Presentation of Pew Study of Jewish Americans, August 2021
Rabbi Kravitz invited me to speak today about the Pew Research Center Study of Jewish Americans that was released a few months ago. This would have been the ideal topic for Parasha Shemot when God commands Moshe to take the sum of the children of Israel for an egalitarian tax, and then later in the same portion calls for another accounting of the Israelites. However, today we read Parasha Shoftim, an especially rich one about law, morality, peace, war, and sorcery. This parasha is a wonderful text for an anthropologist to think about because there are sanctuary cities in other societies, and sorcery and witchcraft appear historically throughout the world. But that is not what I have been invited to discuss with you.
It is because I am an anthropologist that Rabbi Kravitz invited me to talk about this survey. My scholarship over the last decades has focused on American Jewish life-whether about synagogues, culture, gender, politics, youth, antisemitism, or race. My methods have been qualitative and historical. I study Jewish life by spending time with Jews to learn about how they think about their lives in various communities and experiences, and I look at the documents of the past. Surveys of Jews, by contrast, measure what they do, believe, and do with others. They are studies of individuals and allow sociologist to analyze that data. Survey research has been critical to the development of what me might call the social scientific study of American Jews, a field that developed following WWII. These surveys have become central to any discussion of American Jewish life by scholars of many types and within Jewish communities throughout the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere.
There are many explanations for why surveys of Jewish life have existed since the 19th century. The most basic one is that the U.S. census does not include a question about Americans’ religious affiliation. It is a violation of the First Amendment for the Federal government to ask a person what his or her religion is. There is, therefore, a long history of scholars creating surveys of religious life in America because census data cannot. However, Jews are such a tiny portion of the U.S. population that they cannot be adequately represented in them. Therefore, Jews conduct their own surveys, and for many reasons. For example, Jews have most often been interested in understanding not only how many Jews lived where in the U.S., but their ages, their incomes, their occupations, and many other questions that reveal demographic information about Jews. Social scientists, usually engaged by communal institutions like Federations, undertook these studies for cities, most often to understand the needs of their own communities.
However, beginning in 1971, the Council of Jewish federations commissioned the first national survey, and like the United States census they have appeared, with various sponsors, more or less every ten years. It would be fair to say, without exaggeration, that scholars, communal leaders, and rabbis have fought about the meaning of this research ever since. Sophisticated methods, including how to decide who is surveyed and what are the best questions to ask, produce results that begin conversations, but they hardly end them. The ferocity of these debates, particularly among scholars, is such that the surveys in 2013 and 2020 were not funded by Jewish communal agencies, but by the Pew Research Center, which is a private organization devoted to highly sophisticated research on religion, among other areas. The studies were funded by a generous Jewish donor. Perhaps you can speculate about why that might have happened. Suffice it to say, the level of conflict over the 1990 survey was so heated that it appeared no national survey would again occur. That might still be the case in the future, and then the business of surveying Jews will return to where it began with surveys done of and by local Jewish communities, which have always been an invaluable source of information.
I want to share with you, as Rabbi Kravitz requested, a very small snapshot of some of the findings of the 2020 survey that are generally seen as the most important takeaways. I do not have enough time to even cover all of them. You can, however, access the entire study on the website of the Pew Research Center. You can find a discussion of the top ten takeaways here https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/11/10-key-findings-about-jewish-americans/, or the whole study here https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/. These sites are intended for interested readers and not experts. They are highly readable.
First, you might wonder how this research was conducted and who they count as Jewish, which is the subject of one major debate. The survey was administered by phone or email. Contacts were made with over 68,000 adults in the United States. Screeners asked people who answered if their religion was Jewish or if they considered themselves Jewish. It was up to the individual to state that he or she was Jewish. There were no external definitions. They also asked the person if he or she was not a “Jew by religion,” which is the term created by the designers of the study. 4,781 people fit the criteria of who was considered Jewish. (The survey included 3,836 people who consider themselves as Jewish by religion, and 882 people who were self-defined as Jewish but not religious. They also surveyed people who were raised as Jews but no longer Jewish, but those people were not included in the count of how many Jews are in the U.S.
The first purpose of a census is to provide a count of, in this case, how many Jews are in the United States. The Pew estimates that that there are 7.5 million Jews—1.8 million children and 5.8 million adults, which is 2.4 % of the population of the United States. The 2013 estimate was 6.7 million adults and children and a slightly lower percentage of the U.S. population. These surveys suggest that the number of Jews in the United States have continued to grow over recent decades. The Jewish population is more ethnically and racially diverse. 92% of American Jews identify as non-Hispanic whites (a technical term), while 8% identify with other racial or ethnic groups. However, for Jews 18-29, 15% identify with racial categories that are not non- Hispanic whites. Our future is multi-racial and multi-ethnic.
