New Pew Poll on U.S. Jewish Identity

The Pew Research: Religion and Public Life Project commissioned a new poll on American Jewish identity  (full report here) and the results are fascinating and chilling at the same time.  Pew decided to take up the task when the Jewish federations, who’d done the last, controversial poll in 2000, declined to do so.

So there’s good news and bad news.  In fact, there’s lots of good news and lots of bad news.  The good news is that all the major trends among American Jews and their affiliation with Judaism are reflected in the general population.  The bad news is that Jews are less and less interested in being Jewish.  The latter statement is a dramatic paraphrase of the poll results, which I’ll elaborate below.

According to the poll, there are now 6.6-million American Jews.  35% of Jews identify as Reform; 18% as Conservative; and 10% as Orthodox.  19% of Jews have no denomination.  58% of Jews intermarry and that figure rises to 71% for non-Orthodox Jews.  Two-thirds of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue.  One-quarter do not believe in God.  Only 26% believe that religion is “very important” in their lives compared to 56% of the overall American population.

One of the statistics that shocked me was that while 2% of American adults identified as Jewish in this poll, in the late 1950s 4% of respondents identified as Jewish.  As I read it, that means that we’ve totally lost a large number of Jews over the past 50-odd years, whose connection (or the connection of those who raised them) to their religion or culture has disappeared.  The debate over why this has happened is very intense and I’ll try to offer my thoughts below.

Another interesting and troubling figure was that 22% of Jews overall (and 32% of the younger generation, called “millenials” in this survey) have “no religion.”  This does not mean they don’t identify as Jews.  It means, rather, that they don’t define being Jewish as being part of a religion. Of those who define themselves as having “no religion,” two-thirds of these do not raise their children to have any Jewish identity.

62% of Jews define being Jewish as “mainly a matter of culture or ancestry” rather than religion.  Only 15% see being Jewish as mainly a matter of religion.

Many reading this, including secular Jews and those non-Jews who object to what they see as the chauvinism and intolerance of the Jewish religion (usually observed in Orthodox beliefs), may see this as a positive development.  But keep in mind that the survey results find that it’s little more than one step from a Jew having no religion, to losing any Jewish identity.  This progression might not happen in a single individual’s lifetime, but if he or she doesn’t raise their children with any Jewish identity then the next generation will likely disappear from the ranks of Jews (which may explain the stat I offered above in which Jews as a percentage of the general population declined by half over the past nearly six decades).

The decline in religious affiliation affects all of America, not just Jews.  Meaning that Jews are influenced in this dynamic in the same proportion as non-Jews.  This again means Jews are more successfully integrated into American life than they were in the past.

75% of all Jews say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”  69% feel an “emotional attachment” to Israel, 43% have visited Israel, and 40% believe “the land that is now Israel was given by God to the Jewish people.”  Interestingly, more Christians (56%) than Jews believe this statement.  44% believe settlement activity “hurts Israel’s security.”  Only 17% believe that continuing to build settlements is helpful to Israel’s security.  60% of Jews believe Israel and the Palestinian people can achieve peace based on a two state solution.  Nearly half do not believe the current Israeli government is sincere in its peace efforts, while 75% believe the Palestinian leadership is not sincere in such efforts.

Tellingly, there appear to have been no questions asked about other peace options such as a one-state solution.  The prevailing thought must’ve been: what you don’t ask can’t hurt you!  It’s important to note that liberal Zionist demographer, Steven Cohen, was a paid consultant for the project; and Jane Eisner, editor of the liberal Zionist Jewish Forward, encouraged Pew to undertake the poll.  While I do not doubt the number of respondents sympathetic to options other than two-states might be small, the number of American Jews supporting gay rights or the two state solution in 1980 was equally small.  That’s why it’s important to track such trends, and why those who produced the poll should’ve been more expansive.

