The recently released Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” has garnered tremendous attention. For most in the media and among many scholars and pundits concerned with the Jewish community, the headline was an increase in the portion of the population that describes itself as “atheist, agnostic, or having no particular religion.” Lost in the conversation was that the study found population growth among U.S. Jews, not the decline that many had claimed. Pew’s findings are consonant with research done at the Cohen Center/Steinhardt Institute that documents the increase in the U.S. Jewish population, both among those who identify Judaism as their religion and those who identify by other criteria.
Below Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, provides his ten takeaways of the Pew study.
- American Jews have not vanished. Pew’s estimate of 4.2M adult Jews by religion (JBR) is 25%/40% greater than the corresponding figures from NJPS 1990/2000-01. The Pew estimate of JBRs is not a methodological artifact – it’s almost precisely what one finds if you examine hundreds of surveys done with state of the art methodology that ask a standard question about religious identification (see American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012).
- The Pew estimate of a total population of 6.7M Jews is, as well, substantially larger than the corresponding estimates of NJPS 1990 and 2000-01. Notably, Pew’s criteria for who counts as a Jew are more conservative. Earlier surveys, in counting Jews of no religion (JNR), did not require self-identification as a Jew. NJPS 2000-01, in particular, included persons of Jewish background who were not considered Jewish by Pew.
- Pew estimates that 23% of the Jewish population is Jewish by criteria other than religion. That’s not very different than the results of other studies; in particular, the ARIS studies find higher rates (30%), while the Steinhardt Institute (based on studies using the Knowledge Network panel) uses a slightly lower rate (19%). What it means to be a JNR has, perhaps, changed and there are more such individuals because the overall population is larger.
- One explanation for the larger Jewish population estimate is the effect of intermarriage on Jewish identification. As Ted Sasson details in a recent article in Tablet Magazine, the children of intermarriage are identifying as Jewish at high rates. Although intermarriage rates remain high (above 2/3 for non-Orthodox Jews), most children of one Jewish parent (as defined by Pew) see themselves as Jewish.
- If one compares Pew’s JBRs with NJPS JBRs (1990 and 2000-01), on similar questions (e.g., fasted on Yom Kippur, importance of Judaism), the reported rates are almost identical. What’s different is that Pew estimates that there are many more individuals engaging in these behaviors than indicated by earlier studies. The numeric increase is not accounted for by those who are Orthodox (who comprise only 12% of the JBR population).
- Among Pew’s JNR adults (estimated at 1.1M), nearly half answered the religion question by indicating that they are atheist or agnostic (both categories were included as part of the prompts). Although some regard this as a negation of Jewish identity, a substantial majority of Pew’s respondents, including JBRs, regard Judaism “mainly” as “ancestry/culture.” Only a small minority regard Judaism mainly as a religion.
- Pew estimates that there are 1.3M Jewish children, but they restrict the child population to those being “raised” Jewish (900k raised exclusively as Jews, 300k partly Jewish, and 100k as Jews of no religion). Pew excludes 500k children who live in a household with a Jewish parent. Many, if not most, of these children would be considered Jewish by the community (e.g., eligible for youth/young adult programs). Note: Pew estimates that 20% of the total adult Jewish population is 18-29 (1.1M/91k/age cohort). If one assumes that current 0-18 age cohorts are the same size, there are then 1.6M children. This is not the “enlarged” Jewish population, but rather the core Jewish population.
- The Pew findings do not reflect changes in intermarriage being wrought by programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel. Taglit has dramatic effects on intermarriage rates for participants in its ten-day Israel education programs (see http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/researchareas/taglit-publications.html), particularly so for those from intermarried households. Because highly educated American Jews delay marriage (until their 30s), the impact of Taglit did not have a marked effect on the rates reported by Pew.
- Regarding Israel, Pew’s findings show high levels of support and attachment to Israel. Overall, nearly 45% of all Jewish adults have visited Israel, including a similar proportion of young adults (again, influenced by Taglit). As well, almost 90% of all Jews say that caring about Israel is “essential” or “important” to their Jewishness.
- One puzzle regarding Pew’s findings is their estimate of 3.5M individuals of Jewish background (2.4M adults and 1.1M children). Considered by Pew non-Jewish (and, thus, not part of their 6.7M estimate of the Jewish population), Jewish background individuals have Jewish parents and/or were raised Jewish. The puzzle is that nearly 75% of these individuals consider themselves Jewish and many engage in Jewish practices (including regular synagogue attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur). They were excluded because they also indicated that they had another religion (in some cases, agnostic/atheist). Pew has, to date, not provided detailed information about these individuals.
In sum, rather than painting a bleak portrait of American Jewry, the Pew survey describes high levels of Jewish identification, albeit many of those who identify as Jewish are not highly engaged in Jewish life and with formal Jewish organizations. My key take-away is that the U.S. Jewish community has a challenge: How to sustain identification and engagement with Judaism, both as a religious movement and as a culture. Intermarriage and the encounter with a dominant non-Jewish culture has, no doubt, reduced the ranks of those who identify as Jewish (the Jewish population would be 10 million, not 7 million), but the loss in Jewish identification is far less than had been thought. Whether or not these trends will be sustained is impossible to predict, but the current levels of identification and engagement suggest a host of opportunities.