1 in 5 U.S. Jews: No religion

Of the approximately 5.3 million American adults who consider themselves Jewish, 22 percent say they have no religion, according to a new survey of American Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center and released on Oct. 1. 

The study’s findings show a dramatic increase over the past decade in the number of Americans who consider themselves to be Jews — culturally, ancestrally — but not by religion. The last wide-ranging study of Jews across America — the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) — found just 7 percent of Americans who self-identify as Jews say they have no religion. The Pew Center survey, by contrast, found 6 percent of American Jews call themselves atheists, 4 percent call themselves agnostic, and an additional 12 percent say their religion is “nothing in particular.”

The trend away from religion is most visible among members of the Millennial generation — 32 percent of American Jews born between 1980 and 1995 fall into this growing group — and it parallels a rise in religious disaffiliation among all Americans: A 2012 Pew Center survey found 20 percent of Americans answer “none” to a question about religion. 

Jews who have no religion are, perhaps not surprisingly, less engaged with the Jewish community and its organizations than are those who consider Judaism their religious identity. 

“Jews of no religion are much less attached to the Jewish community,” Greg Smith, director of U.S. Religion Surveys at the Pew Research Center, said. “They are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. This is a large segment of the U.S. Jewish population with attachments to Jewish life that are often quite tenuous.”

The Pew Center study, a multimillion dollar project that was funded jointly by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Pennsylvania-based Neubauer Family Foundation, was “conducted on landlines and cellphones among 3,475 Jews across the country from Feb. 20 to June 13, 2013,” and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. According to the Pew press release, “More than 70,000 screening interviews were conducted to identify Jewish respondents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

The survey paints a sweeping, if somewhat familiar picture of contemporary American Jews, who are, according to the data, for the most part better educated, better off and more politically liberal than most of their fellow countrymen. The average American Jew is also older than the average American, and, when compared to other religious minorities in America, far more likely to marry a member of another faith and less likely to feel that religion is an important part of his or her life. 

That said, 94 percent of American Jews say they are proud of being Jewish — although what it means to be Jewish in America in 2013 varies widely. Large majorities of American Jews said remembering the Holocaust (73 percent) and living an ethical and moral life (69 percent) are, to them, essential parts of being Jewish. A significant minority of respondents — 42 percent — said that having a good sense of humor is key to being Jewish, similar to the number of Jews who considered “caring about Israel” to be essential. 

Still, the trend of American Jews moving away from traditional markers of Judaism is visible — across the entire spectrum. Levels of participation in Jewish religious practices — attending a Passover Seder, fasting for all or part of Yom Kippur and lighting candles on the Sabbath — all declined from the levels found in the 2000-01 NJPS.  Jews of all denominations have become less traditional over the courses of their lives. 

About 10 percent of American Jews say they are Orthodox — and these Jews tend to be younger, have more children, hold more conservative political and social views, and are more tightly connected to other Jews than their co-religionists. Nevertheless, about half of those raised Orthodox no longer apply that label to themselves. 

But even if Orthodox Judaism appears in the Pew Center study to have “low retention rate,” 89 percent of those raised Orthodox still consider their religion to be Jewish. The numbers are lower among those raised in Conservative (83 percent) and Reform (71 percent) homes. 

The rates of disaffiliation are particularly high among Jews who marry non-Jews — and even higher for the children of these intermarried couples. One-third of all intermarried Jews who are raising children said that they are not raising their children Jewish at all. The rate of intermarriage appears still to be rising: Of all the Jewish respondents to the survey who have married since 2000, 58 percent wed a non-Jewish spouse. 

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has urged Jewish communal leaders to take a stronger stance against intermarriage, yet even he said the results of the Pew Center study surprised him. 

“I did not expect the news to be quite this bad,” Wertheimer told the Journal on Oct.1.

“I did not expect the levels of assimilation to rise quite so rapidly.”

Style and Substance

What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that TheNew York Times wedding announcements can’t?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tellyou that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack inhard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I’m not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines thataccompanied the survey’s release are overripe. “Where have all the Jewishpeople gone?” read one news release. “Jewish Population Declining” screameda newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show:With fewer Jews, he asked, “Who will write all those sitcoms about Latinoand African American families?”

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group UnitedJewish Communities, reported that the nation’s population of 5.2 millionJews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey’s numbers are well within themargin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPSactually states in its methodological appendix that, “many researchersbelieve that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts ofthe Jewish population.” That decline you’ve been reading about all week? Itmay in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rateamong all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, asany weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate.This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and JoelSacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claireand Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paperreported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center inTisbury, Mass., “took part in the service.”

