As many as 27% of US Jewish adults do not identify with the Jewish religion, according to Tuesday’s extensive Pew report (Jewish Americans in 2020). They accept being ethnically Jewish, or culturally, or have a Jewish parent, but they prefer to describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” and not as Jewish. Things get even sadder among Jewish adults under 30, where 40% describe themselves the same way.
These numbers should not surprise those of us who read Pew’s 2013 extensive report (A Portrait of Jewish Americans), which stated very clearly: “Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.”
Yes, it took US Jews eight years to lose another 5%. See you in 2028 with, say, 35% renouncing any connection to the faith? Yes, Virginia, it’s a trend.
But wait, there’s some hope: according to Wednesday’s report, 17% of Jews ages 18 to 29 self-identify as Orthodox, and 11% of Jewish adults under 30 are Haredim. Back in 2013, “among Jews under age 30, 11% are Orthodox Jews (including 9% who are Ultra-Orthodox). And among Jews in their 30s and 40s, 14% are Orthodox (including 10% who are Ultra-Orthodox).”
So this is also a trend: we may have fewer US Jews, but those who are, are very much Jewish.
“Meanwhile, the two branches of Judaism that long predominated in the U.S. have less of a hold on young Jews than on their elders,” the 2021 Pew survey finds. “Roughly four-in-ten Jewish adults under 30 identify with either Reform (29%) or Conservative Judaism (8%).”
“In other words, the youngest US Jews count among their ranks both a relatively large share of traditionally observant, Orthodox Jews and an even larger group of people who see themselves as Jewish for cultural, ethnic or family reasons but do not identify with Judaism – as a religion – at all,” the Pew survey concludes.
According to Pew, in absolute numbers, the 2020 Jewish population estimate is approximately 7.5 million, including 5.8 million adults and 1.8 million children. The 2013 estimate was 6.7 million, including 5.3 million adults and 1.3 million children.
And, despite the fact that the US Jewish population is flourishing, the survey found that many share concerns about anti-Semitism. About 75% say there is more anti-Semitism in the United States than there was five years ago, and 53% say that “as a Jewish person in the United States” they feel less safe than they did five years ago.
“Jews who wear distinctively religious attire, such as a kippa or head covering, are particularly likely to say they feel less safe. But the impact on behavior seems to be limited: even among those who feel less safe, just one-in-ten – or 5% of all US Jews – report that they have stayed away from a Jewish event or observance as a result.”
The survey’s authors delineated 10 key findings about Jewish Americans, which, from an anecdotal perspective, appear to be reliable:
- The size of the adult Jewish population has been fairly stable in percentage terms, while rising in absolute numbers, roughly in line with the growth of the US population. An estimated 2.4% of US adults are Jewish.
- Like the overall US population, Jews appear to be growing more racially and ethnically diverse. Among Jews ages 18 to 29, 15% identify as other than non-Hispanic White.
- US Jews are less religious than American adults overall. About 12% of Jewish Americans attend religious services at least once a week, compared with about 27% of US adults.
- Jewish Americans are staunchly liberal and favor the Democratic Party, but Orthodox Jews are a notable exception.
- Three-quarters of American Jews think there is more anti-Semitism in the US today than there was five years ago.
- About 82% of US Jews say caring about Israel is either “essential” or “important” to what being Jewish means to them. But 29% of Jewish Democrats and only 5% of Jewish Republicans said the US was too supportive of Israel.
- About 72% of US Jews engage in cooking Jewish food, 62% share holidays with non-Jewish friends, and 57% visit historical Jewish sites.
- Younger Jews are more likely than older Jews to identify as Orthodox, and also more likely to say they do not belong to any particular branch of Judaism.
- Members of different branches of American Judaism generally do not feel they have “a lot” in common with one another.
- About 42% of married Jews have a non-Jewish spouse, but intermarriage rates differ within subgroups. Only 2% of married Orthodox Jews have a non-Jewish spouse, compared with 47% of non-Orthodox. Among Jewish respondents who got married since the beginning of 2010, 61% have a non-Jewish spouse, compared with 18% of Jews who got married before 1980. And, proving that intermarriage really is a slippery slope: Among married Jews who say they have one Jewish parent, 82% have a non-Jewish spouse, compared with 34% of those who report that both of their parents were Jewish.