Pew news: You don’t have to be religious to be Jewish

 Readers (and bloggers) “of a certain age” will recall the famous advertising campaign for Levy’s “real Jewish Rye” bread showing photos of people who are distinctly non-Jewish enjoying a sandwich on the famous bread.

Now, a study from the Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life — reportedly the first major Jewish demographic survey in more than a decade — reveals that many American Jews feel people don’t have to be, well, religiously oriented to be Jewish. Several religion reporters were apparently briefed on the study’s results at last week’s Religion Newswriters Association convention in Austin, Texas, and numerous stories broke this past Tuesday, the day the research results were formally released.

The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein kicked things off:

The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, found that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

While Wertheimer might be feeling grim, the survey respondents appear happy enough, both collectively and individually.

Scribe Emily Alpert at the Los Angeles Times focused on someone who appears to fit the “demo” of the survey:

Growing up Jewish, Marilyn McLaughlin loved lighting the braided candle and singing to mark the end of Shabbat. She relished studying the Talmud and weighing its ethical questions.

But sitting in synagogue left her cold. “I was stuffed with religion,” McLaughlin said. “But I had no deep connection to it.”

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that more than a fifth of Jewish Americans say they have no religion. Yet like McLaughlin, they still identify themselves as Jewish.

Scholars say that the Jewish people have long seen themselves as more than a religious faith, also defining themselves as Jewish through culture or ancestry. Only 15% see being Jewish as “mainly a matter of religion,” the new survey of nearly 3,500 Jewish Americans shows. Less than a third of Jews — even religious Jews — think someone can’t be Jewish without believing in God.

As more Americans of all faiths turn away from religion, Jewish secularism seems to be booming too. Pew found that the share of “Jews of no religion” appears to have surged, compared to a somewhat different survey a dozen years earlier. Younger Jews are much more likely to shrug off religion than their elders.

Alpert’s article puts the Jewish “nones” question in perspective: lots of people in America allegedly are turning to secularist views, so why not in the Jewish community?

CNN’s Daniel Burke included additional context about how survey respondents see themselves:

The most essential parts of being Jewish, according to American Jews, are remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical life (69%) and working for social justice and peace (56%).

Almost as many American Jews say that having good sense of humor (42%) is as important to their Jewish identity as caring about Israel (43%).

And Abe Levy of The San Antonio Express-News is highly succinct in analyzing the report on his paper’s blog:

In many ways, this follows the overall trend of U.S. adults of whom about 20 percent have no religious affiliation.

Cultural and ancestral ties to Jewish identity remain relatively strong, the survey suggests. But for the Jewish community that is observant and religiously active, the survey is another snapshot of their ongoing challenges in passing on their faith.

Overall, lots of religion reporters — perhaps having the luxury of getting briefed on the survey days before its public release — got the story right. The best included the context that this whole identity thing isn’t just a Jewish community issue. For example, how many folks are suddenly “Catholic” in the wake of Pope Francis’ warm-and-fuzzy media blitz, even if they’re not dashing off to mass?

It would have been nice to have had more analysis and discussion of why the question of, for want of a better phrase, “non-religious Jewish identity” is all the rage, or so it seems. Also, not every story noted a rather surprising statistic reported by the Pew researchers and noted by Goodstein: “In a surprising finding, 34 percent said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah.” Yes, that is surprising, and one wonders what it might portend for the future with more and more evangelism in America reaching all sorts of audiences.

Studies such as this are certainly valuable, and obviously are thought-provoking. It would be nice to see not only more reporting from the person-not-in-the-pews angle as well as that of Jewish leaders, on how the community will address these issues moving forward. You don’t have to be Jewish to have an interest in where that discussion might lead.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • nycreligion.info

    Perhaps, the biggest news out of Pew survey of American Jews was that in effect it was perhaps the first ever published national survey of Jewish Christians who total 1.7 million adult Jews, larger than the number of Nones and second in size only to the Reform Jews. The 5.3 million adult Jews that Pew cited plus the 1.7 million “completed-Jews” (a common answer by Jews about their Christian identity in the screening question) means 7 million adult Jews in U.S.

  • John Pack Lambert

    So, do most Jews yet accept you can still be a Jew and believe in Jesus as Savior, or are only athiests allowed to be Jews? If you can be a Jew and not believe in God, then why can’t you be one and believe Jesus was God. Those are tough questions Jews need to ask themselves. Considering many still seem to have irrational reactions to baptism in any form.


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