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I’d sayThe Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY!statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionalspredicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number thatlaunched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, asother numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepeninglevels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledgesthat in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted asintermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time theydefined intermarriage as “the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someonewho is non-Jewish at the time of the survey.”

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rateof intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead bedownright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down andacross the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place apremium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of theirchildren are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times morelikely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewishlife (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, homerituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don’t think for a second these numbers tell the whole story,or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it’s amovie. People’s feelings about their religion change depending, among otherthings, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, thesurvey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing,while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination ismore welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey – and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements – donothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as anonus, but as an opportunity.

American Jewry By Numbers

The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, dubbed “Strength, Challenge and Diversity,” offers key findings on demographics, intermarriage, Jewish “connections” — that is, communal behavioral trends — and such “special” topics as the elderly, immigration and poverty.

Among the study’s key findings:


  • There are 5.2 million Jews in the United States, down from 5.5 million counted in the 1990 NJPS. Those Jews live in 2.9 million homes, with a total of 6.7 million people. So in Jewish households, two out of every nine people are not Jewish.
  • Jews are older, on average, than the American population as a whole. The median age for Jews is 42, compared to age 35 for Americans generally. So while 14 percent of Americans are age 9 or younger, only 10 percent of Jews are. And 23 percent of Jews are over age 60, compared to 16 percent of Americans as a whole.
  • A majority of Jews — 57 percent — are married, but they tend to marry later in life than other Americans. For instance, while 59 percent of American men in the 25-34 age bracket are married, only 48 percent of Jewish men are. Among women in that age bracket, 64 percent of Jews are married, compared to 70 percent of Americans generally.
  • Jewish women’s fertility rates are lower than most Americans. Ninety percent of Jewish women ages 18-24 and 70 percent of those 25-29 do not have children, compared to 70 percent and 44 percent of U.S. women in those age groups. Jewish women had 1.86 children on average overall, versus 1.93 children by all U.S. women.
  • Forty-three percent of Jews live in the Northeast, 23 percent in the South, 22 percent in the West and 13 percent in the Midwest. But while 77 percent of Jews born in the West still live there, only 61 percent of Jews born in the Northeast and just half of those born in the Midwest do, signaling a continued migration westward.
  • That migration was offset by immigration to the Northeast, where nearly 60 percent of Jews from the former Soviet Union live.
  • Jews are more affluent than Americans generally. More than one-third of Jewish households report an annual income of $75,000 or higher, compared to just 18 percent of U.S. households. The median Jewish household income is $54,000, compared to $42,000 for Americans generally.
  • Only 61 percent of all Jews are currently working, compared to 65 percent of all Americans, reflecting the higher median age of Jews.


  • Among all married Jews today, 31 percent are married to non-Jews. The intermarriage rate, which had been rising since 1970s, leveled off in the late 1980s and early 1990s to about 43 percent. Since then, it has climbed again slightly, with 47 percent of Jews who wed since 1996 choosing non-Jewish spouses.
  • Intermarriage runs highest among the young, with 41 percent of Jews under 35 who marry choosing non-Jewish spouses. By comparison, only 20 percent of married Jews over 55 have non-Jewish spouses.
  • The intermarriage rate is higher among men than women — 33 percent, compared to 29 percent.
  • The greater one’s Jewish education, the less likely one is to intermarry. Forty-three percent of those who lacked any Jewish education intermarried, compared to 29 percent among those who had one day per week of Jewish education. The rate dropped to 23 percent for those who had part-time Jewish education, and to 7 percent among those who attended Jewish day school or yeshiva.
  • Mirroring some earlier studies, NJPS also showed that intermarriage breeds intermarriage, with the children of intermarried couples three times more likely to intermarry. Intermarriage was 22 percent among those with two Jewish parents, versus 74 percent of those with just one Jewish parent.
  • Children of intermarried couples raised in a Jewish household were less likely to intermarry, though a majority still did. Nearly 60 percent of children raised Jewish by an interfaith couple intermarried, compared to 86 percent who were not raised as Jews. But only 33 percent of intermarried households raise their children as Jews, compared to 96 percent of homes with two Jewish parents.
  • Those who intermarry may experience alienation from the Jewish community. Just 24 percent of the intermarried say they have close Jewish friends, compared to 76 percent of those in all-Jewish marriages.

