A Thread That Ties Jews Together

For over three millennia, Jews have been quarrelsome, fractious and divided, and have even celebrated their numerous divisions.
March 17, 2022

While pundits and politicos habitually speak about the Jewish community’s interests, considerable new research reveals that, like most religious and ethnic groups, speaking about “THE Jewish community” these days is often a huge mistake. For over three millennia, Jews have been quarrelsome, fractious and divided, and have even celebrated their numerous divisions, from the 12 tribes of the Bible to the religious and political disagreements that are often encouraged and seen as points of pride. Certainly, as in the past, there is no single Jewish voice in America. 

Further deepening the historic divides, like most of America today, the Jewish community has become deeply divided along ideological lines. Politically and culturally, Orthodox Jews are generally in line with evangelical and other Christian conservatives. In sharp contrast, politically liberal Jews (who are almost entirely non-Orthodox) have heavily — though not at all entirely — turned away from traditional institutions and cultural markers of Judaism, resembling millions of other left-of-center Americans today. As for the politically conservative and moderate non-Orthodox Jews that comprise the rest of American Jewry, they tend to staunchly support Israel and value Jewish traditions and distinctive cultural mores.

At the same time, a significant uptick in antisemitic hate and attacks may be causing some Jews to deepen their Jewish ties and others to avoid publicly identifying as Jewish. 

Further dividing the Jewish community are the high levels of intermarriage, as for years over two-thirds of recently marrying non-Orthodox Jews have married non-Jews. They and, even more, their offspring contribute to the sharp rise in the number of Jews with little identification with the Jewish religion, let alone other forms of Jewish engagement. At the same time, a significant uptick in antisemitic hate and attacks may be causing some Jews to deepen their Jewish ties and others to avoid publicly identifying as Jewish. Widespread liberalism, particularly its progressive variety, undercuts traditional religious commitment for Jews, while the conservative minority exhibits strong or stronger commitments — similar to other religious groups. Nonetheless, despite all these forces working to splinter Jews apart, as recent survey evidence illuminates and underscores, it turns out that Jews in America today are still very widely connected to Jews and to being Jewish, at least by sentiment if not always by way of belonging or behaving.

Overall, 71 percent of Americans of all backgrounds report having a connection to their faith and heritage.

So we learn from AEI’s Survey Center on American Life. The most recent 2021 iteration of the community survey found some remarkable signs of homogeneity within the Jewish community, especially surprising given the many socio-political, religious and cultural divides within the Jewish community today. Specifically, the survey asks its respondents, “Even if you don’t identify as religious, would you say you still feel a connection to a religion as part of your ethnic background or cultural heritage?” This is the first time this question has been asked to a national sample of Americans including those who state that they are members of a religious faith to agnostic identifiers. Overall, 71 percent of Americans of all backgrounds report having a connection to their faith and heritage. Among the larger religio-ethnic groups, 83 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 79 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 86 percent of white Catholics report feeling the same way, stating that their faith provides a connection to their heritage and thus identity. This all suggests that these large religious groups still have a real and potent impact on identity today, even though all indicators of conventional religiosity, including attendance at services and church membership, have indeed been trending downward. 

As for the Jewish community, 95 percent — the largest for any faith-based group by far — state that being Jewish is part of their heritage and ethnic background. The finding is all the more remarkable because so many are irreligious (they say so) and the community is decidedly less religious on all common measures than American Christians, Muslims, and other faiths. In addition, the Jewish sample contains so-called Jews of no religion, Jews who identify as atheists, agnostics, and no religion in particular, but say that they are Jewish. This feature makes Jews, again, a unique group in American life. 

Furthermore, when asked about closeness to others who are also Jewish, 48 percent of Jews say that they feel very close and another 42 percent say somewhat close; 90 percent report feeling at least somewhat close to their fellow Jews, providing a strong indicator of peoplehood despite the many divisions within the community. For other religious groups, the numbers are lower. White Catholics, for instance, despite their deep networks of schools and other communal and charitable institutions, are less close to their fellow Catholics: a fifth (20 percent) report feeling very close and about half (54 percent) somewhat close for a total of 74 percent, 16 points lower than Jews. 

It certainly seems that Jews are less religious than other groups, but more ethnic, recalling that “ethnos” is Greek for “people.” The 2020 Pew report on Jews make this abundantly clear with several supportive findings. One in five Jews (21 percent) state that religion is very important in their lives compared with 41 percent of U.S. adults overall. Meanwhile over half of all surveyed Jews (51 percent) report that religion is not too or not at all important to them compared to just over a third (34 percent) of all Americans at large. And, just 12 percent of Jews report attending religious services on a weekly or more regular basis compared to over a quarter (27 percent) of Americans. Eight in ten Jews, however, claim to participate in services a few times a year or less frequently, compared to a lower two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans in general. So, while Jews look far less committed to faith and community by these traditional religious measures, especially relative to the nation as a whole, the American Jewish community nonetheless appears to be not only proud but also retains a real connection to being Jewish and to their fellow Jews. 

What is also noteworthy is that the widespread connections to being Jewish hardly break down by generational cohort when this is apparent in the wider population as a whole. Almost all Jewish Baby Boomers (96 percent) report that they feel a connection to a faith as part of their ethnic background or cultural heritage. The number is only marginally lower for those in Gen X (92 percent) and this is among those who are today in their 40s and 50s and generally lower scoring than Boomers on most measures of Jewish engagement. Even large numbers of younger Millennials (88 percent) still report widely held connections, at least as a matter of sentiment; and this despite their far higher rates of intermarriage than their Boomer parents, associated with far lower levels of Jewish engagement than their parents in so many ways. Despite sizeable gaps between generations with respect to religiosity, connectivity to the group, and Israel, the Jewish community at all ages expresses widespread feelings of connection to being Jewish.