Large majorities said that remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical life (69%) and social justice (56%) were “essential” to their Jewishness.  While 43% said that “caring for Israel” was essential.  Just under 20% of those under the age of 30 say that caring for Israel is not an essential part of being Jewish.  53% of Jews say they can read the Hebrew alphabet, while 13% understand the Hebrew words they read.

43% of Jews believe that they face discrimination and 15% feel they were discriminated against or insulted in the past year.  Jews as a whole believe that other minorities like gays and African-Americans face higher levels of discrimination.

58% of Jews have a college degree and 28% have a graduate degree.  Only 29% of Americans as a whole have a college degree.

A curiosity of self-definition is that while 60% of Jews said that believing Jesus was the messiah set one beyond the Jewish pale, fully 34% said you could be Jewish holding such a belief.

When American Judaism comes to this, do not be surprised at declining levels of Jewish identification/affiliation

Analysis

Let’s start by saying, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the reports of the death of American Judaism have been greatly exaggerated.  Classical Zionists, who include much of Israel’s current nationalist majority, believe in the ‘withering away’ of the Diaspora.  They believe that only Jews living in Israel can persevere and continue the Jewish people.  Judaism outside Israel is essentially doomed.  For them, much of the material in this survey reaffirms all of these views.  Undoubtedly, you’ll hear a few of these in the comment thread here.

I, of course, reject this view.  Judaism (or if you’re secular and prefer “Jewishness”) will continue for many generations to come in this country.  It will continue playing a formative role not just in the lives of its adherents, but of the entire American people.  Assimilation, if it is happening, results from the successful integration of Jews into the American mainstream.  It is the price, if you will, of such success.

Those who are alarmed by this should turn to Orthodox Judaism if you want a model of resistance to such assimilation.  But at what price are Orthodox Jews retaining their allegiance to Judaism?

Returning to classical Zionism, it posits Israel as the center of Jewish identity, a Garden of Eden, if you will, for world Jewry.  Israel is the place where the best ideas will form and take hold.  Ideas that will represent the best that Jews have to offer and that will save the Jewish people.  The only problem is that it hasn’t worked out that way.  Israel has offered a stultifying vision of a State enmeshed in theocracy and ultra-Orthodox dogma.  Judaism, in latter day Israel, has become intolerant, racist, and triumphalist.  Ethics, social justice, prophetic Judaism–have all been all but subsumed under a virulent form of religious nationalism

So before we American Jews throw in the towel and concede to our Israeli brethren as true upholders of the tradition, we ought to think again.  Diaspora Judaism brings something critical to the table.  Abandoning it means abandoning a valuable part of the Jewish soul.

To those in the American Jewish community who wring their hands and ask what can be done to reverse the “declines” they see in Jewish affiliation, I say: not much.  That’s because the leadership is essentially driven by a narrow consensus of what are acceptable expressions of Jewish beliefs, in which I include political beliefs.  As but one example, why did the survey only include one option for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal: the two state solution?  This option is increasingly derided not just in the U.S., but in Israel itself and among Israeli Jews.  By pretending for the sake of the survey that only one option exists, the creators of the poll created a closed circle and self-fulfilling beliefs.

Jewish leaders (including rabbis, teachers, and communal leaders) offer, by and large, a pallid version of Judaism to their charges.  It’s not milchik, not fleischik, but parve.  When I was a teenager, the havurah movement was ascendant.  My teachers in Hebrew school and summer camp (Ramah) were college students on fire with a passion for Judaism as a prophetic religion embodying values of peace and social justice.  The ideas they inculcated in us have inspired us to our later achievements in life, including as Jews.

What does American Judaism offer today’s youth?  Birthright trips, where participants are told that making Jewish babies is an important part of why they’re there.  StandWithUs and other campus groups offering a stultifying definition of Israel and Jewish identity.  Not to mention a community that continues to be obsessed by anti-Semitism, when most young people find such fixations off-putting and irrelevant.  Finally, substituting Israel as an object of religious worship for American Jews is a failing proposition.

Is it any wonder that younger Jews are taking a pass at this version of Judaism?