A member of Jews for Jesus proselytizing on Market Street in San Francisco, Oct. 31, 2015 (Photo/Flickr-Steve Rhodes CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A member of Jews for Jesus proselytizing on Market Street in San Francisco, Oct. 31, 2015 (Photo/Flickr-Steve Rhodes CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Bizarre results in Jews for Jesus’ new study on Jewish millennials

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Are Jewish millennials the most religious generation?

And do one-fifth of them think Jesus was God in human form?

Yes and yes, says a new survey of 599 Jews born from 1984 to 1999. The survey creates a contradictory portrait of Jewish millennials: These young adults describe themselves as religious, and practice Jewish ritual, but are unaffiliated. They value tradition and family, but don’t plan on marrying only Jews. They are proud to be Jewish, but don’t feel that contradicts with practicing other religions.

It’s the kind of survey that could be useful to Jewish planners but for the organization that commissioned and funded it: Jews for Jesus, the evangelical group that for decades has been trying to draw Jews toward belief in Christ.

The survey was conducted by the Barna Group, a reputable polling firm specializing in religion, especially conservative Christianity, and was sent to the media with endorsements by Jewish studies professors. But its goal was to conduct market research for “Messianic Jews.” And Jews for Jesus likes what it sees.

“It was very hopeful from our perspective,” said Susan Perlman, director of communications for Jews for Jesus, which has it world headquarters in San Francisco. “This was a generation that was spiritual, that is willing to engage in the subject of whether or not Jesus might be the Messiah. All we can ask for is an open mind to engage with the Bible, engage with the culture and look at the possibilities.”

The survey, which was published Oct. 10, is mostly composed of the standard questions: how often do you pray, how do you feel about Israel, do you date non-Jews and the like. Much of it is a millennial-focused version of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews.

“They are free-thinking and flexible in their spiritual and religious identity, yet they gravitate toward formal customs and ancient expressions of faith,” the survey’s introduction reads. “Often molded by intermarriage and multiculturalism, they reject rigid or traditional definitions of what it means to be Jewish, but — more than any other generation — still consider their Jewish identity to be very important to them.”

But it also includes a few unusual entries that Pew didn’t cover, such as a detailed section on belief in God and the afterlife, and — no surprise here — an extensive examination of attitudes toward Jesus.

A member of Jews for Jesus proselytizing in San Francisco, Oct. 31, 2015 (Photo/Flickr-Steve Rhodes CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For those accustomed to thinking of millennials as religiously uninvolved and skeptical of traditional practices, the survey has some eye-popping news: Eighty percent of Jewish millennials self-identify as “religious Jews,” as opposed to just a slim majority of all Jews. And nearly half say being Jewish is “very important” to them, higher than any other generation.

“These don’t look like Jews I recognize,” said Ari Y. Kelman, a Jewish studies professor at Stanford University. “I was not willing to just write them off entirely. Maybe these are Jews we’ve never seen before. We know religion is changing, we know parameters of identity are changing, so why would we expect different generations to look exactly the same?”

Kelman, who organized and recently published a study about whether or not Jewish students feel threatened on college campuses that have reputations for anti-Israel activity, was interviewed as part of the report.

According to the Barna survey, millennials’ commitment to Judaism comes through in specific practices. Almost a quarter of Jewish millennials attend religious services once a week, according to the survey, and one in three prays every day. A majority says “God loves people.”

The data on Jesus might be especially surprising to Jews who, if they agree on nothing else, believe that Jews for Jesus and its “messianic” philosophy are beyond the pale. The survey found that 21 percent of Jewish millennials believe Jesus was “God in human form who lived among people in the first century.” And 28 percent “see him as a rabbi or spiritual leader, but not God.”

The openness to non-Jewish practice extends beyond that: 42 percent of respondents say they celebrate Christmas. A majority says one can hold other faiths and still be Jewish. And the survey found that one-third of Jewish millennials believe “God desires a personal relationship with us.”

Some of the findings depart from the Pew study of four years ago. Pew found far lower rates of synagogue attendance among Jews aged 18 to 29, and a much lower percentage of respondents said religion was important to them.

But Pew actually backs up some of the statistics on Christianity. It found that a third of all respondents had a Christmas tree at home, and 34 percent said belief in Jesus as the Messiah was compatible with being Jewish. (“This does not mean that most Jews think those things are good,” Alan Cooperman, deputy director of Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, said at the time. “They are saying that those things do not disqualify a person from being Jewish. [But] most Jews think that belief in Jesus is disqualifying by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.”)

The Barna survey no doubt garnered higher percentages on those questions because it included Messianic Jews — that is, members of a religious movement that combines Christian and Jewish beliefs — whom Pew excluded from some questions. According to the Jews for Jesus website, 30,000 to 125,000 Jews worldwide believe in Jesus. There are roughly 5 million to 6 million U.S. Jews. Some 58 percent of respondents in the Jews for Jesus study are children of interfaith marriages, about 10 points more than in the Pew study, which had a slightly narrower definition of “Jewish.”

These don’t look like Jews I recognize … Maybe these are Jews we’ve never seen before.

Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen said Pew also did not delve as deeply into matters of faith because theology tends to be more central to Christians than to Jews.

“Christians have a stronger interest in the faith aspect of religion, and being Jewish isn’t only a religion, but it’s also an ethnicity,” said Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who consulted on the Pew study. “It’s also the case that faith in God for Jews is less predictive of matters of belonging.”

Some results of the Barna survey conformed to expectations of millennials as less affiliated with traditional institutions and more open to multiculturalism and pluralism. A majority of millennial Jews do not affiliate with a major denomination. Only about one in 10 see affinity to Israel as central to Judaism, though about a quarter have been on Birthright, the free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults. Nearly 40 percent self-define as liberal and 24 percent as conservative.

And only 4 percent would refrain from a serious relationship with a non-Jew, though 70 percent are committed to raising their children as Jewish. These statistics may be alarming to a Jewish establishment that has worried for decades about rising intermarriage rates. But for Jews for Jesus, which promotes its own brand of interreligious mixing, this is not a problem.

“I don’t see it as a positive or a negative,” Perlman, the Jews for Jesus spokesperson, said of intermarriage. “It’s a fact of life, but I think that spiritual harmony is important, so if you’re a Jewish-gentile couple, you need to find spiritual harmony or you have a rocky road ahead.”

The survey has a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

Kelman readily acknowledges that he has misgivings about a survey on Jews funded by a group that essentially wants to convert them to Christianity.

“The fact you’re doing market research on American Jews, their potential adherence to Jews for Jesus makes you uncomfortable,” he said.

But, regarding the Barna Group, an “evangelical Christian research firm” according to the online news journal Religion & Politics, Kelman said: “They were good social scientists with skin in the game. Most people who fund research on American Jews also come with an agenda, and I’ve been in this world long enough to know that the people who fund that research don’t interfere. They don’t cook the books. They don’t come with a pre-fixed menu of outcomes they expect to see.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.