The Great Jewish Religious Recession?: The Meaning of the Latest Major Study of American Jewry

The Great Jewish Religious Recession?

The Meaning of the Latest Major Study of American Jewry

Yesterday, I was in a medical office talking to a staff member about a medical matter.  I happened to mention that I had  just read a New York Times about a gene study that pointed to European women are at the root of the Jewish Ashkenazi family tree.  I was making a joke that with the staff member that I found out today that my origins were more complicated than originally thought.  The young woman asked me about my origins and I responded by saying that I was an Ashkenazi Jew.   She then told me that she was of Jewish descent, that her father was Jewish, but that she had not been raised Jewish.   She was pleasantly surprised to hear next that I was a Rabbi.  I gave her my card and told her that she was welcome to contact me if she was interested in Jewish activities or study.


I have these encounters in Juneau all the time with people who are not at all connected with the organized Jewish community in Juneau, but who have a Jewish background of some sort.   The prominence of such people in the American population was one of the findings of a major study of American Jews published last week by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project.  Here is the link to the Pew Research web page which has both an overview and sections of the report.  Link


The Pew study is a landmark study and will be the subject of focus of the American Jewish community for years to come.   Here are a few passages of some of the major findings.  I have added my own brief comments below the selections from the Pew study overview that I have quoted.  I will expand on these in future blogs. The quotes from the text are in bold with my comments in italic.

… the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion…..The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.

Here in Juneau I would say guess that “Jews with no religion” would be an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population.  


This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).

My guess is that Jewish affiliation Juneau reflects the very low rates of religious affiliation in general in our area.  I would now estimate the affiliation rate for the Jewish community to be below 15% of those who have some form of Jewish identity or background in our community. 

Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.

Compared with Jews by religion, however, Jews of no religion (also commonly called secular or cultural Jews) are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. More than 90% of Jews by religion who are currently raising minor children in their home say they are raising those children Jewish or partially Jewish. In stark contrast, the survey finds that two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.

The sharp declines in association with community disconnection and abandonment of Jewish child rearing is a devastating finding.  Jonathan Sarna, the eminent historian of American Jewry, in a phone session with Conservative Rabbis across the country identified this finding and others as indicative of what he called “the great religious recession” that is occurring in the US.  The Jewish community experienced a religious revival in the 70s and 80s with the Havurah movement which continued in different forms through 2000. However, the last decade has seen a clear down cycle which indicates the Jewish religious revival is over. 


The survey also shows that Reform Judaism continues to be the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States. One-third (35%) of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, while 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism and 6% with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. About three-in-ten American Jews (including 19% of Jews by religion and two-thirds of Jews of no religion) say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.


The near 30% of Jews who do not identify with a denomination indicates the tremendous fluidity of the Judaism in America.  This seems to suggest that those groups that do effective outreach such as Chabad have a lot to gain since the pool of Jews who don’t connect to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox is very large. 

Within all three denominational movements, most of the switching is in the direction of less-traditional Judaism. The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Much less switching is reported in the opposite direction. For example, just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.

I have heard from my Reform rabbi friends that the denominational switching from  Reform to Jews with no religion was a devastating finding for them. The Conservative movement has faced sharp denominational decline for some time. 


A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey is to explore Jewish identity: What does being Jewish mean in America today? Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity.

But observing religious law is not as central to most American Jews. Just 19% of the Jewish adults surveyed say observing Jewish law (halakha) is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And in a separate but related question, most Jews say a person can be Jewish even if that person works on the Sabbath or does not believe in God. Believing in Jesus, however, is enough to place one beyond the pale: 60% of U.S. Jews say a person cannot be Jewish if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah.

Judaism used to have a “common language” of practice which united Jews around the world.  This “common language” is now replaced by a variety of personal Jewish identities that do not value common practice or organizational association as a critical factor in personal Jewish identity. While pride in Jewish heritage is quite widespread, institutional association among Jews is declining with all sorts of challenges to the financial viability of synagogues and other types of Jewish organizations. 

What do you think of these findings? What are the implications? 

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg



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1 Comment

  1. Very, very interesting. Thank you for distilling the research findings into this blog post.



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