Almost Half of Young U.S. Jews Feel No Connection to Religion, New Pew Survey Shows

More than 40 percent of Jewish Americans are intermarried, nearly a quarter earn over $200,000 a year, more than half seldom or never attend synagogue and only a quarter believe in God, ‘Jewish Americans in 2020’ survey by Pew Research Center finds

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A baby girl clutching a photo of the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson during a Lag Ba'omer celebration in front of the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York last month.
A baby girl clutching a photo of the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson during a Lag Ba'omer celebration in front of the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York last month.Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Young Jewish Americans increasingly identify either as Orthodox or, to a much greater extent, agnostic – a trend with potentially far-reaching implications for the future of the Reform and Conservative movements that have long predominated in the United States. They are also more likely than their parents and grandparents to be racially and ethnically diverse and less likely to feel attached to Israel.

These are some of the key findings of the latest Pew Research Center report on Jewish Americans, published on Tuesday.

The 248-page study, titled “Jewish Americans in 2020,” is the first to be published since Pew’s inaugural survey of the community in 2013. The findings were based on responses from 4,718 adults who identify as Jewish. That includes 3,836 “Jews by religion” (those who said their present religion is Jewish) and 882 “Jews of no religion” (those who consider themselves Jewish aside from religion and have at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish).

This breakdown was meant to reflect the fact that more than one quarter of U.S. Jews (27 percent) do not identify with the Jewish religion.

The current survey estimates the Jewish population of the United States at 7.5 million, compared with 6.7 million in the previous survey. Jews accounted for 2.4 percent of the total U.S. population in the current survey, as compared with 2.2 percent in the previous one.

Based on this data, Sergio DellaPergola – the world’s leading authority on Jewish demography and professor emeritus from the Hebrew University – estimates that the “core” Jewish population of the United States is slightly more than 6 million. This “core” Jewish population, which he believes is more consistent with figures presented in previous studies, is defined as individuals who identify as Jewish and affiliate with no other religion. (“Jews of no religion” are only included in this calculation if they have two Jewish parents.)

Among Jewish Americans aged 18 to 29, some 17 percent currently identify as Orthodox. That compares with only 9 percent among the overall Jewish population and just 3 percent among those aged 65 and older. This disproportionately large share of Orthodox Jews among the younger age bracket is attributed to higher fertility rates in this subgroup.

At the same time, more than 40 percent of young Jewish Americans say they have no denominational affiliation and do not identify with Judaism as a religion. Rather, they see themselves as Jewish for cultural, ethnic or family reasons. Among the overall Jewish population, these “nonbelievers” account for 32 percent of the total and, among retirement age Jews, just 22 percent.

Addressing these trends, the survey notes that “these generational shifts toward both Orthodoxy and secular Jewishness have the potential, in time, to reshape American Jewry.”

An Israeli Independence Day celebration in New York last month.Credit: CAITLIN OCHS/ REUTERS

Shifting racial profile

According to the survey, 37 percent of U.S. Jews identify today as Reform, 17 percent as Conservative and 9 percent as Orthodox (this has changed little since 2013). Among young adults, however, only 29 percent identify as Reform (compared with 44 percent of the retirement age group) and only 8 percent identify as Conservative (compared with 25 percent of the retirement age group).

Overall, 92 percent of American Jews identify as white (non-Hispanic), while 8 percent identify as either Black, Hispanic, Asian, other races or multiracial. For comparison’s sake, in the 2013 survey, 94 percent of respondents identified as white (non-Hispanic), and only 6 percent as non-white. In addition, 17 percent of the respondents reported that they lived in households in which at least one member was either non-white or multiracial.

According to the survey, 1 percent of Jewish Americans identify as Black, 4 percent as Hispanic, 1 percent as Asian, and 3 percent as multiracial and other races. Among the youngest age group, there is a perceptible increase in diversity, with 2 percent identifying as Black, 7 percent as Hispanic and 6 percent as multiracial or other races.

“In time, the racial and ethnic profile of U.S. Jews may shift, since 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),” the report notes.

According to the survey, two-thirds of Jewish Americans identify as Ashkenazi, only 3 percent as Sephardi and 1 percent as Mizrahi. The remainder say they are either some combination or that these definitions don’t apply to them.

Nine out of 10 Jewish Americans were born in the United States and more than two-thirds (68 percent) come from families who have been in the country for two generations or longer. About one in 10 U.S. Jews were born or had a parent born in the former Soviet Union, and 3 percent were born or had a parent born in Israel.

A man dressed as Batman celebrating Israel's Independence Day, in Times Square, New York, last month.Credit: CAITLIN OCHS/ REUTERS

Following a series of deadly attacks on Jewish Americans, the survey put considerable emphasis on gauging their feelings about antisemitism.

More than nine in 10 respondents said there was at least “some” antisemitism in the United States, while 45 percent said there was “a lot.” Three-quarters of those surveyed said they perceived an increase in the past five years. A little more than half (53 percent) said that, as Jews, they felt less safe in the United States than they did five years ago. Orthodox Jews, who tend to be more visibly Jewish, felt most unsafe. Still, more than two-thirds of the respondents said they were not avoiding Jewish activities out of safety concerns.

Key findings

The following are some of the survey’s key findings:

■ Fully 42 percent of all married Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Among Jews who got married since 2010, more than six in 10 have a non-Jewish spouse. That compares with 45 percent a decade earlier and 37 percent in the 1990s. Among Orthodox Jews, only 2 percent say they have a non-Jewish spouse. Jews aged 18 to 49 with one Jewish parent are more likely than their counterparts who are older than 50 to say they are Jewish, indicating that it is becoming more common for children of mixed marriages to say they are Jewish.

