12 Thoughts on the 2020 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

For my “Christmas” post, I’ve decided to share 12 of my long-overdue thoughts (in honor of 12 days of Christmas) on the Pew Report on Jewish Americans in 2020 that came out in May 2021 (when I was too busy changing jobs to blog about the Pew survey when it would have been timely). I want to be clear that this is not intended as a passive-aggressive attack on Christmas. I have absolutely nothing against Christmas, and I wish all who are celebrating a joyous, peaceful, wonderful holiday. This is simply a post that I anticipate people who are not Jewish will find more boring, so I might as well post it today. That said, I always welcome anyone and everyone to read and comment, so if you feel so moved, go for it!

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Pew Research Center notes that the survey doesn’t reflect Jews in America during the pandemic, as most of the responses were received before the pandemic. The FAQs also cover the impact of the pandemic, among other questions, and are worth a read. The page #s in the headings below refers to the page # of the complete report.

1.) Jewish Identity & Denomination Breakdown (pg. 9)

Young people are leaving the Conservative and Reform movements and more young people are identifying as Orthodox or “Jews Of No Religion”, the Conservative movement is dying, etc.

I’m not really sure what my response as an individual should be to this. It’s not news. And it’s not going to change how I affiliate. I’m not going to chase the young people to Orthodoxy because a) I hate young people, b) I am not Orthodox in philosophy or practice, and c) I have no interest in becoming Orthodox in philosophy or practice.

Actually, I’m not even considered a young person in this survey. The youngest age bracket is 18-29.

Not a self-portrait. Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

2.) Are You a Jewish Atheist or Atheist Jew? (pg. 17)

I’ve never thought of “Jewish” and “Atheist” as necessarily competing identities so the distinction between “Jew By Religion” and “Jew Of No Religion” seems odd. Is “Jewish Atheist” or “Atheist Jew” the new “Are you a Jewish American or American Jew” question? I wouldn’t be surprised if a sizeable portion of the Jews By Religion don’t believe in God, in which case, what’s the distinction between a non-God-believing Jew By Religion and a Jew Of No Religion?

We know that Judaism is a religion, a people, and a culture. I have mixed opinions on Rachel B. Gross’s approach (on JTA and on Times of Israel) to broaden the definition of Judaism as a religion to include culture because I don’t think people see culture as a religion, and I don’t think culture and religion fulfill the same needs. But I agree that trying to figure out whether someone is a Jew By Religion or a Jew Of No Religion seems like the wrong question.

3.) The Other Denominations & The Israelis (pg. 21)

Shockingly (not), people see more commonalities between members of their own denomination vs. others. What surprised me was that Conservative and Reform Jews see more commonalities with Israeli Jews than with Orthodox Jews. (77% of Conservative Jews say they have a “A lot/some” in common with Israeli Jews vs. 66% who say they have “A lot/some” in common with Orthodox; for Reform, it’s 61% “A lot/some” in common with Israeli Jews vs. 39% “A lot/some” in common with Orthodox.)

Side note: I feel like the Israeli Jews question makes no sense. Israeli Jews are pretty diverse lot. Israel is largely a nation of immigrants, and there is a wide array of religious practice, political belief, and cultural background amongst Israeli Jewry. I have no idea how I would have answered this question if I were taking this survey.

4.) Religious Activities vs. Cultural Activities (pg. 27)

I disagree with the classification of some of these activities as “Cultural” rather than “Religious”. I would argue that marking Shabbat is religious, not cultural. As to visiting synagogues and participating in events with Chabad, it depends on intent. Here’s where I would have classified the activities differently:

Cultural Activities (according to Pew Research Center)Cultural Activities (accordingly to JYP)Religious Activities (according to JYP)
Visiting synagogues or historic Jewish sites when travelingVisiting a synagogue when traveling for the purpose of touring the building / learning the historyVisiting a synagogue when traveling for the purpose of attending services
Marking Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to youMarking Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to you
Participating in activities/services with ChabadParticipating in social activities with ChabadParticipating in religious services with Chabad
Chart of activities where I disagree with Pew Research Center’s classification of “cultural activities”

5.) Do You Want Your Grandchildren to Share Your Political Convictions, Carry the Family Name, or Marry Jewish? (pg. 41)

65% of Jews think it very/somewhat important for their grandchildren to share their political convictions vs. 44% who think it very/somewhat important for their grandchildren to marry someone Jewish. The takeaway is that Jews see a stronger tie between their political convictions and the values they want to pass down vs. their Judaism and the values they want to pass down. I actually found this to be one of the more distressing findings of the report.

