More Reflections on the Pew Study on Jewish Americans: On Denominational Switching

13-10-30 On Denominational Switching


One of the most interesting findings in the recently released Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project Portrait of Jewish Americans is about the state of Jewish denominations.  Below is a summary of the basic finding:


“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.”


These percentages show a continued decline in the Conservative movement while both Reform and Orthodox have been steady.  Thirty percent of the respondents classified themselves as of no denomination which I believe is the category that has increased most dramatically.  In other words, organized denominational Judaism in not growing.  To add to this picture there was an even more dramatic finding in the population study of the report. 


“Where have the Jews by religion gone? Some have converted to other faiths, but many have become Jews of no religion – people who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” but who were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent and who still consider themselves Jewish aside from religion. A Pew Research reanalysis of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey suggests that at that time, 93% of Jews in that study were Jews by religion and 7% were Jews of no religion (after some adjustments to make the NJPS and Pew Research categories as similar as possible). In the new Pew Research survey, 78% of Jews are Jews by religion, and fully 22% are Jews of no religion (including 6% who are atheist, 4% who are agnostic and 12% whose religion is “nothing in particular”).”


Add to the findings about the decline of denominations and the growth of Jews of no religion another striking data point: denominational switching.  The retention rates of Jewish denominations are strikingly low. It used to be thought, especially to those of us engaged in Jewish outreach in both the Conservative and Orthodox movements, that after the 4th generation in America you would see a move back to incorporating traditional practice in some form. However, the study shows that the predominant trend is assimilation away from tradition and from affiliation with organized Judaism across the spectrum.  I have provided a link to the interactive report on denominational switching from the Pew study which I believe you will find as fascinating as I did. 

Link to Denominational Switching Interactive.  


Here are the retention rates of the major Jewish movements:

Reform: 55%

Conservative: 36%

Orthodox: 48%


Another striking statistic is the rate of Jews who were reared in a particular movement or orientation who now describe themselves as non-Jewish.  Six percent of those raised with Orthodox backgrounds describe themselves as non-Jewish.  The rate goes up to 10% and 11% among Conservative and Reform Jews.  Among Jews who describe themselves as having no denomination, a whopping 25% now describe themselves as non-Jewish. That rate goes up to 33% among Jews who describe themselves as Jews of no religion. 


This to me is the most worrisome part of the report, because it points to a Jewish community that is sharply diminishing by loss of connection despite the various efforts over the last 10-15 years for denominational reform and innovation.  Jonathan Sarna, the great scholar of American Jewry, called these findings the Great Jewish Religious Recession.


These and other findings in the Pew report have led to  soul searching among people involved in the organized Jewish community across the country.  The findings have major implications for organized Jewish communities such as synagogues or Jewish organizations as they continue to try to retain loyalty of affiliated Jews and engage disconnected Jews living in our community.


In Alaska, these trends are magnified due to the weakness of the organized Jewish community and high rate of disaffiliation and indifference to Jewish life among many with Jewish ancestry.    


Are there specific approaches in Alaska that work to engage Jews with Judaism?   Is there a dimension of Jewish experience that is meaningful and attractive in our context?  How do we strengthen those already engaged with Jewish life? 


It used to be said that the goal of Jewish adulthood was to have Jewish grandchildren.  For a lot of Jews the aspiration to transmit Judaism to the following generations is increasing difficult or increasingly irrelevant.  To those of us who still aspire to this goal, the road is clearly steeper.  But the journey is still worthy.  Future generations of Jews depend on us who continue value our generational responsibility. 


Other links to the Pew Study


A Video Presentation


Overview of the Study

Leave a comment


  1. Very interesting. Thank you for distilling and sharing this information.


  2. Stuart Cohen

     /  November 7, 2013

    Those numbers are really sad. I feel bad for Jews who disavow religion. The often don’t understand what they are rejecting, maybe due to poor or old-fashioned education that left them feeling that Judaism was archaic and irrelevant. We all know murder is wrong. We don’t need the Torah to tell us that.

    I sometimes meet people who say “My parents are Jewish,” or one of their parents was, but they were raised with no religion, and they often seem to have a curiosity and a longing for something they feel is out there but which is not easily attainable. They think of Judaism as an impenetrable wall of custom and history and language, and, unfortunately, that’s what people encounter when they come to shul, rather than the simple, basic spirituality that all those customs are supposed to invoke.

    Not sure I have an answer. I’m not always sitting in the front of the synagogue (or even at the back!). But I think we have to engage with people where they are at, with basic feeling, and work outward from there.

    PS: I am in Peru right now. Adios!


  3. Richard Dauenhauer

     /  November 17, 2013

    Hello, Shalom,
    Thank you for your essay and thanks to Stuart for his comment. I wonder how these figures compare to American religion across the board? Fundamentalists seem on the rise, but I wonder about mainstream denominations. Orthodox Christianity is certainly suffering from some of the same patterns you describe, especially of younger generations rejecting the “old country” connections to become “real Americans,” or more “normal, average” Americans and gravitating to other denominations. In SE Alaska the scale seems to have tipped in some cases to becoming Catholic or Episcopal, but mostly to fundamentalist denominations that may appeal because they are more charismatic and less liturgical, less restricted by tradition. Thank you and the congregation for your warm reception and the opportunity to experience the richness of Torah study.



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