This week, the Pew Research Center released the results of an extensive survey of the American Jewish community. The results of the survey were based upon the interviews of nearly 3,500 Jews, making this the largest survey of American Jews in more than a decade. As you might imagine, the results are being discussed, analyzed and debated throughout the Jewish community and will most certainly be used by Jewish leaders to determine how we move forward as a community.
Many of the results of the survey are alarming.
While there are 6.7 million American Jews, the survey shows that we make up an increasingly small proportion of America’s overall population, a trend that the survey suggests will continue. Of the 6.7 million of us, there are 1.8 million children and only 900,000 of these children are being raised exclusively Jewish. 300,000 are being raised partly Jewish and 400,000 are not being raised Jewish at all.
Inter-marriage rates continue to rise with 58% percent of Jews who married since the turn of the millennium marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. Most inter-married couples are not raising their children with Judaism. Pew found that only 22% of intermarried Jews said they were sending their children to some sort of formal Jewish educational program or organized Jewish youth program.
One-in-five Jews say they have “no religion” and of these “Jews of no religion,” only 13% said they sent their children to any kind of Jewish educational or youth program, compared to 59% of “Jews by religion.” The number of “Jews of no religion” has surged compared to surveys conducted years ago. Just 7% of Jews born between 1914 and 1927 say they have no religion; 32% of Jews born since 1980 say they have no religion. 79% of married “Jews of no religion” have intermarried as compared to 36% of married “Jews by religion.” Sixty-seven per cent of “Jews of no religion” say they are not raising their children Jewish.
Of this growing group of “Jews of no religion,” only 36% say they feel a “special responsibility to care for Jews in need,” only 20% said they give to Jewish organizations and only 10% said that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish. In comparison, “Jews by religion” are much more committed to the Jewish community. Despite this, only 1/3 of American Jews are affiliated with a synagogue.
The Pew survey looked closely at what being Jewish means to American Jews. It is interesting to note that for many American Jews, their Jewish identity is grounded in behavior and actions that are not uniquely Jewish. Seventy-three per cent felt that remembering the Holocaust and 69% said that leading an ethical life is what defines their Jewishness. Fifty-six per cent said that working for justice and equality defines what it means to be Jewish for them. Forty-three per cent said that caring about Israel is what makes them Jewish. A comparable amount of participants (42%) said that having a good sense of humor is essential to their Jewish identity. Only 28% of participants said that being Jewish involved communal participation and only 19% said that observing Jewish law was essential to being Jewish. A staggering 34% said that believing in Jesus as the Messiah is not inconsistent with being Jewish.
Certainly, many of these numbers are troubling. The survey gives us much to think (and worry) about!
However, despite the decreasing numbers of “Jews by religion” and the increase in numbers of assimilated and secularized Jews, the survey does give us hope.
94% of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish.
¾ of U.S. Jews also say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
7 in 10 Jews said they considered themselves either very or somewhat attached to Israel with more than 40% of Jews surveyed saying that they had visited the Jewish state.
These are great numbers that we need to pay close attention to. Many in the Jewish community will be talking about the rise of “Jews of no religion,” the soaring rates of inter-marriage and the numbers showing that our children are becoming disconnected from the Jewish community. While these are things to be concerned about, they do not signal the demise of the American Jewish community. The fact that 94% of us are proud to be Jewish and ¾ of us feel that we belong to the Jewish people proves to me that we as an American Jewish community have the potential for a very bright future. We need to tap into this pride and this sense of belonging felt among American Jews. While we can’t ignore intermarriage rates, affiliation statistics and poor enrollment in Jewish schools – our bright future lies in reconstructing our Jewish community in such a way that we become attractive to the “Jews of no religion” and the inter-married families who are not connected to the organized Jewish community. They have not shut their doors on us. They and the vast majority of American Jews are proud to be Jewish and want to belong to the Jewish people. We must now figure out new ways to open our doors and encourage those who have not joined us to share their pride and their sense of belonging with us. This is how we will grow as an American Jewish community.
In a little less than a week and a half, I will be attending my first “Rabbis Without Borders” session in New York. We will be spending a lot of time talking about the Pew survey. I look forward to sharing more information with you in the weeks ahead.