In a recent analysis of U.S. religious groups, the Pew Research Center reported that the most educated American Jews are also the least religious.
In considering these findings, it’s tempting to think that secular education leads to assimilation among American Jews. The reason this might make sense: In a diverse, open society, education can draw people away from their particular group and its ways of life. Highly educated Jews, it seems, may be more likely to distance themselves from some traditional Jewish practices.
Using data from its landmark 2013 survey of U.S. Jews, Pew showed that college-educated Jews are less likely than Jews without a college degree to believe in God with absolute certainty and less likely to affirm that religion is very important to them. Partly accounting for these differences, Pew noted, are Orthodox Jews, who are more religious and tend to have lower levels of secular schooling than non-Orthodox Jews. But even when non-Orthodox Jews only are examined, the more educated are less religious.
Jews with a college degree are also less likely to keep kosher at home or to say that being Jewish is very important to them.
Could it be that higher education, that storied upside of American Jewish life, has a serious downside too?
Fortunately, the answer is no.
Jewish life is multifaceted. It encompasses religion, ethnicity and culture. It spans family, local community and global peoplehood. It has attitudinal and behavioral aspects. By looking further at the Pew survey data, we can see that in many cases college education has no association with assimilation. In other cases, higher education encourages Jewish connectivity, the very opposite of assimilation.
The data reveal that Jews with and without college degrees display many similar attitudes and behaviors. The two groups are just as likely to express pride in being Jewish, to have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, to feel a special responsibility to Jews in need, to say it’s essential to them to be part of a Jewish community and to be emotionally attached to Israel. In addition, they are just as likely to attend Jewish religious services monthly or more, to be able to converse in Hebrew, and, among those who are married, to have a Jewish spouse.
Jews have a quip that conveys the complexity of Jewish life: “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” As this example shows, Jews with a college education are no exception.
Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of the Berman Jewish DataBank, served as an adviser to the Pew Research Center on its 2013 survey of U.S. Jews.