Moving beyond the census count, the survey asked many questions about the individual’s religion, politics, non- religious forms of Jewish identity, attitudes about Israel and antisemitism, and other items as well. Here are some of the results that were striking to me.
1.Rates of Jews’ affiliation with Judaim tracks with other Americans other than by age. The impact of age is crucial is crucial in virtually every aspect of the survey, not surprising, but it also holds some surprises with religious identification.Like Americans overall, Jewish religious affiliation is declining significantly among younger Jews. 41% of Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 identify with no branch of Judaism. That may not be unusual because people tend to affiliate with synagogues when they have families and Jews marry late. But among Jews 30-49, 36% identify with no branch of Judaism. By the way, that number is 35% for all Americans between 18 and 29 and 37% for 30-49. 27% of American Jews are now Jews of no religion.
However, what sets Jews apart in the 18-29 age group is that 17% identify as Orthodox. That age group is the most affiliated with orthodox Judaism of any other currently. Only 3% of Jews over 65 identify as orthodox. And it is that age group that has the highest identification with Conservative Judaism, 25%. Given birthrates, Orthodox Judaism is poised over the next decades to become a larger share of Jews by religion.
Among Americans with one Jewish parent, young adults are more likely to identify as Jewish than in previous generations. One third of those 18-29 consider themselves Jews, but of those over 50 with one Jewish parent, only 12 % thought of themselves as Jewish. Not quite a third of intermarried families are raising their children as Jews. While that number seems low, it is much higher than was anticipated several decades ago. In addition, we know from other studies that a significantly higher number of children are likely to attend Passover seders, celebrate Hanukah, or participate with family and friends in Jewish events.
The survey demonstrates again that in-married Jewish families are most likely to raise Jewish children and those children are most likely to marry Jews. However, there is also no question that in-marriage is not the only means to create Jewish families.
What might we make of this very brief overview of some of the most important findings? Surveys, to reiterate, are simply one perspective on Jewish life. They tell us nothing about how people feel about their Jewishness, what their community means to them, how they create a Jewish life, with whom, where and when, or what or who affects their choices and ideas. They offer broad perspectives. No survey would have predicted a Trump presidency and its impact on Jewish life or the rise in antisemitism, for example. That is not what surveys do. We make our own destinies.
It is also crucial to understand how much Jews look like other Americans in terms of religious affiliation, intermarriage, and a waning sense of group attachment. Jews are also different than other Americans. We are far, far less religious in traditional, (meaning Protestant) terms, than other Americans, especially around belief in God. We are also more highly educated and have higher incomes. We are also, someone recently told me the most vaccinated in the U.S.
At the same time, Jewish life is fundamentally changing. More Jews are raised by non- Jews; more Jews are people of color; more white Jews live in households with people of color and more Jews are Orthodox. We, as progressive Jews in the middle, are tasked with a huge responsibility to understand how to be part of and respond to these changes, in a changing moment of racial reckoning and antisemitic rising white Christian nationalism.
This presentation coincides with two relevant events The first analysis of the US census was released this week and finds, of course, that we are living in a far more diverse nation. In addition, last week, a survey was released that was commissioned by the Jews of Color Initiative. This survey, with a far less sophisticated sample than the Pew study, but still of monumental importance, received 1100 responses from Jews of Color in 48 states. Researchers also interviewed 60 Jews of Color. The JOC Initiative is committed to fighting racism within the American Jewish community, and positively to get us to realize we are a multi-racial and multicultural people, and have been for centuries. More than 80% of respondents said that they have experienced racism in the Jewish community. Yet, those surveyed overwhelmingly love being Jews and are deeply committed to Jewish life. This is not the time to discuss this in any greater detail, but it is the right place to end. You can access the survey here https://jewsofcolorinitiative.org/premier-of-beyond-the-count-perspectives-and-lived-experiences-of-jews-of color/?fbclid=IwAR3bIWbpm8M0FP9rI1admLJ3X8aOaBh90Zo6XfGmWxRPhMQpTGAc8yVj8Nk
To conclude, surveys provide us crucial but very limited information. It is up to us to create the Jewish lives we believe in, and we should do that looking forward and not backward.
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Heidi also served as president of Adath Jeshurun after years of service on the board of trustees, including acting as chair of the Adult Learning Committee and co-chair of the Adath Israel Committee. She is a volunteer speaker for the Jewish Community Relations Council, where she speaks about Israel and about Judaism in high schools, middle schools, churches, and civic organizations.
Heidi is a student of Mussar with the Center for Contemporary Mussar led by Rabbi Ira Stone, and she teaches Mussar classes at Adath Jeshurun.
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