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 its 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.
Pews 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.
Its 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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