A personal story: My grandmother z”l (strongly partisan to one party) raised my father, who later grew up to be strongly partisan to the other party, who in turn raised children who spanned a range of political viewpoints and affiliations. And yet, in the eulogy he gave at her funeral, my dad credited my grandmother instilling a strong sense of values, even if he ultimately thought another party either better represented or had better policies to implement said values.

That’s the thing about political affiliations. In the USA, our political system is a mess. We have two parties in a broken system that encourages taking more extremist positions and vilifying opponents, as opposed to crafting policies that actually work, rampant corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, fraud, and a deeply flawed electoral system. I know that political conviction is broader than party affiliation, but still.

6.) Ancestry vs. Family vs. Peoplehood (pg. 63)

I’m not usually the word choice police, but the use of the word “ancestry” over the word “family” or “peoplehood” in this chart really bothers me. It feels needlessly non-inclusive of Jews who are adopted or Jews who converted to Judaism. You can have a Jewish chosen or adoptive family who are not your biological ancestors. You can feel a connection to Jewish people without being a direct descendant.

7.) Marking Shabbat in a Personally Meaningful Way (pg. 73)

Not surprisingly, Orthodox Jews are far more likely to mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them than anyone else. But it surprised and saddened me to see that 12% of Orthodox Jews rarely or never mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them. I have no doubt that 99.9999% of the Orthodox Jews surveyed are Shomer Shabbat, as keeping Shabbat is so central to frum Jewish identity. It’s just sad to me that these 12% don’t find their Shabbat experience meaningful.

Then again, I struggled with Shabbat too, so perhaps this result isn’t so surprising. Just sad. Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay

Also, Reform Jews are missing out. I’m not a kiruv (Jewish outreach) person trying to tell Reform Jews to become Orthodox (I do think the pre-COVID Orthodox big party Shabbat dinner and oneg scene was awesome, but that is not the point). On the contrary, I think Reform Jews should check out Reform synagogues on Friday night. Pre-COVID I went to some big Reform synagogues for Kabbalat Shabbat services while I was traveling…and it was amazing! The quality and spirit of the service when you permit musical instruments and focus on amazing cantors, choirs, and vocalists for Friday night was just fantastic. It gave me a new appreciation for the Reform movement.

Actually, now that I’ve given myself permission to quit traditional Shabbat observance, I should really start going to Kabbalat Shabbat services at a big, musically awesome Reform synagogue. I think that would dramatically improve my Shabbat experience.

8.) Political Activism as Jewish Expression (pg. 76)

The percentage of Jewish Republicans/Republican-leaning and the percentage of Jewish Democrats/Democrat-leaning who see their political activism as an expression of their Jewishness are roughly the same. We may have more in common with the enemy than we think.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

9.) Participation in Chabad, aka The Chart That Is Almost Useful (pg. 79)

This chart annoys me because it stops short of being actually useful to non-Chabad community organizers trying to get more people to go to services and events. We don’t know if the Chabad model, in which Chabad provides services, classes, and meals to build engagement and then people donate, vs. the traditional synagogue dues structure, is preferred due to cost because this chart leaves off the income brackets. A breakdown of Chabad participation by % of people who have a membership at another synagogue that is not Chabad vs. people who do not have another synagogue membership would have been extremely useful in evaluating whether Chabad is taking the place of traditional synagogue membership or supplementing it. But of course, that is missing also. Age and education levels is included, but % of attendees currently in college (Chabad being extremely big on some university campuses) is not. This chart is annoyingly useless.

10.) Intermarriage: Correlation Not Causation (pg. 94)

Full disclosure: My sibling-in-law is not Jewish and has no intention of converting to Judaism. I adore my sibling-in-law, I think Sibling & Sibling-in-law are perfect for each other, my sibling has been more engaged with Judaism since dating my non-Jewish sibling-in-law, and I am overjoyed that they are married. Blast me all you want, but I won’t tolerate comments blasting my sibling for marrying outside the faith.

The Pew Report found that intermarriage rates are high and rising. Intermarried couples tend to have less engagement with Judaism and are less likely than in-married couples to raise children as Jewish. (The Pew Report does have some interesting points about the challenges of measuring intermarriage which are worth a read.)

