Jewish Americans less religious but proud of identity, report finds

Pew study finds cultural heritage a stronger factor than religion in how Jewish Americans define themselves

Members of Hill Havurah in Washington gather to observe Yom Kippur in Sept. 2012.

In keeping with wider social trends, Jewish Americans today are far less inclined than their grandparents were to identify themselves on the basis of religion. The most comprehensive study of American Jewish attitudes in over a decade, published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, found that the number of American Jews who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion has dropped by about half over the last half-century – instead, cultural heritage and collective memory appear to be the basis on which growing numbers of Americans identify themselves as Jewish.

The Pew Study, based on in-depth interviews with 3,475 respondents from across the 50 states screened from a wider sample of 70,000, found that 22 percent of American Jews define themselves as "Jews of no religion." More than 60 percent say Judaism is "a matter of culture or ancestry," while just 15 percent believe Judaism is "mainly a matter of religion."

More American Jews are also marrying outside the faith. Statistics show that only 17 percent of Jews married non-Jews before 1970. However, nearly 60 percent of Jews married since 2000 have a non-Jewish spouse.

If American Jews appear to be losing their religion, they aren't alone. A Pew study late last year revealed that one-fifth of all Americans were "religiously unaffiliated," an increase of 4 percent from five years earlier.

Keeping with broader trends, the number of Jewish Americans who identify as "having no religion" is largest among millennials at 32 percent – compared with 19 percent in the baby boomer generation.

Still, the report's authors note, "Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole" and are less likely to attend religious services weekly or believe in God with absolute certainty. While 56 percent of all Americans say religion is very important in their lives, that figure is just 26 percent in the Jewish community. "But while relatively few Jews attach high importance to religion," the Pew authors write, "far more (46 percent) say being Jewish is very important to them."

Indeed, 83 percent of those who identified themselves as "Jews of no religion" in the study expressed pride in being Jewish. That, says Stephen M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University and an adviser on the Pew study, is because Judaism is not just a religion, but also a social identity. 

"Even people who do not have Jewish parents who convert to being Jewish join a national, cultural or ethnic group as well as a religion. You can be part of the ethnicity without having ancestral DNA in your body," Cohen says.

Holocaust memory

Presented with a number of options for describing "an essential part of what being Jewish means to them," the largest number – 73 percent – selected remembering the Holocaust. Only 19 percent chose observing Jewish religious law.

"The Holocaust was the most destructive event in Jewish history in 2,000 years, and it happened in the lifetime of many people in the study, or their parents or their grandparents," explains Cohen.

Even as the generation of Holocaust survivors able to share their experiences dwindles, Jewish Americans' collective consciousness of the genocide that killed 6 million of their kin in the very communities from which their families emigrated to the U.S. in the last century remains powerful. 

The second most common answer selected by respondents to the question of what being Jewish meant to them was leading an ethical life at 69 percent. The third, at 56 percent, was "working for justice and equality." Less than half of respondents, 43 percent, chose "caring about Israel"; 28 percent selected "being part of a Jewish community" and just 20 percent said observing religious law was a key element of being Jewish.

Israel, whose government is demanding that its Palestinian negotiating partner recognize the state as "the national home of the Jewish people," remains a central feature of Jewish-American identity. But there are signs of ambivalence towards Israeli policies.  

While 70 percent of American Jews said they are either very or somewhat attached to Israel, the report noted that attachment to Israel "is markedly stronger among Jews by religion (and older Jews in general) than among Jews of no religion (and younger Jews in general)."

Only 38 percent of respondents believe Israel "is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians" – although only 12 percent believe the Palestinian leadership is sincere about peace – and 44 percent say the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank is hurting Israel’s security. When asked whether "being strongly critical of Israel" is compatible with being Jewish, 90 percent answered yes. 

Indeed, President Barack Obama won 70 percent of the Jewish vote during the last election cycle, despite Republicans portraying his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, as being a more reliable friend of Israel. That's in line with the Pew Study's finding that while Orthodox Jews lean Republican, Jewish Americans overall support the Democratic Party by a margin of 3 to 1.

And then there was this: Among the factors identified as being "an essential part of being Jewish," close to half of the respondents selected "having a good sense of humor."

Al Jazeera

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