There are a lot more Jews in America than you may have thought — an estimated 6.8 million, according to a new study. But a growing proportion of them are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions.
The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.
Overall, the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.
Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, and the survey finds they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. Broken down by age, 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 — the so-called millennial generation — identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers and just 7 percent of Jews born before 1927.
This data on Jewish engagement comes from the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, a telephone survey of 3,475 Jews nationwide conducted between February and June and released on Tuesday. The population estimate, released Monday, comes from a synthesis of existing survey data conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
Overall, Jews make up about 2.2 percent of Americans, according to Pew. By comparison, 6.06 million Jews live in Israel, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
The more notable findings of the Pew survey — compared and contrasted to the statistics in Jewish Baltimore’s 2010 Community Study — are:
Affiliation: Among Jewish denominations, the Reform movement remains the largest: 35 percent of respondents identified as Reform, according to the Pew study. The second-largest group is Jews of no denomination (30 percent), followed by Conservative (18 percent) and Orthodox (10 percent). In Baltimore, 23 percent of people are Reform, 32 percent Conservative, 32 percent Orthodox, 8 percent non-denominational, 5 percent secular (and less than 1 percent, miscellaneous).
Israel: Emotional attachment to Israel has held steady over the last decade, with 69 percent of respondents saying they feel attached or very attached to Israel. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been to Israel. Forty six percent of Baltimore Jewish respondents report they are very emotionally attached to Israel.
Importance of religion: Approximately one-quarter of Jews said religion is very important in their lives, compared to 74 percent of Jewish Baltimore survey respondents that reported that being Jewish is very important to them.
Synagogue attendance: Less than one-third of American Jews say they belong to a synagogue. Twenty-three percent of U.S. Jews say they attend synagogue at least once or twice a month. Forty-six percent of Jewish Baltimore households report that they pay dues to a synagogue or temple in the area, and 76 percent report attending services at least on the High Holidays and some as often as weekly.
Raising kids Jewish: Among inmarried Jews, 96 percent are raising their children as Jews, compared to 45 percent among intermarried Jews, according to the Pew study. Of the 5,200 children living in all intermarried households in Baltimore, 30 percent are being raised Jewish only, 18 percent Jewish-and-something-else, and 25 percent have an undecided religious identity.
Russian Population: The Pew study found that about 10 percent of American Jews are former Soviet Jews or their children. In Baltimore, that number is 4 percent.
The Pew study is the first comprehensive national survey of American Jews in more than a decade. The last one, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), was conducted by the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations and counted 5.2 million Jews, including children. But critics said that study’s methodology was flawed and undercounted American Jews. Because of the differences in methodologies between the new survey and the NJPS, the increased number of U.S. Jews likely overstates any actual growth.
About 65 percent of American Jews live in just six states, according to the Steinhardt/Cohen estimates: New York (20 percent), California (14 percent), Florida (12 percent), New Jersey (8 percent), Massachusetts (5 percent) and Pennsylvania (5 percent). The other four states in the top 10 — Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Ohio — add another 15 percent.
As with other studies, the Pew study found that the Orthodox share of the American Jewish population is likely to grow because Orthodox Jews tend to be younger and have larger families than Jews generally. In addition, while past surveys showed about half of respondents raised as Orthodox were no longer Orthodox, the Orthodox retention rate appears to be improving, with just a 17 percent falloff among 18- to 29-year-olds. Most denominational switching among American Jews, however, remains in the direction of less traditional Judaism.
The Pew survey also asked respondents about what it means to be Jewish, offering several options. The most popular element was remembering the Holocaust, at 73 percent, followed by leading an ethical life, at 69 percent.
Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said the study is not “shocking or surprising,” but also a “loud bell that needs to be heard.” He said the Jewish world needs to do a better job of making a Jewish life laden with content more available and accessible.
“Our tradition is rich with content and shame on us if we reduce it to birthright or choice,” he said.
Terrill and Michael Hoffman, chief planning & strategy officer for The Associated, said the numbers should lead us to look at what is successful among the Orthodox constituency, as well as among other faith communities, and to learn from it.
Hoffman noted we are at risk (locally and nationally) of being a polarized community, but said he was confident that there are members in the Baltimore community who understand the significance of this concern and the need to sit around the same table.
Hoffman said he already began consulting with the Ukeles Associates, Inc., the company that ran Baltimore’s study, to compare and contrast findings and glean parallels in style and methodology. He said one important observation that Ukeles affirmed is that Baltimore continues to buck the trend in several areas identified in the Pew Study. We have significantly higher rates of affiliation, greater sense of Jewish pride and significantly lower rates of intermarriage.
“This does not mean that Baltimore will not start to trend downward in the coming years, but at
least we are on the trailing edge of this phenomenon,” said Hoffman. “We are already putting in place programmatic strategies to address issues of affiliation and meaningful connections to Jewish life.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org
Uriel Heilman writes for JTA Wire Service.