The problem with these surveys is that they give you correlation but not causation. Does intermarriage drive people away from Judaism, or were they already less engaged? Or do intermarried couples want Jewish engagement, but Jewish institutions need to do a better job of engaging them? I’m inclined to agree with other commentators on this. If you don’t treat intermarriage as the end of Judaism or compare it to the Holocaust as was done in the 90s, it doesn’t necessarily have to be; if you do, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

11.) Teaching Congregants About Anti-Semitism (pg. 135)

I don’t really have much to say about the anti-Semitism results. The results do not surprise me. It might have been interesting to know where American Jews perceive the source of anti-Semitism (ie. from the Right? From the Left?) but I can’t think of a way this could have been asked in a scientifically valid, unbiased way.

The report includes a sidebar based on interviews with Rabbis. One Rabbi talks about the need to teach her politically active congregation about anti-Semitism, how to recognize it, and about anti-Semitic tropes because they are “ill-informed”. There is something odd to me about the image of these Jewish young-ish adults (she references Hebrew School education in the 80s and 90s) learning about anti-Semitic tropes for the first time from their Rabbi.

12.) Jews Of Color / Diversity (pg. 170)

How many “Jews of Color / are People of Color / BIPOC are there?” is probably the result of most interest. Pew makes it clear that this survey didn’t ask the question in that terminology, although the report includes several data tables around race, ethnicity, etc. that can help piece together an answer.

I feel like this is the most talked about part of the study (my own congregation’s email conversation on the Pew study centered on these results – the accuracy, the definitions, whether the results meshed with individual anecdotal experience, etc.) and yet, I find these results the least telling. What I find more telling are the interviews in the report sidebar and various reflections written by Jews of color about how they have been treated within the Jewish community.

Fellow Jews, let’s resolve not to be racist dicks – to anyone really – but especially not to our fellow Jews. Examples of racist dickery in this context can include:

  • Assuming someone is lost / does not belong based on their skin color. Instead, assume that everyone in a synagogue has a good reason to be there. I mean, let’s be honest – synagogue can be awfully boring. Do you really think someone would go to synagogue if they didn’t have good reason to?
  • Assuming the universality of Jewish-American Ashkenazi nostalgia culture. Celebrate it by all means, but don’t assume it’s a universal for all Jews. There are a lot of Jewish cultures.
  • Playing Jewish Geography. I’m guilty of this, but this article brought up some good points about how Jewish Geography can be non-inclusive of Jews who didn’t have the money to go to Jewish schools and camps, Jews who grew up in another part of the world, Jews who joined the Jewish people later in life, etc.
  • Asking invasive/uncomfortable questions in the name of being interested and welcome. Nobody owes you their life story.

Side note: Someone please explain grammatical usage of “diversity” and “diverse” to me. Like “Jewish population in U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse” makes grammatical and logical sense to me, because a population can be diverse or homogenous. But,

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Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday and healthy and happy new year!

33 comments

    • Merry Christmas and happy happy times!
      (I’ll admit I’m not having the best Christmas weekend – I came down with cold/flu-like symptoms and haven’t been able to get a COVID test because Christmas. But I am finally starting to feel a bit better and maybe my afternoon plans are salvageable.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh no!! That’s dreadful! I hope you get better soon!! Keep me posted!! I’m hoping it’s a mild bug!! I do hope you have a good Sunday today!! ❤

        Like

  1. more commonalities with Israeli Jews than with Orthodox Jews

    interesting, because I think most Conservative and Reform Jews don’t know either Orthodox, nor Israeli society well enough to opine on this.

    It’s just sad to me that these 12% don’t find their Shabbat experience meaningful.

    It’s sad, but I’ll bet the percentage is higher – I’m more surprised that 12% admitted to this.

    this chart leaves off the income brackets.

    Good point, JYP!

    The problem with these surveys is that they give you correlation but not causation.

    Yes. (obviously.)

    Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Re. diverse/diversity, the “Jewish younger adults” being more diverse makes sense collectively as a demographic bracket, but not on an individual basis. “Amount of diversity” seems to place the emphasis in that sentence on the diversity, whereas something like “the diversity of the Jewish population” seems like it would shift the emphasis a bit more onto the Jewish population.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re right – if “Jewish younger adults” is a population, then this makes sense. I just kept reading this in my head as individuals becoming more diverse which would not make any sense. I’m not sure I’m following your point about “amount of diversity” language. I could believe that “amount of diversity” is the proper usage, as it isn’t ridiculous that diversity is something that can be quantified. But the phrasing just seems very awkward to me.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting post! I guess my ex-husband married outside the faith when he married me, since at that time my half-Jewish self (the “wrong” half) was totally atheist and anti-religion. However, we ended up joining a reform temple and I enjoyed the services, the music, and the community. The preschool was excellent also. Eventually I became an adult bat mitzvah, which the rabbi jokingly called my informal conversion. After my marriage fell apart though, I lost interest in services, doing holidays, etc., since it all seemed so phony ~ not the religious part but smiling and faking a happy relationship. But ~ plot twist ~ my youngest became Orthodox! Now I find it all interesting again and am always asking her and my son-in-law to explain their rituals and beliefs. I’m still an atheist, but I find value in many of the aspects of their system. My granddaughter is learning a ton in her Jewish preschool (not just Jewish stuff, but everything), and honestly I’m happy she isn’t going to be dumped into the LAUSD. Same goes for my grandson, who is too little for school yet. I do agree that many people, many Jews even, have the wrong idea about Orthodoxy. This survey seems weird because my daughter, SIL, and their friends all appear to love shabbat observance as a complete break from work, phones, social media, traffic, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your story!
      We always view things through our own lenses and biases. I picked up on the 12% Orthodox who reported that they rarely/never mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them, because I struggled hard with traditional Shabbat observance. But 86% of Orthodox said that they often/sometimes mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not anything. An Earthling, perhaps. (Well, actually, most certainly.) To me, Christmas has become just a sort of reminder that even though we don’t have to confine it to one short season, we can periodically behave nicely to each other, and if enough people do it all at the same time, it does seem sort of magical. That said, the conditioning the typical American cultural Christian goes through at an early age runs very deep and is quite compelling. (Pretty lights, treats, free toys . . . )
    Have a merry . . . weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fascinating Earthling take on the Christmas season. I sense that those working retail or airlines might have a different opinion on how nicely people behave towards each other. But I do think there is a larger cultural focus on general kindness as a goal for this season, even if we don’t all get there.
      Have a merry weekend too! (Mine is currently being spent suffering with cold/flu/COVID-like symptoms, but will hopefully get merrier at some point)

      Like

  5. I don’t have anything to say about most of your post because it’s outside my cultural and theological bailiwicks. However, I will say something about antisemitism. Growing up in NM, antisemitism wasn’t a thing. I heard occasional Jewish jokes, which I often didn’t understand, by folks who had moved to Rio Rancho from NY and NJ, but animosity towards Jews was pretty much non-existent in my upbringing. I was raised not to have prejudices as much as possible and to give everyone a chance to prove themselves an decent people or dicks before judging them.

    However, when we lived in Spain I ran into my first encounter with antisemitism. Spaniards would give me a hard time for being American because they thought Americans were war mongers and bad for having the death penalty. Somehow Israel came up during a discussion about war and the death penalty, and all of a sudden the pacifist pussies I was taking to turned into the most vile, violent, foul people talking about how there was no good Jews and that Israel needed to be wiped off the face of the earth along with all the Jews. I don’t get shocked or offended easily, but I was so caught off guard by the quick change in demeanor and violent outbursts of those Spaniards over the mere mention of Israel that I was shocked, offended, and completely disgusted.

    I was like “What the hell did Jews do to you to deserve such hatred?” It was simply that Israel and Jews existed. I don’t think any of them had ever known a Jew or if they had, they didn’t know it. It was simply hatred passed down through generations. I’ve never understood how people can hate a group of people so much without any other reason other than their parents hated them, and their parents parents hated them, and so on. I realized I had no idea what antisemitism was all about before that first first encounter, and not the last.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting to hear about your experience in NM and Spain. I’ve been wildly fortunate, in that I honestly don’t think I’ve ever personally experienced antisemitism, although I know it’s there and I know that I’m in the minority.

      There is something sad and sobering about that kind of hatred getting passed down generation to generation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I got a fair amount of hostility and prejudiced because I was a foreigner. People didn’t assume I was American, they often thought I was German, that might of put me up to the level of a wild animal in some Spaniards eyes.