Eleven percent of all married Jewish respondents say they are of a different race or ethnicity than their spouses. Among those who got married in the past decade, one in five say their spouse is of a different race or ethnicity, compared with less than one in 10 a decade earlier.

■ Nearly two-thirds of Jewish Americans believe rabbis should be able to perform weddings for interfaith couples, while another quarter say “it depends.” Among Orthodox Jews, however, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) are opposed to rabbis officiating at such weddings. More than seven in 10 Jewish Americans believe rabbis should also officiate at same-sex weddings. Among Orthodox Jews, 82 percent are opposed.

■ Jewish families in the United States have on average 1.9 children, compared with 2.3 children among American families overall. Fertility among Orthodox Jews is more than twice as high, with Orthodox Jewish families having an average of 3.3 children and non-Orthodox Jewish families having an average of 1.4 children.

■ Nearly 40 percent of Jewish Americans live in the Northeast – double the share of Americans overall who live in that part of the country. A quarter live in the West and a little over that in the South. Only 10 percent live in the Midwest.

■ Nearly six in 10 U.S. Jews are college graduates – double the rate of Americans overall. Fully 28 percent of U.S. Jews have a postgraduate degree, compared with only 11 percent of Americans overall.

■ Nearly a quarter of Jewish Americans (23 percent) earn family incomes of $200,000 a year or more. By comparison, only 4 percent of Americans on the whole reach that income level. One in 10 Jewish Americans earn less than $30,000 a year (compared with more than a quarter of Americans overall).

■ Jews tend to be far less religious than Americans as a whole. Only one in five U.S. Jews (21 percent) say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with nearly double that figure (41 percent) among American adults overall. More than half (53 percent) say that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important to them.

Only 12 percent of Jewish Americans say they attend religious services weekly, as compared with 27 percent of American adults overall. Moreover, only about a quarter of Jewish Americans (26 percent) say they believe in God “as described in the Bible,” compared with more than half of Americans (56 percent) overall. Another 50 percent of the respondents do say, however, that they believe in some other spiritual force.

Orthodox Jews are a striking exception in this regard, ranking among the most highly religious subgroups in the United States, along with White evangelicals and Black Protestants. The survey found that the more educated Jewish Americans are, the less importance they attach to religion in their lives.

■ While religion may not be very important to most Jewish Americans, their Jewish identity is. More than three-quarters of U.S. Jews say that being Jewish is either “very important” (42 percent) or “somewhat important” (34 percent) to them. Indeed, respondents were far more likely to say that being Jewish is more about ancestry (21 percent) and culture (22 percent) than about religion (11 percent). When asked what they considered an essential part of being Jewish, the top two answers were “remembering the Holocaust” and “leading an ethical and moral life.” “Observing Jewish law” was ranked very low on the list.

■ Regarding Jewish practices and activities, 62 percent of Jewish Americans held a Passover seder last year, 46 percent fasted all or part of last Yom Kippur, 17 percent keep kosher at home, and 20 percent attend synagogue at least monthly (while half seldom or never attend). In addition, 72 percent cook or eat traditional Jewish foods, 62 percent share Jewish culture and holidays with non-Jews, and 57 percent visit historic Jewish sites when traveling. Half of Jewish Americans say they had a bar or bat mitzvah when they were young.

■ While 71 percent of American Jews say they are Democrats or lean Democratic, the Republican Party is enjoying growing popularity among Orthodox Jews: 75 percent of Orthodox Jews, in this most recent survey, said they were Republicans or leaned Republican, compared with 57 percent in the previous survey. Half of Jewish Americans describe their political views as liberal – triple the share who describe themselves as conservatives.

■ Nearly three-quarters of American Jews (73 percent) say they disapproved of President Donald Trump’s performance in office and were especially critical of his environmental and immigration policies. The majority (63 percent) – including more than half (53 percent) of those who identify as Democratic supporters – perceived him as friendly to Israel, but fewer than a third thought he was friendly to Jews in the United States. More than half the respondents were critical of his policies toward the Jewish state, rating them as either “only fair” or “poor.” Among Orthodox Jews, however, Trump received a much higher approval rating.

A Donald Trump supporter attending the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas two years ago.Credit: Erik Kabik Photography / Media P

■ Less than half (48 percent) of Jewish Americans under age 30 describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. That compares with two-thirds of the retirement age group. Fully 45 percent of Jewish Americans say that caring about Israel is “essential” to being Jewish, and 57 percent say they follow news about Israel closely. Less than a third (32 percent) say they believe God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people.

A denominational breakdown shows that Orthodox Jews are the most connected to Israel, with 60 percent describing themselves as “very” attached to the Jewish state. Among Jewish Republicans, 44 percent describe themselves as “very” attached to Israel – more than double the figure for Jewish Democrats (19 percent). About one out of five U.S. Jews say the United States is too supportive of Israel (double the share that said this in 2013). Among the younger age group, nearly two out of five feel their government should be tougher on Israel.

■ Only two out of five Jewish Americans rate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership as “excellent” or “good.” Those under 30 are even less likely to give him high marks. Only one in three U.S. Jews think Israel is making a sincere effort to achieve peace with the Palestinians, while an even smaller share (12 percent) think the Palestinians are.

Attitudes toward Netanyahu are clearly split along denominational lines: Orthodox Jews give him high marks, while Reform Jews do not. Conservative Jews tend to be split. The more educated Jewish Americans are, the survey shows, the lower their regard for Netanyahu. Given his close alliance with Trump and the Republican Party, it is no surprise that Republican Jews give him much higher marks than do Democratic Jews.

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