There is now strong evidence that being Jewish still strongly resonates among the vast majority of American Jews, and this finding transcends the usual places of division and of dissociation. 

In the face of all the genuine evidence of disassociation and splintering, Jewish communal professional, philanthropic and lay leaders should re-think about how to engage, mobilize and rally American Jews today. There is now strong evidence that being Jewish still strongly resonates among the vast majority of American Jews, and this finding transcends the usual places of division and of dissociation. 

As an example of social change, the study of contemporary American religiosity as a general phenomenon has been riveted by the rise of the Spiritual But Not Religious identifiers (SBNRs). In other words, the nation has been witnessing growing numbers of Americans who still have religious longings and sensitivities — they call themselves “spiritual” — even if they are functionally divorced from churches, churchgoing and identifying with a religious community.

Among American Jews today, the data reveal something similar. Perhaps those Jews who identify as Jewish but do little in the way of Jewish behavior or belonging can be called ABNEs—Attached But Not Engaged—or something to that effect. Many Jews certainly have abandoned traditional institutions, religious beliefs and practices, Israel, God and more. In fact, as Pew 2020 reports, about 12 percent of people raised Jewish no longer think of themselves as such, and the number is higher among young people. But there is something different and exceptional when it comes to the Jewish community.

The new Survey Center data here strongly suggest that Jews still retain what Jewish tradition has labeled, “dos pintele yid.” Or, as one learned Jewish observer wrote in 2006: 

“Dos pintele yid … [is] a way of referring to an indestructible core of Jewishness that supposedly exists within every Jew and that always has the potential, even in totally assimilated or uneducated Jews, to return every Jew to the Jewish fold by making its presence felt at the most unexpected and unpredictable moments.”

In other words, there is something—perhaps almost mystical—that some have described as “the Jewish spark” that lays dormant within unknowing or alienated Jews, ready to remerge at any unexpected moment. Rabbi Mark Zimmerman, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, puts it a bit differently by noting that the pintele yid is “virtually indestructible” and is something that, “No matter how hard someone tries to leave their Jewishness behind, there is a part of us that cannot get away. Run to the ends of the earth, and it will still be there.” In other words, Rabbi Zimmerman observes that a Jew can “Tell everyone you’re not that religious, and the pintele yid will tug at your soul and call you back home.” Survey data substantiates this idea. While the evidence is not fully flushed out, one cannot deny that practically all Jews report feeling a connection to Judaism regardless of their level of religious commitment and practice. And let’s not forget the positive and powerful 2013 Pew survey finding: despite massive numbers who are unengaged in Jewish life, still 96 percent affirmed that they were proud to be Jewish. 

There is a powerful lesson in this data for Jewish educators, philanthropists, religious and lay leaders, parents and institutions: Jews in America today are certainly divided and diminished. Thousands, if not millions, are so Jewishly diminished that they are indeed enormously distant from Jewish life in any way we understand it. They may well never find their way back and the prospects for their children richly engaging in Jewish life by any definition thereof are gloomier still. Traditional Jewish religious and communal institutions are shrinking and witnessing real decline in engagement; philanthropic giving is down; distancing from Israel is no longer in doubt. In many respects, Jews are acting no differently than other Americans as ethnic assimilation and religious disengagement have become widespread in the nation over several recent decades. 

But these downbeat trends about the outlook and behaviors of the Jewish community demand a critically important, upbeat qualification: The vast majority of Jews — whether those distant from Jewish life as we typically understood it or active today via services and synagogues, politics and philanthropy, still widely retain at least a sentimental attachment to being Jewish. A Jewish spark or pintele yid is clearly very much present among almost all Jews, contrasting with those in other faith traditions who do not show anywhere close to such a level of attachment to their religion as part of your ethnic background or cultural heritage. 

The question going forward, then, is to better understand what features of Jewishness appeal and connect with almost all Jews. One possibility points to Jewish food, consistent with surveys that consistently find widespread resonance — more than God, prayer, Torah, and Israel. The Pew study found that seven in ten Jews often or sometimes cook or eat traditional Jewish foods, which is the most common form of engagement with Jewish life. As many as six in ten report that they at least sometimes share Jewish culture and holidays with non-Jewish friends, or that they observed a Jewish ritual to mark a lifecycle milestone (like a bar or bat mitzvah) in the past year. And large majorities still mark Jewish festivals—Passover, Hanukkah, the High Holy Days among them—that bring together Jewish family and friends.

Many Jews today are indeed alienated from the major norms, themes and memes of Jewish life. But even amidst the widespread secularization and assimilation (i.e., becoming similar to the surrounding society), almost all Jews still retain sentimental attachments to Jews and being Jewish. They may not be Jews by belonging or Jews by behaving; but almost all are Jews by feeling.

Without a doubt, the American Jewish community will look very different in the decades to come and the traditional institutions and ways in which Jews have engaged with faith and with each other may well diminish or simply no longer exist. But before observers, scholars, and various commentaries decry the end of Judaism and Jewish life, we would be well served to remember that new institutions, outlooks, norms and practices will undeniably emerge — perhaps centered on Jewish family and festivals. We should be confident that there’s a real chance that Jewish peoplehood will persist and even thrive for we now have proof that there is something — and it is hard to define — present in virtually all American Jews today that binds the Jewish community together.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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