Responses to the Pew Report on American Jewry

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Credit: Pew Research Center.

The Pew Research Center’s recently published “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a summary of its findings drawn from 70,000 screening interviews and 3,475 in-depth interviews with Jews in all fifty states. What is most striking to me (and to Arthur Waskow with whom I’ve been engaged in discussion about these results) is that the Pew survey seems oblivious to the spiritual hunger of American Jews, and hence does not ask a series of questions about this hunger. For example, the survey never asks respondents, “In what forms do you seek spiritual growth or spiritual experience?” which would have been a more important and revealing kind of question for the under-seventy crowd than questions about their religious observance.

Here are some of the conclusions published in the Pew Research Center report:

Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.

The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.

The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults—the Millennials—68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole—not just Jews—increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).

Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.

Compared with Jews by religion, however, Jews of no religion (also commonly called secular or cultural Jews) are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. More than 90% of Jews by religion who are currently raising minor children in their home say they are raising those children Jewish or partially Jewish. In stark contrast, the survey finds that two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish—either by religion or aside from religion….

A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey is to explore Jewish identity: What does being Jewish mean in America today? Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity.

But observing religious law is not as central to most American Jews. Just 19% of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Jewish law (halakha) is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And in a separate but related question, most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on the Sabbath or does not believe in God. Believing in Jesus, however, is enough to place one beyond the pale: 60% of U.S. Jews say a person cannot be Jewish if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah.

Click here to read the full summary of the Pew Center’s findings.

Tikkun is creating space for a lively discussion of this report. Click on the links below to read the stirring responses we have received so far.

Response from Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Response from Rabbi Arthur Waskow

We are also soliciting other responses, which we will add to this page as they are published. Contact us if you are interested in joining the discussion!

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.
 
tags: Israel/Palestine, Judaism   
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