Jewish Connectivity

  • Among all Jews, 52 percent have close Jewish friends, 77 percent attend or hold Passover seders, 72 percent light Chanukah candles, 35 percent have visited Israel, 63 percent are “emotionally attached” to the Jewish State and 41 percent have contributed to a Jewish cause outside of the federation system.
  • NJPS further identified 4.3 million Jews, or 80 percent of the total Jewish population, as more “Jewishly connected” than others. These Jews replied to a more detailed NJPS survey, by first saying they either had at least one Jewish parent; were raised as Jews; considered themselves Jewish culturally, ethnically or nationalistically; or practiced no other religion. Those who practiced a non-monotheistic religion, such as Zen Buddhism, but still considered themselves Jews and practiced some “residual” Jewish activity were also included, said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the NJPS research director.

Of the remaining Jews in the overall population:

  • 800,000 met all those criteria but did not consider themselves to be Jews. The previous 1990 survey cast a wider net and counted these people as Jews in measuring rates such as intermarriage and other Jewish connections.
  • Another 100,000 Jews were estimated to exist, living largely in senior-citizen homes, prisons or as part of the U.S. military — the same number used in the 1990 study.

Of the more Jewishly active 4.3 million:

  • Forty-six percent said they belong to a synagogue, while 27 percent said they attend a Jewish religious service at least once per month.
  • Of those who said they were synagogue members, 39 percent identified as Reform Jews, 33 percent as Conservative, 21 percent as Orthodox, 3 percent as Reconstructionist and 4 percent as “other,” such as Sephardic.
  • Fifty-nine percent said they fast on Yom Kippur — meaning four in 10 Jews do not.
  • Twenty-eight percent said they light Shabbat candles, while 21 percent said they keep kosher at home.
  • Twenty-one percent said they belong to a Jewish community center, while 28 percent said they belong to another Jewish organization.
  • A fifth of all Jews said they have visited Israel two or more times, and 45 percent said they have Israeli relatives or friends.
  • Fifty-two percent said being Jewish is very important.
  • Thirty percent of these Jews said they contributed to a Jewish federation.
  • Sixty-five percent said they read a Jewish newspaper or magazine; 55 percent read books on Jewish topics; 45 percent listen to Jewish tapes, compact disks or records; and 39 percent use the Internet for Jewish purposes.
  • Nearly one-quarter said they attend Jewish education classes.


Secular and Jewish education plays a key role among American Jews.

  • Jews are highly educated compared to the population generally, with 55 percent having earned a college degree, compared to 29 percent of all Americans, and 25 percent of Jews holding graduate degrees, compared to 6 percent of the general population.
  • Seventy-three percent of the more “connected” Jews received some kind of formal Jewish education growing up, including 79 percent of those between age 6 and 17 at the time of the survey.
  • Twelve percent of the more “connected” subset attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva growing up, 25 percent had one day per week of Jewish education and 24 percent went to a Jewish school part time. In fact, NJPS found a dramatic rise in Jewish day school and yeshiva education, with 29 percent of those between the ages of 6 and 17 — and 23 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds — saying they have attended day school or yeshiva. By comparison, only 12 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds, and 10 percent of older Jews, say they had a day school education.
  • As for more informal Jewish schooling, 23 percent of children ages 3 to 17 attended a Jewish day camp in the year before the survey was taken, between August 2000 and 2001; 19 percent of those aged 8 to 17 went to a Jewish sleepover camp in the previous year; and 46 percent of those aged 12 to 17 participated in Jewish activities or organized youth groups in that period.
  • Among current college and graduate students, 41 percent reported taking a Jewish studies course, while only 11 percent of those 55 and older did so; 28 percent of those between 35 and 54 attended such courses; and 37 percent of those under age 35 took a college-level Jewish studies class.

The Elderly, the Poor and Immigrants

  • Nearly one-fifth of the total Jewish population is considered elderly (65 and older), with 9 percent age 75 or older. Fifty-four percent of the elderly are women.
  • One third of elderly Jews live alone, with 67 percent being widows or widowers. More than one-third report their health is poor or fair, three times the rate of those under 65.

Because the 1990 NJPS did not track poverty levels, the study could not spot any trends. It did, however, find that:

  • Nine percent of the Jewish elderly live in households below the federally defined poverty line; 18 percent of the elderly live in households with incomes of less than $15,000; and 43 percent of the elderly claim total assets of $250,000 or more.
  • Nearly 8 percent of all American Jews immigrated to the United States since 1980, amounting to 335,000 people. Of these, 227,000 — or slightly more than two-thirds — came from the former Soviet Union. The remaining immigrants came from 30 other countries, with those from Canada, Iran and Israel accounting for more than half of those 109,000.
  • Ninety-one percent of immigrants from the FSU were married to other Jews.

