Younger Jewish adults in the U.S. are more likely to say they have no religion, according to a Pew Research Center report published on May 11.
While 60% of respondents aged 18-29 are “Jews by religion,” 40% are “Jews of no religion.” This is the highest percentage of any age group.
“Jews by religion” refers to respondents “who said their present religion is Jewish,” the report explained, while “Jews of no religion” identifies respondents who “consider themselves to be Jewish ethnically, culturally or by family background and have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but they answer a question about their current religion by describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ rather than as Jewish.”
By comparison, 33% of those aged 30-49, 19% of those aged 50-64 and 16% of those 65 and older all are Jews of no religion.
Overall, 27% – more than one in four – of all Jewish adults are Jews of no religion.
The youngest respondents (aged 18-29) were also the most likely group to be affiliated with Orthodox Judaism (17%), compared to 11% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 7% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 3% of those 65-plus.
Respondents 65 and older were most likely to identify with Reform Judaism (44%), compared to 35% of those 50-64, 37% of those 30-59 and 29% of those 18-29.
They were also the most likely group to identify with Conservative Judaism (25%), compared to 22% of respondents 50- to 64-year-olds, 11% of those 30-49 and 8% of those 18-29.
Since 2013, affiliation with both Reform Judaism and no particular branch has increased two points (to 37% and 32%, respectively) while affiliation with both Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism has declined one point (to 17% and 9%, respectively).
In terms of political affiliation, a strong majority of three of the four traditions surveyed identify as Democratic / lean Democratic (Reform, 80%; no particular branch, 75%; Conservative, 70%). By contrast, a strong majority of Orthodox respondents (75%) identify as Republican / lean Republican.
“While these generational shifts toward both Orthodoxy and secular Jewishness have the potential, in time, to reshape American Jewry, the new survey paints a portrait of Jewish Americans in 2020 that is not dramatically different from 2013,” the report said.
“Counting all Jewish adults – young and old, combined – the percentages who identify as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are little changed. The size of the adult Jewish population is also remarkably stable in percentage terms, while rising in absolute numbers, roughly in line with the total U.S. population.”
I reached out to several Jewish faith leaders, asking for their insight and perspective regarding the trends observed in the Pew survey data. Here is what they said:
“The Pew Study contains at least three important findings for the United States Jewish community,” said Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, a Conservative rabbi and member of the Good Faith Media strategic advisory board.
“The first is that not much has changed in seven years, a relief in a time when not much seems to be stable. The second is that Jews in America are a lot like everyone else, which ought to be obvious (but it is nice to have statistical validation!),” he said. “The third is that the gap within the community between the very religious and the much less religious is more pronounced – and there seems to be little will to bridge it. In and of itself, this finding is cause for deep concern.”
“It is also worth noting (as others have) that some of the questions posed (particularly about belief in God) presume a certain definition of faith commitment that may be valid in Christian circles, but is differently nuanced in among Jews,” Moline said. “All in all, there are some interesting sermons and blog posts to be expected in the coming months!”
“As Jewish leaders, our responsibility is to work in partnership with young people to catalyze Jewish experiences that move them to deepen their relationship with our texts and traditions,” said Melissa Balaban, CEO and founding president of IKAR and the chair of the Jewish Emergent Network.
“When you go beyond the statistics, we consistently see that young Jews are craving community that has depth, is spiritually compelling, rooted in justice and is a source of comfort and moral courage,” she said. “This has only become more apparent during this time of turmoil, uncertainty and fierce polarization.”
“It did not surprise me that Jews felt that there was more anti-Semitism. What surprised me the most was that there are now 800,000 more Jews than there were in 2013,” said Fred Guttman, a Reform rabbi who has served as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, since 1995.
“Much of this increase was due to an increase in conversion, which in itself is interesting because Jews do not actively seek converts. Aside from the usual converts due to intermarriage, the study shows that people converted after finding out about a DNA test from Ancestry.com or 23andMe or because they found Judaism more open to LGBTQ people or because they started looking into Judaism on Google and wanted further study,” he said.
“There were other reasons including wanting to become a part of an ancient people, a lack of doctrinaire theology and an attraction to Judaism’s emphasis on social justice,” Guttman said. “All in all, I found this to be quite surprising, even though we have noticed some of this in our congregation.”
“I have only one question for the sociologists. What is a Jew of no religion?” asked Steven Greenberg, founding director of Eshel, an Orthodox rabbi, educator, writer and speaker who has led the call for LGBTQ inclusion in the Orthodox world.
“‘Religion’ isn’t a Jewish word. It has no true Hebrew translation. Even the word dat that is used in Modern Hebrew is of Persian in origin and means law, not religion. Pew is bedeviled by categories that are fundamentally Protestant,” he said.
“While that is the idiomatic context for many American Jews, still, questions about Heaven and Hell? Really? Asking whether the Bible should be taken literally, or not literally? This is a nonsensical question for anyone who knows the first thing about Jewish scripture and its interpretation.”
“American Jews don’t experience Jewish ‘religion’ as Christians experience Christianity,” Greenberg said. “We are a people that share language, music, food, humor, literature, rituals. Mitzvot, prayers and protests and passions, a land and a diaspora, a penchant for controversy and paradox and a profound spiritual and moral heritage.”
“Perhaps if we asked different questions, we might discover that many Jews who have no religion do experience something like Yiddishkeit,” he said.