The most comprehensive national survey of the Jewish population since 2001 just confirmed what has long been suspected: Many young American Jews no longer look to religious practice for Jewish identity.
But no matter how disturbing the findings are, local rabbis who deal with these matters daily, say they pose challenges that Judaism should “embrace.”
According to the findings of the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews, released on Monday, 32 percent of the youngest generation of Jewish adults — the so-called “Millennials,” those born between 1982 and the early 2000s — describe themselves as having “no religion,” and instead identify as Jewish “on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”
If this trend continues, the number of Jews in the United States could shrink considerably in the years to come, as indicated by the survey’s findings that, among “Jews of no religion,” only 12 percent say that being Jewish is “very important to them,” and two-thirds say they are not raising their children Jewish at all.
The responses of the Millennials stand in stark contrast to the responses of the Jews of the Greatest Generation, 93 percent of whom identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.
The Pew survey, conducted Feb. 20-June 13, 2013, can be found at pewresearch.org.
Pew garnered responses from 3,475 Jews, including 2,786 Jews by religion and 689 Jews of no religion, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Statistics were collected on a vast array of issues, including intermarriage, shifts in denominational identification, and the perceived essential components of a Jewish identity.
Many of the findings were not surprising.
Intermarriage is much more common among secular Jews than among Jews who identified as Jewish by religion. Seventy-nine percent of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36 percent among Jews by religion.
Intermarried Jews, the survey found, are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. While 96 percent of Jews with a Jewish spouse say they are raising their children as Jewish by religion, only 20 percent of intermarried Jews are, with 25 percent raising their children “partly Jewish by religion.” About a third of intermarried Jews said they are not raising their children Jewish at all.
On intermarriage rates, 98 percent of the married Orthodox respondents have a Jewish spouse, as do 73 percent of married Conservative Jews. About 50 percent of married Reform Jews have a Jewish spouse.
The survey found that the Reform movement remains the largest in the United States, with 35 percent of all American Jews identifying as Reform Jews. Eighteen percent identify with Conservative Judaism, 10 percent with Orthodox Judaism, and 6 percent with various other movements, such as Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal. About 30 percent do not identify with a movement.
Switching affiliations is common among Jews raised in each of the three main strands of Judaism. About one-fourth of the respondents who were raised Orthodox are now Conservative or Reform; 30 percent of those raised Conservative are now Reform; and 28 percent of those raised Reform no longer identify as Jewish by religion.
Even with attrition throughout the individual denominations, most Jews still say that being Jewish, in some way, is important to them.
Ninety-four percent of Jews say they are “proud to be Jewish,” with about 75 percent saying they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and 63 percent saying “they have a special responsibility to care for Jews in need around the world.”
About half of American Jews say that being intellectually curious is fundamental to their Jewish identity. Having a good sense of humor (42 percent) and caring about Israel (43 percent) were equal factors in identification of what it means to be Jewish. Only 19 percent cite observing Jewish law as an essential element of being Jewish.
Some traditional rituals are practiced by most Jews, regardless of whether they identify as Jewish by religion. Seventy percent participated in a Passover seder last year, and 53 percent say they fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur.
The results of the survey were no surprise to area rabbis, some of whom have already taken steps to address some of the issues raised by the statistics.
“The Pew Study verifies many things that we already know,” said Rabbi Chuck Diamond, spiritual leader of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha. “At Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha we are prepared to take substantive steps to address these issues. We have already started a group in which we provide very affordable dues for young couples, individuals and young families. We currently make it very welcoming for interfaith couples to join and participate in our congregation.”
“As we move to the future,” he added, “we will not be afraid to take bold and courageous steps to try to turn the seemingly downward trend around — at least in our small corner of the universe.”
Threats of assimilation are nothing new to the Jewish people, according to Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
“The results are not surprising,” he said, “but this is not the first time in Jewish history that our community has dealt with rapid assimilation. With these traditional changes come new opportunities for outreach. Judaism has survived thousands of years by adapting to reality.”
Rabbi Ronald Symons, director of the Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice at Temple Sinai, said the survey results highlight the need for Jewish leaders to be more creative in their efforts to engage young Jews.
“Those of us who are clergy and professionals and lay leaders know the most important thing we can do is help craft Jewish experiences that meet the needs of 21st-century Jews,” he said. “Where that means being creative in providing exciting holiday programs, more opportunities for people to study in different venues, we have an obligation to be responsive to people’s needs and help them interact with the great wisdom of Jewish tradition.”
He said the results of the survey specifically show the need to emphasize social action when engaging today’s Jews. Even among “Jews of no religion,” almost half say they believe working for justice and equality is essential to being Jewish.
“I’m always impressed where social justice stands in these lists … people are committed to the values of Jewish tradition. … That’s almost inspiring to me. If that’s part of what people think Judaism can be in the 21st century, lets embrace it.”
Although the survey may indicate a shift in Jewish identity, attrition is not a foregone conclusion everywhere, according to Rabbi Mark Mahler, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
“The Pew study merely confirms that the American melting pot has a long history of melting Jewish identity from generation to generation,” Mahler said. “Unlike God in Deuteronomy 29, I cannot speak to those who are not here, so I have to continue to focus my efforts on those who are here at Temple Emanuel where Judaism is alive and well.”
(Executive Editor Lee Chottiner contributed to this story. Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)