America’s Jewish population is declining, and religion is becoming less important to overall Jewish identity.
Those are just two of the fascinating conclusions reached in a Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released earlier this month.
The study analyzed decades’ worth of demographic and behavioral data to uncover some revealing trends and insights about an increasingly small but still-influential group of Americans.
Here are some key findings:
When asked about their religious identity, less than 2 percent of U.S. adults called themselves Jewish, a 50 percent drop since the late 1950s.
The study also found that 62 percent of American Jews stated that being Jewish was mainly a matter of ancestry and culture — an overwhelming number compared to the 15 percent who said their Jewish identity was rooted in religion alone, and the 23 percent who attributed both religion and ancestry/culture to their Jewish identity.
Among adult Jews, 78 percent identified their religion as Jewish, while 22 percent said they have no religion.
For example, among Jews born after 1980 – so-called “millennials” – 68 percent identified as Jewish, and 32 percent said they have no religion. By contrast, the Greatest Generation, born between 1914 and 1927, recorded 93 percent identifying as Jewish and just 7 percent saying they have no religion.
Between the “millennials” and the Greatest Generation, there was a 25 percent drop in Jewish identity and a 25 percent increase in those identifying with no religion. Both data points had been steadily gaining ground with each generation.
The trends started with the “Silent Generation,” born between 1928 and 1945. Within that group, 86 percent indentified as Jewish, a full 7 percent drop from the previous generation, and the no religion category doubled to 14 percent.
Then the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, dropped in identity by 5 points, to 81 percent, and also increased the no-religion identify by 5 points, to 19 percent.
“Generation X,” born between 1965 and 1980, subsequently dropped 7 points in identity to 74 percent, with an increase in no religion by 7 points, to 26 percent.
Still, Jewish pride remains high, with 94 percent of all American Jews saying they are proud of their heritage. And 75 percent of them said they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
They also have strong feelings for their homeland, with 69 percent of American Jews saying they are attached or somewhat attached to Israel. But only 40 percent said they believe God gave the land that is now considered Israel to the Jewish people.
Intermarriage has risen dramatically among American Jews since 1970, when only 17 percent of Jews had a non-Jewish spouse. Today, 58 percent who married since 2005 have spouses who are not Jewish.
Clearly, intermarriage is a key contributing factor to the decline of identification among American Jews.
With 62 percent of U.S. Jews in the United States identifying with their heritage through ancestry and culture, Pew Research asked a most intriguing question:
“What does being Jewish mean in America today?”
The answers, in order of their popularity:
- Remembering the Holocaust, 73 percent
- Leading an ethical life, 69 percent
- Working for justice and equality, 56 percent
- Caring about Israel, 43 percent
- Having a good sense of humor, 42 percent
In a report chock full of interesting data, answers to the following two questions really got my attention, especially because I was born and raised Jewish, then converted to Christianity in 1975 and have studied the Old and New Testaments ever since:
“Can a person be Jewish if he/she does not believe in God?” Sixty-eight percent answered yes, and 29 percent said no.
“Can a person be Jewish if he/she believes Jesus was messiah?” Thirty-four percent answered yes, and 60 percent said no.
My strong recommendation for the 68 percent who said they can be Jewish without believing in God is to read the Old Testament. There, you will learn how and why believing in one God was the foundation of Judaism. That is not debatable.
But, thankfully, at least 29 percent know that it makes no sense to call yourself a Jew if you do not believe in God. Unless, of course, Judaism becomes totally redefined — and the Pew Research study shows that is actually what is happening.
Finally, for the 34 percent who said they can be Jewish if they believe Jesus was the messiah, thank you for the laugh. That made me remember back to when I was about 10 years old. It was Christmas-time, and I asked my Jewish mother, “Why don’t we believe in Jesus since Jesus was Jewish?” Her answer: “Because we are Jewish, and Jews do not believe in Jesus.” I always loved that circular response, so I was very glad to see at least 34 percent of Jews do not think I am a traitor.
The Pew Research report shows that being Jewish in America is less about belief in God and more about ethics, justice, humor and, above all, remembering the Holocaust.
It makes me wonder what Moses would think of his people today — in America anyway — if he read about how far American Jews have drifted from the origin of the faith.
Now that is a question worth pondering.