingly flooded with frustrated community members calling out the “inept” government for buying one million vaccines that now need to be thrown away. “Typical South Africa!”; “Trust our country to get it wrong!” These were the comments attracting the most attention.
My mind went to a mere six weeks ago, when I followed a webinar in which Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee on coronavirus vaccines, said that the government would be taking its time to evaluate the most appropriate choice of vaccines and rollout approach in view of the complexities of the population and variants here. This would be in contrast to countries like Israel that had already dived into a mass rollout. Interestingly at the time, I also came across similar “typical inept South Africa!” comments.
Aside from the apparent cynicism that has grown in our society – perhaps from inconsistency in public policy in so many facets of public life, COVID-19 being no exception – I believe a real understanding of levels of evidence of medical research is needed here. Sound medical decisions are informed by evidence. Evidence is graded into seven levels: randomised control trials occupying levels 1 and 2, control trials without randomisation level 3, case controls level 4, large reviews level 5, single studies level 6, and expert opinions level 7. So, without getting too technical, when you visit your doctor and (s)he tells you (s)he strongly believes in a new supplement, it may be a level 7 at most.
The risky and expensive process of rolling out millions of vaccines across South Africa ought to be informed by the highest level of evidence – randomised control trials (RCTs). An RCT involves recruiting thousands of volunteers and randomising them to two groups: one that receives the vaccine and one that doesn’t. However, the volunteers ought not to know who is in which group lest their preconceived beliefs and subsequent behaviour play a role in the outcome of their results.
In the context of a COVID-19 vaccine, to test whether an Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would work on our population, thousands of people needed to be recruited and randomly assigned to either a placebo or a real intervention group, and then followed for months to see whether there would be a difference in incidence of COVID-19 infections between the groups.
South African mainstream medical scientists have, thankfully, always been focused on these principles with a deep commitment to recommending interventions that do no harm and work scientifically. COVID-19 has been no exception to this. So, the above process was followed.
The Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics (VIDA) Research Unit has run the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial in South Africa for months, and has raced ahead to produce results as quickly as possible. It so happens that because of the immune pressure on the SARS-CoV-2 virus to survive amongst a relatively already exposed population, the virus mutated in November 2020.
It was only due to the rigorous efforts of units like VIDA that South Africa identified the variant so quickly and soon began to evaluate whether the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would work here. It also soon became apparent that 95% of all cases in the second surge of the pandemic were, indeed, this new variant.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place of procuring stock while still awaiting results, the government secured its first shipment and cautiously forged ahead. Telling results have now followed, just before implementation.
We are all deeply disappointed by the failure in the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against our local strain of COVID-19. But we should be equally encouraged by our scientists’ and the country’s commitment to balancing swift action against evidence-based results, which unfortunately takes time to unravel.
With this mindset, let’s take a moment to reflect on what we now know about COVID-19 in February 2021 that we didn’t know six or eight months ago through this evidence-based lens:
1. The 501Y.V2 variant of SARS-CoV-2, causing COVID-19, was detected in the Eastern Cape in November 2020. It accounts for 95% of infections in South Africa today. It’s more transmissible than its predecessor, the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. (High-level evidence.)
2. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine showed 70% efficacy against the original strain. A high standard trial showed only 22% effectiveness against the variant. This was for mild and moderate illness only though. (Level 1 – RCT on young, healthy people). (High-level evidence.)
3. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against severe disease in South Africa is still unknown and being determined. (High-level evidence.)
4. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is a single-dose vaccine, showed a 82% efficacy against the original strain. This dropped against the variant to 57%, but the number remains high against preventing serious disease, hospitalisation, and death, even against the variant – 83%. This is very important. (High-level evidence.)
5. Pfizer, Moderna, and Sputnik vaccines may achieve similar results against the variant. No trials have been released on them yet.
6. All these vaccines are safe. The question remains which are effective in the South African context. (High-level evidence.)
7. The second wave in South Africa is almost over. The R value is 0.43 at the moment. This means we are in a recovery phase. This is the lowest the R value has been since the pandemic began. (Middle-level evidence.)
