WASHINGTON — The first comprehensive survey of American Jews in the 21st Century, which has been making waves this week, reveals some dramatic changes in Jewish identity. The most significant, according to one of the study’s lead authors, is that one-fifth of American Jews don’t even call themselves “Jewish” when asked about their religion.

“When we ask this group what their religion is, they tell us they’re atheists, agnostic or not particular to any religion,” says Greg Smith, Director of US Religion Surveys at the Pew Research Center. “But they do subsequently tell us they consider themselves Jewish or partially Jewish aside from religion. They say they were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish parent.”

In the study, this group is called “Jews of no religion,” and their numbers are rising. Among US Jews who were born before 1927, the so-called Greatest Generation, only seven percent did not call themselves Jewish by religion. By contrast, among American Jewish Millennials, those born after 1980, 32% do not describe themselves as Jewish by religion. Rather, they identify as Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture.

“That is a big and significant number,” says Smith. “The generational pattern suggests that it’s growing and that’s very important because the data show that Jews of no religion are much less connected to the Jewish community, are much less engaged and involved in Jewish organizations and are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish as compared to Jews who describe themselves as Jews by religion.”

Smith says the difference between these two poles of American Jewry “is like night and day.”

Less than half of US Jews who grew up Orthodox remained part of the community

According to the survey, Orthodox Jews, which comprise only 10% of US Jewry, are much more observant on a variety of measures such as synagogue attendance and participation in life-cycle rituals. But the study also discovered that less than half of US Jews who grew up Orthodox remained part of the community.

Among the three major denominations, Reform Jews have the highest retention rate at 55%. Forty-eight percent of those who grew up Orthodox remained in the Orthodox community, whereas only 36% of US Jews who were raised Conservative stayed within the movement.

The falloff from Orthodoxy, at least, appears to be declining and is significantly lower – only 17% – among 18 to 29 year olds. It’s an open question as to whether this is due to a change within the community or simply that not enough time has elapsed for these Jews to change their affiliation.

The most talked-about number in the new survey is sure to be the intermarriage rate, often considered the leading indicator of the health and long-term prospects of the American Jewish community.

The Pew survey found the overall intermarriage rate at 58%, but a whopping 71% among the non-Orthodox

The Pew survey found the overall intermarriage rate at 58%, with a whopping 71% among the non-Orthodox. According to Smith, there is good news and bad news in this.

“The good news — the data appears to show that the intermarriage rate is pretty flat, at least over the past couple of decades,” he says. “However, the bad news is that, compared to the past, it’s very high. Of those who were married before 1970, only 17% have a non-Jewish spouse.”

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, DC’s Congregation Ohev Shalom/The National Synagogue, calls the data on intermarriage and secularization “sobering, but not unexpected.”

“Surveys like this can tell us a lot about the community level on a macro level, but we need to remind ourselves that they say very little on a micro level,” says Herzfeld, a modern orthodox rabbi. “Before we can expect communal redemption from the problems highlighted in this survey, we must hope for many individual redemptions, each in their own unique way.”

‘Surveys like this can tell us a lot about the community level on a macro level, but… very little on a micro level’

Herzfeld says “there is no quick fix” to the American Jewish community’s problems, but says the community “must redouble our efforts to connect with individual Jews and teach the Torah. We must redouble our efforts to encourage more Jews to become teachers of Torah.”

On the latter, Herzfeld is leading by example as his synagogue was one of the first in the nation to hire a female Orthodox clergy member, Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman.

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, told the New York Times that the Pew study is “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.” And Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, told the Los Angeles Times that, if secular Jews aren’t being wooed by Jewish institutions, “They may walk away… And what you’ll have left is the Orthodox.”

But Smith, who oversaw the Pew survey, cautions against “confusing religious observance or levels of observance with levels of strength of Jewish identity.”

“What comes through loud and clear in the data,” he says, “is that religion may not be that important in many Jews’ lives, but being Jewish is. They tell us they are proud of being Jewish, they feel a close connection to the Jewish people and a strong sense of identity.”

‘Religion may not be that important in many Jews’ lives, but being Jewish is’

“So those two things – secularization and a strong sense of Jewish identity – are not contradictory.” It’s not that American Jewish identity is necessarily waning, he says, but, rather, it’s changing.

One area where change is apparent is American Jewish attitudes to Israel. The Pew survey found that 7 in 10 US Jews say they feel attached to the Jewish state and 4 in 10 say they’ve been to Israel at least once. However, along with this sense of connection, there is also a new willingness to be critical of the Israeli government.

Greg Smith (Photo credit: Pew Research)

Greg Smith (Photo credit: Pew Research)

When asked whether they believe the current Israeli government is sincere in its efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, 38% said yes and 48% said no, a finding Smith called “striking.” To be sure, there was even more skepticism about Palestinian intentions as 75% of respondents don’t think the Palestinian leadership is making a sincere effort to achieve peace.

The full report has much more on Israel and contains a treasure trove of information on American Jewish attitudes. Among the more surprising findings:

  • More than one-third (34%) of American Jews say believing Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with Judaism.
  • Forty-two percent believe having a good sense of humor is part of what it means to be Jewish.
  • One-quarter (25%) of US Jews have a household income exceeding $150,000 (compared with eight percent of the public as a whole).
  • Seventy percent are Democrats compared with 22% who call themselves Republicans; however, among the Orthodox, 57% lean Republican and 36% lean Democrat.
  • Only 17% of US Jews believe the building of Jewish settlements enhances Israel’s security.

The survey, called A Portrait of Jewish Americans, has been in the works for years and cost several million dollars. Smith says the Pew Research team spoke with more than 70,000 people across the country in order to recruit a large enough sample of Jews. Interviews were conducted from February to June of this year in English and Russian, on land lines and via cell phones. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus three percentage points.