NEW YORK – A new survey of U.S. Jews has confirmed some of the community's worst fears: One in five American Jews say they have no religion, and their ranks appear to be growing.
Jews in this category feel pride in being Jewish and a strong sense of belonging to the greater Jewish community. But they say their connection is based mostly on culture and ancestry, not necessarily on belief in God or observance of religious law. A large majority said remembering the Holocaust, being ethical and advocating for social justice formed the core of their Jewish identity.
The report, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, is an in-depth look at how American Jewish identity has changed in recent decades. The findings track closely with a 2012 Pew report that found about 20 percent of Americans in general said they had no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.
Secularism has long been part of American Jewish life, which includes movements such as the Society for Humanistic Judaism founded in Detroit in the 1960s. However, the Pew survey found the percentage of American Jews who say they are atheist, agnostic or have no particular religion is highest among younger generations.
About one-third of Jews born after 1980 say they have no religion, compared to just 7 percent for those born before 1927. And the report found evidence that the numbers of Jews with no religion could continue to rise. Among Jews married after 2000, nearly six in 10 chose a non-Jewish spouse, making them less likely to raise their children Jewish or join Jewish organizations.
The report contains no definitive finding on the overall size of the American Jewish population. Estimates can vary significantly depending on what definition is used for who can be considered Jewish. Controversy still surrounds the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, a major study which some academics and others insist undercounted the number of U.S. Jews.
In this latest Pew survey, researchers generally placed American Jews into two categories: those who say their religion is Jewish — dubbed "Jews by religion" — and those who say they are Jewish but say they have no particular religion, called "Jews of no religion." According to these categories, Pew estimated that the U.S. is home to 6.7 million Jews. The survey's authors also provided a wide range of higher and lower estimates using broader and narrower definitions of Jewish identity.
The survey confirmed that liberal Reform Judaism is the largest movement within American Jewish life, with membership of about one-third of all U.S. Jews. About 18 percent of Jews say they belong to the centrist Conservative movement, while 10 percent of U.S. Jews say they belong to the stricter Orthodox movement. However, large percentages of Jews do not affiliate with a branch of Judaism, including 40 percent of Jews under age 30, and 33 percent of Jews in their 30s and 40s.
Pew researchers found that most U.S. Jews who leave one stream of Judaism for another move toward the less traditional. Still, the survey found that Orthodox Jews are not only having larger families, but also seem to be doing a better job of keeping younger generations within the fold. About half of U.S. Jews in the survey said they had been raised Orthodox but no longer consider themselves part of the movement. But the percentage of dropouts is much lower — about 17 percent — among those ages 18 to 29. Jewish scholars say this can partly be explained by generational experience: Significant numbers of Orthodox Jews left the movement in the 1950s through 1970s.
About seven in 10 feel very or somewhat attached to Israel and more than 40 percent had visited it. About 40 percent of Jews said they believed God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people. However, only 38 percent say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with Palestinians. Just 12 percent consider the Palestinian commitment to peace-building sincere. Forty-four percent of American Jews say building settlements in the West Bank strengthens Israel's security.
The study indicates Jews feel accepted within American society. Only one in seven said they had been called an offensive name or were publicly snubbed because of their religion in the last year. About 40 percent believe Jews still face significant discrimination in the U.S. But they say they face significantly less discrimination than other minority groups, including U.S. Muslims, gays and lesbians, and African-Americans.
The Pew study was based on interviews with 3,475 American Jews conducted from Feb. 20-June 13, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Link to the full study will go live at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey