Pew survey of U.S. Jews: soaring intermarriage, humor more important than Jewish law

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A new study shows there are 6.8 million Jews in America, more than previous national studies suggested. But a growing proportion of them are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions; and twice as many cite a good sense of humor as essential to their Jewish identity than cite observing Jewish law.

The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.

Overall, the intermarriage rate is 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.

Source: Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews

The data on Jewish engagement come from the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, a telephone survey of 3,475 Jews nationwide conducted between February and June and released on Oct. 1.

The population estimate, released Sept. 30, comes from a synthesis of existing survey data conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University (see story, 2).

Responding to the Pew study’s findings on intermarriage and assimilation, Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish federation, said in a statement, “I prefer not to see the bogeyman of ‘assimilation’ as an impossible negative but, rather, as the changing face of a community that has integrated into a society that is more accepting than any in our long history.  Our reasons to keep our traditions — or to remain apart — in America have increasingly had less to do with self-preservation or survival and more to do with seeking community, meaning, connection, and continuity.

“Our job as Jewish communal leaders is to help provide that community, meaning, connection and continuity to the Jewish community, whatever it looks like, without judgment.”

While the Steinhardt-Cohen study, called “American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012,” is likely to be a matter of some debate by demographers and social scientists, it is the Pew study that offers an in-depth portrait that may influence Jewish policymaking for years to come.

Among the more notable findings of the Pew survey:

Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, and the survey finds they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. Broken down by age, 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 — the so-called millennial generation — identify as Jews of no religion, compared with 19 percent of baby boomers and just 7 percent of Jews born before 1927.

Emotional attachment to Israel has held steady over the last decade, with 69 percent of respondents saying they feel attached or very attached to Israel. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been to Israel.

Source: Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews

Far more respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity than those who cited observing Jewish law — 42 percent compared with 19 percent.

Approximately one-quarter of Jews said religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among Americans generally.

Less than one-third of American Jews say they belong to a synagogue. Twenty-three percent of U.S. Jews say they attend synagogue at least once or twice a month, compared with 62 percent of Christians.

The Pew study is the first comprehensive national survey of American Jews in more than a decade. The last one, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), was conducted by the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations and counted 5.2 million Jews, including children. But critics said that study’s methodology was flawed and undercounted American Jews.

Both the Pew survey and the Steinhardt-Brandeis study put the number of U.S. Jewish adults at about 5.2 million, including Jews who do not identify as Jewish by religion. The Steinhardt-Brandeis study counted an additional 1.6 million Jewish children for a total of 6.8 million Jews in America. The Pew study counted 1.3 million Jewish children.

By comparison, 6.06 million Jews live in Israel, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Overall, Jews make up about 2.2 percent of Americans, according to Pew. About 10 percent of American Jews are former Soviet Jews or their children.

Among Jewish denominations, the Reform movement remains the largest: 35 percent of respondents identified as Reform, according to the Pew study. The second-largest group is Jews of no denomination (30 percent), followed by Conservative (18 percent) and Orthodox (10 percent).

As with other studies, the Pew study found that the Orthodox share of the American Jewish population is likely to grow because Orthodox Jews tend to be younger and have larger families than Jews generally.

In the Pew survey, 90 percent of those who identified as Jews by religion and are raising children said they are raising them Jewish. By comparison, less than one-third of those who identified themselves as Jews of no religion are raising their kids as Jewish.

On Jewish observance, some 70 percent of respondents to the Pew survey said they participated in a Passover seder in 2012 and 53 percent said they fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur that year. The numbers represent declines from the 2000-01 NJPS, which found seder participation rates at 78 percent and Yom Kippur fasting at 60 percent.

The new Pew survey found that about 23 percent of U.S. Jews say they always or usually light Sabbath candles, and about 22 percent reported keeping kosher at home.

While most of those surveyed by Pew said they felt a strong connection to Israel, and 23 percent reported having visited the Jewish state more than once, the respondents expressed significant reservations about the current Israeli government’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Forty-four percent said West Bank settlement construction hurts Israel’s security interests, and only 17 percent said continued settlement construction is helpful to Israeli security.

The Pew survey also asked respondents what elements are essential to being Jewish, offering several options. The most popular element was remembering the Holocaust at 73 percent, followed by leading an ethical life at 69 percent.

Fifty-six percent cited working for justice and equality; 43 percent said caring about Israel; 42 percent said having a good sense of humor; and 19 percent said observing Jewish law.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said being Jewish is primarily a matter of ancestry and culture; 15 percent said it was mainly a matter of religion. Most Jews said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. In the survey, 60 percent said a person cannot be Jewish and believe that Jesus is the Messiah.




Are we losing our religion? According to a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Jews are, and increasingly so.

Nearly 1 in 5 Jews surveyed claim no religious ties, basing their Jewish identities on ethical or cultural values.

Those numbers spike for younger Jews, with more than 30 percent disavowing religion as the source of their Jewish identity. Factor in an intermarriage rate that hovers near 70 percent, and some observers fear the end may be nigh for organized Judaism — and the Jewish community — in this country.

While the Pew report will draw attention across the Jewish world, we do not share the pessimism it is already generating, as evidenced by our story on page 10. All one has to do is look around. As one of the most assimilated Jewish communities in the country, we in the Bay Area serve as living proof that the Jewish people thrive whether they pray or not.

It is true that a secular strain has long persisted among Jews. That continues today, with many marrying non-Jews, some putting up Christmas trees along with menorahs in their homes, and a number practicing Buddhism. What many Jews demonstrate, especially here in the innovative Bay Area, is that there is no one way to be Jewish.

The Bay Area has many strong and dynamic synagogues, but also an impressive number of Jewish community centers, Jewish environmental and social justice organizations, Israel advocacy groups, festivals of Jewish music, film, books … the flowering of Jewish expression we experience takes many forms, and draws in more Jews every year.

We have been called the ever-dying people for so long, maybe it’s time to admit we’re not going anywhere.

For those who worry we are becoming too assimilated and irreligious, let us remember the words from Ezekiel 6:8: “Yet I will leave a remnant, in that you may have some that shall escape the sword among the nations, when you shall be scattered through the countries.”

Even if that 1-in-5 number edges toward 1-in-4, we still have our saving remnant: Jews who study Torah, who know how to say Kaddish, who say the blessing over Shabbat candles.

Jewish religious tradition — the texts and practices that are the source of ethics that have forever driven Jews to make the world a better place — is not disappearing. And it will always have the power to nourish and preserve a core Jewish community, even as others stake their claim as Jews on other grounds.