Alan Silverstein
Alan Silverstein

Pew 2020 study reaffirms peoplehood views among American Jewry’s religious streams

According to the results of the Pew Research Center survey “Jewish Americans in 2020,” the number of “Orthodox” Jews has grown, and that of Jews who identify as Conservative or Reform has declined. The implication appears to be that Israel’s Jewish allies in the Diaspora have shifted from those belonging to a disappearing center to those who are part of an emerging “Orthodoxy.” Over all, the survey results imply, the commitment of “non-Orthodox” Jews to Jewish peoplehood is diminishing.

But the survey results need to be clarified. First, while support among the Orthodox for Jewish peoplehood is significant, as is the growth in their numbers, the American Orthodox community remains relatively small — just 9% of the 7.5 million Jews counted by Pew. Moreover, the primary source of Orthodox growth is from the increase of the subset haredim, who have a particularly high rate of early marriage and fertility. The numbers of Modern Orthodox have also increased, but only modestly, from 2013; they comprise just 3% of the 7.5 million Jews.

Clarification is also needed in reference to the Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. Their adherents remain the most crucial component among “non-Orthodox,” representing the majority of American “Jews by religion.” The decline of their numbers in the category of “non-Orthodox” can be attributed to an expansion of the Pew category “Jews of no religion.” In fact, the growth of those identifying as “Jews of no religion” is the primary reason that the 6.7 million American Jews (5.35 million adults, 1.35 million) — cited in the Pew study of 2013 leaped in 2020 to 7.5 million Jews (5.75 million adults, 1.75 million children).

A 10% growth in the number of Jews in the Pew study within only seven years is startling. It cannot be attributed to the immigration of Jews to this country, nor to an overall high birthrate among American Jews, nor to a declining death rate. The growth instead reflects the increase of self-identifying “Jews of no religion” in the count, and this group now represents 27% of Pew’s 7.5 million Jews, including 40% of “young Jewish adults” (ages 18-29).

Who are these “Jews of no religion”? According to Pew, they “consider themselves to be Jewish” but only in a limited way, exhibiting a low level of Jewish engagement. They self-identify as Jews either “ethnically” or “culturally” or by “family background” — which often means they grew up in a household with one Jewish parent but were not raised in the religion. Their large presence skews the survey’s data. Pew explains that “Jews of no religion stand out in 2020 for low levels of religious participation — particularly synagogue membership and attendance” — few identify as Reform and almost none as Conservative or Orthodox — “together with comparatively weak attachments to Israel, feelings of belonging to the Jewish people, and engagement in communal Jewish life.”

The category of second-generation Diaspora “Jews of no religion” is significant; it merits its own study. But including it together with all American Jews yields a misleading, false negative impression of non-involvement. I believe a truer picture would emerge if the Pew data were to focus on what Sergio Della Pergola — an Italian-Israeli expert in demography and statistics related to the Jewish population — calls “the core Jewish population,” “Jews of Jewish religion,” as well as a subset of individuals identifying as “Jews of no religion,” those whose parents were both Jewish.

Moreover, within this “core” group, comparisons should not be made between “Orthodox” (9%) versus “non-Orthodox” (91%). That approach is unhelpful. Rather, interpreters need to explore the clear “gradient” revealed by the data: More intensively led Jewish lives create higher levels of Jewish living. The sequence is clear: haredi, then Modern Orthodox, then Conservative, then Reform, then “Jews by religion who do not currently identify with a specific denomination,” and then “Jews of no religion” raised by two Jewish parents.

A segmented approach to examining the survey statistics on “core” Jews reveals useful results about Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and “Jews of religion who do not (currently) identify with a specific denomination.” This approach reveals encouraging data. For example, let us consider Conservative Jews within the Pew 2020 study and their attitude toward Jewish peoplehood issues. (The other streams should be focused on for their own set of statistics as well.)

95% of Conservative Jews indicate that “belonging to the Jewish people” is “important” to them.
93% feel “a responsibility” to “help Jews in need.”
85% have Jewish friends.
79% regard the Jewish religion as “important” to them.
78% feel “emotionally attached” to Israel.
77% feel “a commonality” with Jews in Israel.
75% follow news about Israel.
75% of married Conservative Jews have a Jewish spouse.
71% donated to Jewish charity during the past year.
66% regard “caring about Israel” as being either “essential” or “important” to them.
61% watch television programs with Jewish/Israeli themes.
59% have been to Israel, most more than one time.
56% live in a household in which at least one family member belongs to a synagogue.
54% listen to Jewish or Israeli music.
53% feel being part of a Jewish community is “essential” to being Jewish.
43% attend Jewish/Israeli film festivals.
31% have attended a full-time Jewish school.

Jews who identify as members of the Conservative stream are politically diverse: 28% are Republicans, 70% are Democrats; 23% are politically conservative, 36% are moderate, 39% are liberal.

American policy toward Israel is important to Conservative Jews; although 70% are Democrats, 52% approved of the Trump GOP administration’s friendly policies toward the Jewish State.

And, in overwhelming numbers. Conservative Jews oppose the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, in contrast to only 1% who “strongly support” and 4% who “somewhat support” BDS.

The affirmative attitudes toward peoplehood of those who identify as Conservative are crucial. Conservative Jews represent almost 30% of those who are synagogue members in the United States, nearly one out of four “Jews by religion.” Consequently, they play an important role in efforts in support of Zionism.

For instance, delegations from Conservative congregations comprise the largest “stream” at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. A sizable minority of married American-Jewish olim and a plurality of young single adult olim come from Conservative Jewish households. Many Conservative rabbis with adult offspring have at least one son or daughter who has moved permanently to Israel. I am proud to be among them.

Often these pro-Israel attitudes can be traced to Conservative Judaism’s youth programming, such as Solomon Schechter Day Schools. Nativ, the movement’s gap year Masa Israel Journey program, reports that 96% of its alumni get involved in Israel-centered and Jewish organizational life on campus, with 77% in leadership positions; 16% make aliyah.

Nearly 100% of the alumni of the Conservative Camp Ramah system have been to Israel, 85% more than once. Almost all feel “attached” to Israel, 75% have close friends or immediate family living in Israel, 5% currently reside in Israel, and 29% have lived in Israel for three months or more. Each Ramah camp hosts a delegation of Jewish Agency shlichim, cultural emissaries. Ramah partners with the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah organization in programs in six metropolitan areas and on 15 campuses. (Among the roster of former Ramahniks is Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog.)

Conservative congregations represent the largest component within the State of Israel Bonds national synagogue campaign. Philanthropic involvement by Conservative Jews is pivotal to the UJA campaigns of Jewish federations across the United States, and their contributions are essential to such organizations as Jewish National Fund and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Family foundations established by Conservative Jews often designate funds for Israel-based projects, and the movement produces a plurality of professionals who steer institutional life on behalf of the Jewish community and Israel.

In sum, the data presented in the Pew 2020 survey assessing “core” Jews reaffirms that the major religious streams — Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox — remain essential guarantors of American Jewry’s strong support of Israel. It is encouraging to hear that the Bennett/Lapid coalition, President Herzog, and Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai will focus attention on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. American Jewry’s religious movements await an enhanced partnership with Israel’s new leadership.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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