Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Jewish identity: Changes recent Pew Report reveals

For the oldest Jews in America, Jewish identity is overwhelmingly a matter of religion — and in this they are, at least as of 2020 according to the recent Pew Survey — part of the majority. Indeed, for all American Jews this belief remains the predominant aspect of how they understand what it means to be Jewish. If this is a view that predominates as one becomes older, then one need not worry that change is in the air. But, if as is more likely the case, the number of those who call themselves Jewish even though they claim to not see themselves as having any particular religion increases, as one discovers by seeing those numbers increase as one goes down in age, this may portend a sea change in Jewish identity.

Pew demonstrates that for the youngest group, those under thirty, 40% see themselves as Jews but not as a consequence of their being religious, and so too for the next age group — those 30 to 49 — fully a third of them. Chances are these figures would be even greater were it not for the fact that Orthodox Jews, for whom Jewish identity is overwhelmingly about their religion, have been a growing proportion of American Jewry, and nowhere more so in the youngest groups. The image of Orthodoxy as being the domain of old Jews — which it was in America until about the middle of the 20th century — must now give way to a new reality in which the Orthodox in America are overwhelmingly young. Their median age is the youngest at 35, compared to all other Jews. The only other group that comes close are the Jews of no religion whose median age is 38.

As the Pew report puts it: “the youngest U.S. Jews count among their ranks both a relatively large share of traditionally observant, Orthodox Jews and an even larger group of people who see themselves as Jewish for cultural, ethnic or family reasons but do not identify with Judaism — as a religion — at all.” If both these groups maintain their views as they grow, then American Jewry may indeed be headed to a clearly divided kind of identity in which it will be very hard to see what they share in common as Jews. On the other hand, if opinions about identity change as people age, then not much will change. Given “that most people in the latter group (Jews of no religion) feel they have not much or nothing at all in common with the former group (Orthodox Jews),” I doubt that will be the case, though nothing is for sure as I have seen more than a few people find religion as they enter the age of infirmity and as they and their friends discover they are not indestructible, and life is not endless.

If the current spike in anti-Semitism in America continues, all bets are off. If Jews have learned from history, it is that during the Holocaust the distinction between the religious and the non-religious was irrelevant to those who persecuted Jews, as indeed was having a non-Jewish parent. And as we learn in the current spike, the distinction between those who feel a connection to Israel and those who do not seems to make no difference to the Jew-haters. Barring that, however, the picture is not rosy either.

While the Pew survey did find some elements of Jewish life that all Jews claimed played a part in their sense of Jewish identity. These included cooking traditional Jewish foods, visiting Jewish historical sites, and listening to Jewish or Israeli music. But for a people who have several millennia of a common history and a rich literature as well as a full religious tradition all of which played important parts in the maintenance of Jewish identity, these few common elements that remain simply do not appear to be enough to matter.

For quite a while, as religion seemed to recede for American Jews, the argument was made that a liberal political tradition, a powerful intellectual curiosity, and an attachment to Israel as the national home of the Jewish people were alternatives to religion in unifying American Jews — especially when anti-Semitism and persecution seemed to be largely absent from the American scene. But the Pew report shows us these are no longer givens. Those overwhelmingly identifying as Jews by religion — the Orthodox — did not identify with liberal politics, while those who did not share the religious identity no longer overwhelmingly looked upon Israel as so important to them. As for younger Jews, except for the Orthodox, the sense of concern about Israel is clearly no longer as great — a point that our Israeli brothers and sisters might consider as they obsess about whether or not Israel is “National Homeland of the Jewish People.”

While about 56 percent of the American Jews Pew sampled thought that being intellectually curious was important to their Jewish identity, it is hard to say what that actually means in practice and how it could serve as special identifier of Jewishness. Moreover, while a whopping three-quarters of the sample said that remembering the Holocaust was important to their Jewish identity, it is equally hard to imagine that factor remaining so salient it recedes in the collective memory — to say nothing of how powerful a consciousness of having been victimized can be as a useful vehicle for identity.

We are then left with the great question: are we looking at the disappearance of a clear Jewish identity for what is currently still a minority of those who call themselves Jews but who could conceivably grow in number? Or will those who call themselves Jews in the future in America increasingly be the growing Orthodox minority? In either eventuality, we here in Israel will have to ask ourselves whether or not American Jewry will retain its vast importance to us given these changes?

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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