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Who’s a Jew? Few U.S. Jews say it’s a matter of belief

By Lauren Markoe
Religion News Service

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  • Study findings

    • Jews support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a wide margin: 70 percent said they are Democrats or lean Democratic; 22 percent said they are Republican or lean Republican.

    • More than eight in 10 Jews (82 percent) said homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 57 percent of Americans in general.

    • A majority of Jews believe a person can still be Jewish and work on the Sabbath (94 percent), and can be strongly critical of Israel (89 percent) or not believe in God (68 percent).

    • More than three in 10 Jews believe a person can believe that Jesus was the messiah – the belief that’s central to Christianity – and still be Jewish.

    • The Reform movement – the least traditional – claims 35 percent of American Jews, followed by unaffiliated Jews (30 percent), Conservative Jews (18 percent) and the Orthodox (10 percent).

    • More than four in 10 American Jews (43 percent) have been to Israel, and about the same (44 percent) believe Israel’s continued building of settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians is harmful to Israel’s security.

    • More than four in 10 Jews (42 percent) said having a sense of humor is essential to their Jewish identity.



In the most comprehensive study of American Jews in 12 years, a majority said being Jewish is mostly about ancestry or culture, not religious practice.

“A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released Oct. 1 by the Pew Research Center, shows strong secularist trends most clearly seen in one finding: 62 percent of U.S. Jews said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry; 15 percent said it’s about religious belief.

“Non-Jews may be stunned by it,” said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the study. “Being Jewish to most Jews in America today is not a matter of religion.”

The study focuses on the 3,475 surveyed who said they are Jewish by religion, or have at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and consider themselves Jewish in some way.

In a related finding, more than one in five self-identified Jews (22 percent) told researchers that they had no religion, a proportion that mirrors the roughly one in five Americans who claim no religious affiliation.

Yet in spite of their weakening adherence to Jewish observances, the report noted that “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

As if to prove that point, a strong majority of Jews (69 percent) call themselves very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel – a proportion that has held steady for at least a decade.

Pew’s new statistics on intermarriage, raising of children, synagogue membership and attachment to Israel are likely to come under scrutiny by Jews and Jewish groups who are focused on the “continuity” question.

In short, that question concerns the fear – brought on by the Holocaust – that the survival of the Jewish people is tenuous. In many Jewish eyes, continuity depends on maintaining strong defenses – against external enemies who would kill Jews and destroy Israel, but also against the threat of intermarriage and its tendency to diminish the number of children who are raised as Jews.

“It’s a way of saying Jews must continue,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader in the Reform Jewish movement, the largest and most liberal of the three major streams of Judaism. “And therefore we need to build a Judaism that is strong and robust.”

By contrast, 19 percent of respondents called “observing Jewish law” an essential part of being Jewish. After “remembering the Holocaust,” the second most popular response to what it means to be Jewish was leading an ethical life, the option chosen by nearly seven in 10 people.

Cooperman said the growing number of “Jews of no religion” is a major new twist in the continuity question. Two-thirds (67 percent) of “Jews of no religion” who are raising children told pollsters that they are not bringing them up as Jews in any way – not even as cultural or secular Jews.

Pew interviewed 3,475 Jews. The report says the number of adults who say Judaism is their religion at 4.2 million. That number rises to 5.3 million if cultural Jews are included.

The survey was conducted between Feb. 20 and June 13, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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