On American Jews, religion, Israel, intermarriage, and the “Kuiper Belt” phenomenon

Two days ago the Pew Research Center released its findings from a survey on U.S. Jewish identity, observance, and belief.  The survey results show that the percentage of American Jews who are wholly secular has risen to about twenty per cent and that intermarriage rates have soared to fifty eight per cent.   Seventy per cent attend a Passover seder, but only half fast on Yom Kippur. Only a third belong to a synagogue, and less than a quarter attend regularly. Over a third think it’s fine to be Jewish and believe that Jesus was humanity’s Saviour.

Does this mean the end of American Jewry?  American Judaism is certainly under threat, although Orthodoxy is vibrant and increasing in numbers due to a high birthrate.  Besides, Judaism is not the same thing as Jewry, or Jewishness.  The number of individuals identifying themselves as Jewish is increasing, not diminishing.  This is most likely the result of immigration from the former USSR and the efforts by partners in interfaith marriages to raise their children as Jews.

Ever-larger numbers of self-identified Jews may cycle in and out of the organized Jewish community, or participate in some rituals but not others.  If traditionally Jewish communities have been comparable to atoms whose particles are tightly bound together, perhaps a better analogy for our own day is the solar system, with Orthodoxy comparable to the inner planets and the vast majority of self-identifying Jews akin to the outer planets or the Kuiper Belt, a collection of small bodies that orbits the sun at a vast distance yet remains within its gravitational field.

What do self-identified American Jews think is essential to being Jewish?  For 73%, it’s remembering the Holocaust.  For 69%, it’s leading an ethical life and for 56%, it’s social justice.  And for 42%, it’s having a good sense of humour.

Where does Israel fit into the mix?  Almost seventy per cent identify emotionally with Israel, but only about forty per cent agree that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.  That means that Israel ranks below the Holocaust, social justice, and Seinfeld.

Forty per cent have visited Israel, but only a quarter have been more than once.   Most American Jews don’t really know Israel first-hand, but forty per cent believe that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God.  That’s twice the percentage of people who believe that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish. So lots of people who aren’t all that observant still believe in God and that the Lord bestowed Israel upon the Jewish people.

Do they believe that what God gave can never be given back?  As earlier surveys have shown, the vast majority of American Jews are not hawks. Only seventeen per cent believe that West Bank settlements improve Israel’s security, and forty four per cent believe that the settlements actively harm the country’s security.

So large numbers of American Jews believe that Israel is the Promised Land, the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, yet that parts of it can form a Palestinian state.  They care about being Jewish but define Jewishness in ways that have little to do with synagogue membership or routine observance.

In the decades to come, this liberal, individualistic and eclectic approach to being Jewish may weaken Jewish organizational life and reduce the pool of donations that keep Jewish day schools, summer camps, and social welfare programs afloat.  But so long as millions of Americans identify as Jews and equate being Jewish with being liberal, their electoral clout in key, populous states will persist.   A committed, vocal and increasingly Orthodox minority will continue to stand by Israel unreservedly.  Some members of that minority command considerable resources and will continue to play a major role in American congressional and presidential campaigns.

The decline of American Jewish practice does not entail the decline of American Jewry or of American Jewish prominence in many aspects of American public life.




4 thoughts on “On American Jews, religion, Israel, intermarriage, and the “Kuiper Belt” phenomenon

  1. Derek

    I am not sure that the analogy to the Kuiper Belt works. The orthodox may perceive themselves as the planets closest to the sun, but that is not how I perceive them. While historically, orthodoxy may have been essential to the long term survival of Judaism, that does not mean that it is essential to the short term survival of American Jewry in the US today. For many American Jews, orthodoxy is anachronistic and a force that detracts from their sense of identity. Arguably, it is a force that threatens to interfere with the gravitational pull that holds American Jewry together. I am not an expert on these matters and should give more thought to them. Your article is good, even though I am not yet convinced about the accuracy of your analogy.

  2. In the characteristic Penslar manner, you sum up the entire state of American Jewish existence in a few sentences. A little technical comment: not only the children of interfaith marriages, but also converts increase the number of Jews around. The one thing that shocks me is that remembering the Holocaust is the most important feature of American Jewish identity – for a group whose family ancestors mostly did not experience it. What a bunch of whiners! I really hope that victimhood is not going to continue to be the essence of Jewishness for secular, unaffiliated Jews. We should be able to defend our positions without insisting that all who criticize us are Nazis. I like your solar system analogy very much.

  3. A great piece and I look forward to the continued mining of this important data.

    One of the most striking features of this research is the bifurcation between liberal Jews (i.e., those that identify as secular, Reform, and/or Conservative) and orthodox Jews who seemingly have little in common. The worry, of course, is that the trend promises to create a cleavage that cannot be bridged.

    I know that the last such survey was mired in controversy surrounding improper methodologies. However, I’m curious to know more about why the Jewish community itself failed to conduct this research, leaving it the Pew Centre instead.

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