In October 2013, the Pew Research Center released a report on American Jewry that generated a tremendous amount of discussion in the Jewish community. Now, two years later, the center has published a supplementary report focusing specifically on Orthodox Jews. The report (www.pewforum.org/2015/08/26/a-portrait-of-american-orthodox-jews/) collates data that appeared in the original report along with further analysis.
To learn more, The Jewish Press spoke with Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center. A magna cum laude graduate from Harvard, Cooperman worked as a national reporter and editor at The Washington Post and a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report before joining the center in 1982.
The Jewish Press: This report argues that in certain respects Orthodox Jews in America resemble evangelical Christians more than they do their fellow Jews. Can you elaborate?
Cooperman: In terms of how often they say they attend religious services, Orthodox Jews and white evangelicals are almost identical. Seventy-four percent of Orthodox Jews and 75 percent of white evangelicals say they attend religious services at least once a month.
Similarly, when we asked people, “How important is religion in your life – very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?” 83 percent of Orthodox Jews and 86 percent of white evangelicals said it’s very important in their lives. Among non-Orthodox Jews, only 20 percent said it’s very important.
The third similarity is the share of both of these groups that say the land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people – 84 percent of Orthodox Jews and 82 percent of white evangelicals. Among Jews as a whole, it’s 40 percent. Among Christians as a whole, it’s 55 percent.
Eighty-four percent sounds like a high number, but shouldn’t it be 100 percent considering that the Bible is pretty clear that God gave Israel to the Jews? On that note, some people question the Pew Research Center’s methodology since its original report on American Jewry contained several highly implausible findings, such as its conclusion that only 75 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews refrain from handling money on Shabbos. How do you respond?
It’s an excellent question. First of all, let me say that criticism of the report has generally come from people who are not familiar with this kind of research. Once it’s explained to them, they tend to realize that people who self-identity in a particular way don’t always behave and believe the way they are expected to behave and believe.
So, for example, some people tell us that they’re Orthodox Jews but they don’t keep kosher. There’s also a small percentage of people who self-identify as Reform Jews who tell us they do keep kosher. So there’s a wide spectrum of behavior and beliefs among people, and people don’t always line up 100 percent the way other people expect them to.
Let me add one more thing: There’s always some “noise” in surveys, by which I mean there are people who are distracted when they’re doing the survey and give an answer that’s not right. The person doing the interview and punching in the answer could also make an error. And finally, there are always going to be a few people who are jokesters and give silly answers. So, for example, they’ll tell you that they’re 185 years old, stand 6’ 8” tall, weigh 42 lbs. and have been to Mars. If you ask in a survey, “When was the last time you visited Mars?” I guarantee you that you will have a non-zero response.
One of the Pew Research Center’s findings is that Orthodox Jews tend to have more children – 4.1 – than other American Jews – 1.7. What do these numbers mean for the future of American Jewry?