        Like

  6. 3) It’s sad that so many Reform Jews don’t seem to find much in common with Orthodox Jews (and vice versa? I admit I didn’t look at the original data). I’m Orthodox, but I spent several years volunteering and then working at a non-Orthodox educational institution and, while there were definitely differences (which could sometimes be disconcerting) there were similarities too.

    5) Agreed about the passing on politics vs. passing on religion thing.

    12) Jews of colour and Jewish geography. I agree with most of the points about Jews of colour, but I have mixed feelings about the Jewish geography one. This also came up in the UK a while back where a report on Jews of colour in the UK said to stop Jewish geography. And I really don’t see it. I am also bad at Jewish geography, not because I am a Jew of colour or a convert, but because I am on the autism spectrum and am bad at things that involve socialising, networking, or knowing (or caring) about people I don’t know well, or at all. I also missed a lot of the adolescent “meeting people” experiences people draw on for Jewish geography (again, mostly because of autism and social anxiety). I do feel lost and even slightly panicked when people start playing Jewish geography, but the idea that stopping people doing it will lead to people feeling noticeably more comfortable is, I think, illusory. I don’t see how it could be policed either. Jews have been doing this for generations, and it’s probably inevitable, even a survival skill, in a small and close-knit, but geographically spread out, culture. Trying to stop it seems both impossible and a largely pointless way of upsetting a lot of people doing something that isn’t terribly harmful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 3) It is vice versa too. I wonder if it’s just that our first inclination will always be to spot the differences. Like the Pew Report didn’t look at or separate out communities within Orthodoxy (eg. Hareidi vs. Yeshivish vs. Modern, etc.) but I remember back when I was on Imamother, a website for Orthodox married women…and you’d think that these were entirely different religions. I do think it’s positive when people really get to know each other beyond the obvious differences.

      12) Fair point about Jewish geography. I guess the biggest challenge is that the line between being welcoming (you also don’t want congregations where no one welcomes newcomers, or where no one speaks to each other at all…) and being uncomfortably intrusive can be really thin.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You did a lot of research on this. Some people consider the Pew report a big thing. I always wonder how accurate the Pew reports really are. For example, if one tallies up the number of people attending orthodox shuls, does that mean all these people are orthodox? Probably not. Not sure where they get their numbers from.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! This was the first year that I really started looking into the Pew study. They do have a lot more info about how they find respondents, and I don’t recall all of it offhand, but I know that it isn’t just based on looking at synagogue membership lists. They can’t do that in part because they wanted to capture the many respondents who aren’t synagogue members, or who are Jews of No Religion (their terminology, not mine). I actually know someone personally who was polled by Pew for the 2020 survey; I’ll have to ask her how they recruited her.

      Like

  8. First of all, my head is spinning, but in a good way. For #2, as a prof who teaches a diverse populations class, I’ve always taught that religion is a type of culture, but with this and the other number (where you have the chart), I can see why you’d say it’s not.

    #12 is interesting to me…because I’m Black, and I’ve always wondered about Jewish people who are Black.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting…I can see where religion is a type of culture. All the beliefs, history, practices, even etiquette norms for entering holy spaces / places of worship – all of that creates a culture. I don’t think a culture is a type of religion though. I’m not sure that culture is a type of religion necessarily. I feel like religion has strictures that culture doesn’t have in the same way. I’m curious how you characterize this in your classes.

      The data tables on the racial demographics weren’t especially enlightening for me, but I found the sidebar interviews and other reflection pieces written by black (Black?) Jews and Jews of non-white Ashkenazi backgrounds about racism and microaggressions they’ve faced within the Jewish community eye-opening and sobering.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So, I think it’s listed in two places. We discuss Jewish people as being an ethnicity, and then again, of course, as a religion. The way you’ve said it at first is right. We discuss Judaism as a cultural aspect of a person’s identity.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I kept meaning to come back to this. This was a very interesting and skilled analysis of the Pew survey. I am fascinated with religious beliefs of all types so I really enjoy when you write these posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It was an interesting exercise. Took a while though. This was actually a scheduled post that went live at the wrong time because I don’t know how to schedule posts. It’s not that I did this whole analysis of the Pew report while I had the worst of my COVID symptoms.

      Pew did another survey of religiosity of adults generally. I haven’t looked at that one yet.

      Like

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