A new survey from Pew Research reports that while Jews in the United States are increasingly proud of their heritage and possess a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish community, religion is increasingly less important to that identity.
According to the survey, the percentage of adults in the U.S. who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by around 50 percent since the 1950s. The number of ethnic Jews, or people raised Jewish, who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or of no religion seems to be rising, comprising about 0.5 percent of the U.S. adult population and 22 percent of U.S. Jews.
The changing opinion on religion is divided sharply between generations. Jews of the “Greatest Generation,” born between 1914 and 1927, overwhelmingly define themselves as Jewish by religion—93 percent—while only 7 percent say they have no religion. Only 68 percent of Jews of the Millennial generation define themselves as Jews by religion, and 32 percent claim no religion, identifying as Jewish based on ancestry, ethnicity, or culture.
“My relationship with Judaism is continually changing and full of unresolved questions,” Isabel Kaplan, a young woman who was raised Jewish and identifies with the Reform movement of Jews, wrote in a cover story for JewishJournal. “I (usually) fast on Yom Kippur, infrequently attend religious services and have a (Hebrew) tattoo. And I don’t believe in God.”
Jews of no religion are different from the rest of the Jewish community. They are less likely to be connected to Jewish organizations, more likely to marry non-Jews, and less likely to raise their children Jewish.
Over all the changes in the U.S. Jewish population hangs one question: What does it mean to be Jewish. In answer to this question, large majorities of U.S. Jews said remembering the Holocaust and living an ethical life are essential to what being Jewish means to them. More than half listed working towards justice and equality as essential, while four-in-ten said caring about Israel and having a good sense of humor was important. In an interesting twist, while only 19 percent say following Jewish law is essential and most believe you can be Jewish without believing in God, 60 percent said a person cannot be Jewish if they believe Jesus is the Messiah.
The survey was conducted via phone, and included over 3,000 Jews across the country during a period of about four months, It has a statistical margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The decrease in the importance of religion among U.S. Jews mirrors a broader national trend. According to the survey, “the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22 percent) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20 percent).” The reluctance to affiliate is equally common between Jews and non-Jews alike of the Milliennial generation—about 32 percent of each.