Though many Reform synagogues, such as San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, remain large communities, the new study found that the share of American Jewry affiliated with the Reform movement is in decline. (Photo/file)
Though many Reform synagogues, such as San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, remain large communities, the new study found that the share of American Jewry affiliated with the Reform movement is in decline. (Photo/file)

New Pew study of American Jews: Deep questions, surprising answers

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

Who are the Jews of America? And what do they think?

Answering those questions is a near impossible task, but after seven years, the Pew Research Center again is wading into the breach with the release of its long-awaited report “Jewish Americans in 2020.”

Based on a survey of 4,718 Jews from around the country, the report aims to give an overall portrait of U.S. Jewry. Among the findings are a widening gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, a growing number of non-white Jews, and a solid number of culturally engaged, nonreligious Jews.

Ari Y. Kelman
Ari Y. Kelman

But Stanford University professor Ari Y. Kelman, who was on the panel of expert advisers convened by Pew for the report, told J. that people shouldn’t leap to conclusions about what the data is telling them.

“The data is helpful for understanding certain things, but it doesn’t have ‘answers,’” Kelman said.

Released on May 11, the report is broken into sections that cover topics ranging from views on antisemitism to how Jews vote. But at the outset, it gets into some deep questions that go right to the pressure points of Jewish identity and religion.

The last comprehensive Pew study of Jewish Americans was released in 2013. The new report finds that 27 percent of Jewish adults don’t identify with religion, but rather see themselves as ethnic or cultural Jews. Asked about belief systems, they identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” (sociologists call the latter category “Jews of no religion”).

Among adults ages 18 to 29, a goodly 40 percent don’t identify with religion.

And yet, 17 percent in that age group identify as Orthodox, with more than half identifying as ultra-Orthodox.

“In other words, [young adult] U.S. Jews count among their ranks both a relatively large share of traditionally observant, Orthodox Jews and an even larger group of people who see themselves as Jewish for cultural, ethnic or family reasons but do not identify with Judaism — as a religion — at all,” the report says.

Such divisions — between Orthodox and not, young and old, left-leaning and right-leaning — crop up again and again throughout the report.

About 70 percent of Jewish adults identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 50 percent describe their political views as liberal. Among Orthodox Jews, the numbers go in the other direction: 75 percent identify as Republicans or say they lean toward the GOP and 60 percent describe their political views as conservative.

Ken Goldstein
Ken Goldstein

“I think this will probably be the least surprising and least controversial finding in the entire survey,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who works on issues of voter turnout and survey methodology. “Consistent with lots of other studies I have reviewed — public and private — Jews by wide margins (40 to 50 percentage points) identify as Democrats and vote for Democratic candidates.”

Kelman said he found interesting responses in the section that asked people how much they had in common with various groups. For example, 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 61 percent of Reform Jews say they had more in common with Jews in Israel than with Orthodox Jews in the United States.

Meanwhile, it turns out that U.S. Orthodox Jews feel the same way, with 91 percent far more likely to say they have “a lot” or “some” in common with Israeli Jews than to say the same about  Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States.

“The commonality questions, I think, are spectacularly revealing,” Kelman said.

His interest also was piqued by some of the data on religiosity — that some Jews who chose “of no religion” say they believe “God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people,” while some who identify as “Jews by religion” say they refrain from going to synagogue because they aren’t “religious.”

But it’s not all fractious disagreement among American Jews.

“While there are some signs of religious divergence and political polarization among U.S. Jews, the survey also finds large areas of consensus,” the report points out.

Almost half the respondents say they feel “a great deal” of belonging to the Jewish people, and 85 percent say they feel at least “some.”

Again, though, the divide was visible: Nearly all Orthodox Jews (95 percent) express a great deal of belonging to the Jewish people, compared with just 13 percent of Jews of no religion.

You’re going to have some distortion just by its nature. This is not a census, this is a statistical portrait.

Eight in 10 say they feel “responsibility to help fellow Jews in need around the world.”

Almost 40 percent of Jewish adults say that being part of a Jewish community is essential or important to what being Jewish means to them, and about half of Jewish Americans say they had made a donation to a Jewish cause in the past year.

Beth Cousens
Beth Cousens

“These data, much like our [2018] ‘Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,’ reflect the complexity and diversity of American Jewish identity today,” said Beth Cousens, chief impact officer at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “The belonging statistics show that most American Jews feel a connection to the Jewish people, to Jewish community. When we build Jewish life on that palpable sense of connection, we can build an inclusive, vibrant Jewish community full of meaning for as many people as possible.”

In terms of antisemitism, the Pew study finds that 75 percent of Jews have seen an increase in antisemitism in the last five years. But survey respondents most commonly attributed this phenomenon to a growing freedom antisemites feel to express themselves, rather than to an increase in the number of antisemites — although many people feel both are true.

Those statistics make sense, said Seth Brysk, the S.F.-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It does dovetail with a poll we conducted earlier this year in March,” Brysk told J.

Seth Brysk
Seth Brysk

According to Pew, around 60 percent of Jews “report having had a direct, personal experience with antisemitism in the past 12 months,” from graffiti to online or physical harassment.

“It is an affirmation of the trend that we’ve been seeing at ADL,” Brysk said. “Antisemitism is a serious and persistent issue.”

Data in most of the sections was not compared directly with the previous Pew study from 2013 because of differences in methodology.

But the 2013 study did find an increase in intermarriage that seems to be continuing, with 60 percent of Jews who married from 2010 to 2019 marrying a non-Jewish person. In the previous decade, that figure was only 45 percent. The report notes how this figure keeps increasing by decade, pointing out that “just 18 percent of Jews who got married before 1980 have a non-Jewish spouse.”

The new study, which was conducted from Nov. 19, 2019 to June 3, 2020, also includes interviews with Jewish leaders from around the country discussing how they approach talking about Israel in their community, how to get Jews to come to synagogue and the importance of discussing multiracial Jewish identity, among other issues.

Ilana Kaufman
Ilana Kaufman

One of those leaders was the Bay Area’s Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative, who shared that the dominance of Ashkenazi heritage in American Judaism can make Jews who don’t share that background feel out of place in synagogues and other Jewish settings. (Kelman worked on a 2019 survey for the Jews of Color Initiative, one which received some pushback after it posited that there has been “a systematic undercounting” of Jews of color in local and national studies.)

While the term “Jews of color” has found its way into everyday discourse, Pew didn’t use it in the survey, sticking to terms familiar from the U.S. Census, such as “white, black, Asian,” etc.

“One definitional complication is that the traditional Jewish categories of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi do not squarely align with racial and ethnic categories conventionally used in the United States,” the report explains. “For example, some Hispanic Jews in the U.S. are of Ashkenazi background — descended from refugees who fled Europe for Latin America around the time of World War II — prompting advocates and scholars to debate whether all Hispanic Jews should be counted as Jews of color. On the other side of the ledger, although the Census Bureau historically has classified people of Middle Eastern background as White, organizations representing Jews of color contend that some immigrants from the Middle East-North Africa region and their descendants should be counted as Jews of color.”

Continuing, the report finds that 92 percent of Jews identify as “white and non-Hispanic,” while two-thirds say they have Ashkenazi heritage.

“Pew Research Center does not take a position on who should or should not be counted as Jews of color,” the report says, adding that Jewish adults under the age of 50 are more likely than older Jews to identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, another race or multiple races (13 percent vs. 3 percent).

Thirteen percent of Jewish respondents report that they live in multi-person households where at least one adult or child is of a different race or ethnicity than the respondent.

Such findings are likely to get attention, but for Kelman, who plans to do some deep analysis of the Pew data this summer, it’s important for people to remember that the survey is just that — a survey, and not a census.

“You’re going to have some distortion just by its nature,” he said. “The U.S. census tries to count everyone. This is not a census, this is a statistical portrait.”

He reiterated that although the data is rich and telling, the conclusions that will be drawn will probably reflect people’s assumptions, as happened when the last Pew report came out seven years ago.

“Most people are going to see what they already know in the data,” Kelman said. “You could see that in 2013. It’s a Rorschach test.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.