The study will be available at “>www.jewishdatabank.com.

Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families

According to the released portions of the 2000-2001 National
Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 1.5 million non-Jews live with Jews. Who are they? How do they relate to the Jewish community? How
should the community respond to them?

Against the backdrop of a Jewish population that the NJPS
describes as declining and graying, the decisions that interfaith couples make
about the religious identity of their children are critical to the future
vitality of the community. I believe that every attitude, every practice, every
policy should be evaluated primarily by this standard: Will it increase the
likelihood that the children of interfaith families will be raised as Jews?

About 30 percent of interfaith families are sadly lost to
the Jewish community, choosing not to be involved in Jewish life and instead to
raise their children exclusively in a different faith. But the majority of
interfaith families — up to 30 percent who are engaged in Jewish life and say
they are raising their children exclusively as Jews, and the roughly 40 percent
who say they are doing “both” or “neither” — offer fertile ground in which to
grow the American Jewish community.

If we want interfaith families to raise their children as
Jews, we need to welcome them. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation
has said, people can tell when their welcome is genuine. When people who are
intermarried hear Jews talk about intermarriage as a negative — “bad for the
Jewish people,” “communal suicide” and the like — they are made to feel worse
than unwanted. The result is that fewer children are raised as Jews.

If we want interfaith families to come into our community,
we shouldn’t stand at the door saying, “You can’t come in unless you convert.”
Conversion is a wonderful personal choice that should be encouraged, but
promoting it too aggressively and too early pushes away people who might
otherwise come in, resulting in fewer children raised as Jews. The less
aggressively we promote conversion, the more likely that people who are
intermarried will choose it.

Non-Jewish parents who raise their children as Jews should
be more than just welcomed, they should be the object of profound gratitude
from the Jewish community. Instead of barring a non-Jewish parent from the bima
at his or her child’s bar or bat mitzvah, we should be honoring that parent for
the contribution to Jewish continuity.

As the intermarriage debate reopens, I am deeply concerned
about arguments that question the quality of the Jewish life of interfaith
families. After all, we don’t make in-married Jewish families pass an
observance test before we include them without reservation in our community.

A child of intermarried parents who exclusively attends a
synagogue school and becomes bar or bat mitzvahed should be presumed by all to
have an unambiguous Jewish identity. We should do everything we can to get more
interfaith families to raise their children like that.

Telling intermarried parents that even if they raise their
children Jewishly, their children won’t really be Jews — they will be “Jewish
and something else” — will discourage them from even trying. The result will be
fewer children raised as Jews.

Yes, the nature of Jewish life in interfaith families
involves intimate exposure to other religious and cultural expression.
Thousands of children raised as Jews have Christian relatives and participate
in their holiday celebrations.

This may not “compute” as Jewish life when viewed from the
perspective of a traditionally observant Jew, but it doesn’t make a child
raised as a Jew “something else.” Jewish leaders who think otherwise are out of
touch with the thousands of interfaith families raising their children as Jews,
while honoring their non-Jewish relatives.

In the words of Barry Shrage, president of the Combined
Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, we need to make Jewish life so vibrant, so
magnetic, so attractive that people will want to get involved. Continuity programs
aimed at doing so should be strengthened and expanded.

We can simultaneously invite interfaith families to
participate in those programs, as well as provide programs specially aimed at
welcoming interfaith families themselves. Every evaluation of intermarried-outreach
programs shows that the Jewish involvement of participants increases, whether
measured by self-assessed degree of involvement, decisions to join synagogues,
decisions to raise children as Jews or decisions to convert. But outside of Boston,
San Francisco, Metrowest New Jersey and a few other areas, there is almost no
federation support for outreach programs.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) has not included
outreach to the intermarried in the program for the pre-General Assembly “Hadesh”
conference, at which participants learn about successful continuity programs in
various communities. We need not only to provide programs but to publicize
their existence — and the message that the Jewish community welcomes the
involvement of interfaith families.

When the UJC announces the NJPS’ intermarriage rate at the
General Assembly in a few weeks, the American Jewish community will once again
be confronted with the reality of intermarriage — regardless of whether the
rate is somewhat higher or lower than the 1990 survey’s published figure of 52
percent. It is our choice whether to engage in old, negative, counterproductive
and self-defeating strategies or to seize an opportunity to expand and enrich
our community by doing what is necessary to increase the numbers of interfaith
families who raise their children as Jews.

This article originally appeared in The Forward. Â

Edmund Case is president of the InterfaithFamily.com and co-editor of “The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life” (Jewish Lights, 2001).