8. A third wave is probable – soon. As early as April – June. This is probably inevitable. (Low-level evidence – expert opinion.)
9. The extent of the third wave is determinable by preventative, non-pharmacological behaviour. (High-level evidence.) Masks and social distancing are definitely here to stay for the next year at least. (Expert opinion – low-level evidence.)
10. COVID-19 can be contracted twice – particularly with different variants being present. (High-level evidence.)
11. COVID-19 is likely to last for the rest of our lives and become endemic. However, with the correct vaccination, its clinical effects can be attenuated and it will hopefully tend towards a more common cold. (Low-level evidence. Expert opinion.)
Let’s take a feather out of our South African scientists’ hat, salute our government for its transparency and its approach to following the science, and put up with the unexpected hurdles along the way.
- Dr Daniel Israel is a family practitioner in Johannesburg.
Holocaust analogies are hurtful no matter what
The Holocaust was a catastrophe of such epic proportions that the Jewish world will never fully recover. There are still those alive who experienced the horror of it, and for whom it’s not just a distant memory or historical fact. It’s therefore not surprising that emotions run high whenever the subject is broached.
In this milieu, sensitivity around it can and should be expected. Yet, it has become increasingly common for different forms of Holocaust analogies and comparisons to be made.
However hurtful, not all Holocaust analogies are intended maliciously. For many, it’s used carelessly and for different gains, including the making of political points. However, some are obviously and intentionally offensive, and aim to evoke as much harm as possible. I think here of the placing of posters of Anne Frank wearing a keffiyeh around the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement during the so-called Israel Apartheid Week in 2018. It took the symbol of the innocence of the Jewish child who died in Bergen-Belsen. It’s clear that in this case, the context, message, intention, and appropriation of the Holocaust was consciously done to evoke the most hurt possible. And the hurt was, indeed, deep.
This past month, there have been a number of high-profile examples of analogies both here and in America. Christiane Amanpour used it as comment about Donald Trump, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) used it to comment on the Economic Freedom Fighters. There was a huge uproar in response to these comparisons, not least as both were made on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
While the intentions of Amanpour and the DA weren’t directed at the Jewish community, it was the Jewish community among others in both countries that protested. Again, Jewish communities were hurt.
This past month, there was also a parody in which the chief rabbi was portrayed as Hitler. Seemingly made by Jewish members in the community, it was intended as a spoof around a polemic that has been discussed in the community. While the intention may have been satirical, many members of the community were extremely hurt.
The deepest, darkest moments of our history shouldn’t be used to score political points or elicit cheap laughs. This is particularly egregious when the target is the chief rabbi. Nobody, whether they are leaders of the community or not, should be compared to Hitler. It’s clear that irrespective of the intention of those making comparisons, the effect on the Jewish community is the same: hurt, disbelief and anger. Inconsequential comparisons with the Holocaust undermines the unprecedented horror that it was.
The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is often tasked with deliberating on how to respond to these types of offensive and hurtful incidents. And there is a great sensitivity in our community around our response. It’s our job at the SAJBD to determine the most appropriate response, and we take our role seriously. We look at where the content originates, the context in which it is said, the intention of those that say it, and how it’s felt by those who are targeted.
The SAJBD has years of experience in doing this, and consults broadly with fellow Jewish community organisations across the world, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee, as well as local and international academics.
One of the aspects we look at is how the message is received. While not all messages will be received by all members of the community in the same way, the level of hurt is the same.
What’s clear is those who make the comments shouldn’t be the ones who determine whether those comments are offensive or harmful or even antisemitic. For example, the BDS movement (and Jeremy Corbyn for that matter) deny wholeheartedly that their words, actions, and associations are antisemitic. In fact, they try to turn our accusations against us. And, no doubt, they will claim that “some of their best friends are Jewish”. But they are antisemitic.
Ultimately, though, all Jews have been affected in some way by the Holocaust. And it’s not for anyone (Jewish or otherwise) to use these terms lightly. It’s the reality of the Jewish people that we have learnt throughout our entire history that words spoken have consequences.
- Mary Kluk is the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and the director of the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre.
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