According to the results of the Pew Research Center survey “Jewish Americans in 2020,” the number of Orthodox Jews has grown, and that of Jews who identify as Conservative or Reform has declined. The implication appears to be that Israel’s Jewish allies in the diaspora have shifted from those belonging to a disappearing center to those who are part of an emerging Orthodoxy. Over all, the survey results imply, the commitment of non-Orthodox Jews to Jewish peoplehood is diminishing.
But the survey results need to be clarified. First, while support among the Orthodox for Jewish peoplehood is significant, as is the growth in their numbers, the American Orthodox community remains relatively small — just 9 percent of the 7.5 million Jews Pew counted. Moreover, the primary source of Orthodox growth is from the increase of the subset of charedim, who have a particularly high rate of early marriage and fertility. The numbers of modern Orthodox have also increased, but only modestly, from 2013; they comprise just 3 percent of the 7.5 million Jews.
Clarification is also needed in reference to the Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. Their adherents remain the most crucial component among non-Orthodox, representing the majority of so-called American Jews-by-religion. The decline of their numbers in the category of non-Orthodox can be attributed to an expansion of the Pew category “Jews of no religion.” In fact, the growth of those identifying as Jews of no religion is the primary reason that the 6.7 million American Jews (5.35 million adults, 1.35 million children) — cited in the Pew study of 2013 leaped in 2020 to 7.5 million Jews (5.75 million adults, 1.75 million children).
A 10 percent growth in the number of Jews in the Pew study within only seven years is startling. It cannot be attributed to the immigration of Jews to this country, nor to an overall high birthrate among American Jews, nor to a declining death rate. The growth instead reflects the increase of self-identifying Jews of no religion in the count, and this group now represents 27 percent of Pew’s 7.5 million Jews, including 40 percent of young Jewish adults — from 18 to 29 years old.
Who are these Jews of no religion? According to Pew, they “consider themselves to be Jewish” but only in a limited way, exhibiting a low level of Jewish engagement. They self-identify as Jews “ethnically,” “culturally,” or by “family background” — which often means they grew up in a household with one Jewish parent but were not raised in the religion. Their large presence skews the survey’s data. Pew explains that “Jews of no religion stand out in 2020 for low levels of religious participation — particularly synagogue membership and attendance” — few identify as Reform and almost none as Conservative or Orthodox — “together with comparatively weak attachments to Israel, feelings of belonging to the Jewish people, and engagement in communal Jewish life.”
The category of second-generation diaspora “Jews of no religion” is significant; it merits its own study. But including it together with all American Jews yields a misleading, false negative impression of non-involvement. I believe a truer picture would emerge if the Pew data were to focus on what Sergio Della Pergola — an Italian-Israeli expert in demography and statistics related to the Jewish population — calls “the core Jewish population,” “Jews of Jewish religion,” as well as a subset of people identifying as “Jews of no religion,” those whose parents were both Jewish.
Moreover, within this core group, comparisons should not be made between Orthodox (9 percent) versus non-Orthodox (91 percent). That approach is not helpful. Rather, interpreters need to explore the clear gradient revealed by the data: More intensively led Jewish lives create higher levels of Jewish living. The sequence is clear: charedi, then modern Orthodox, then Conservative, then Reform, then “Jews by religion who do not currently identify with a specific denomination,” and then “Jews of no religion” raised by two Jewish parents.
A segmented approach to examining the survey statistics on core Jews reveals useful results about Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and “Jews of religion who do not (currently) identify with a specific denomination.” This approach reveals encouraging data. For example, let us consider Conservative Jews within the Pew 2020 study and their attitude toward Jewish peoplehood issues. (The other streams should be focused on for their own set of statistics as well.)
- 95 percent of Conservative Jews indicate that “belonging to the Jewish people” is “important” to them.
- 93 percent feel “a responsibility” to “help Jews in need.”
- 85 percent have Jewish friends.
- 79 percent regard the Jewish religion as “important” to them.
- 78 percent feel “emotionally attached” to Israel.
- 77 percent feel “a commonality” with Jews in Israel.
- 75 percent follow news about Israel.
- 75 percent of married Conservative Jews have a Jewish spouse.
- 71 percent donated to Jewish charity during the past year.
- 66 percent regard “caring about Israel” as being either “essential” or “important” to them.
- 61 percent watch television programs with Jewish/Israeli themes.
- 59 percent have been to Israel, most more than one time.
- 56 percent live in a household in which at least one family member belongs to a synagogue.
- 54 percent listen to Jewish or Israeli music.
- 53 percent feel being part of a Jewish community is “essential” to being Jewish.
- 43 percent attend Jewish/Israeli film festivals.
- 31 percent have attended a full-time Jewish school.
Jews who identify as members of the Conservative stream are politically diverse: 28 percent are Republicans, 70 percent are Democrats; 23 percent are politically conservative, 36 percent are moderate, 39 percent are liberal.
American policy toward Israel is important to Conservative Jews; although 70 percent are Democrats, 52 percent approved of the Trump GOP administration’s friendly policies toward the Jewish state.
And in overwhelming numbers, Conservative Jews oppose the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, in contrast to only 1 percent who “strongly support” and 4 percent who “somewhat support” BDS.
The affirmative attitudes toward peoplehood of those who identify as Conservative are crucial. Conservative Jews represent almost 30 percent of synagogue members in the United States, nearly one out of four Jews by religion. Consequently, they play an important role in efforts in support of Zionism.
For instance, delegations from Conservative congregations comprise the largest stream at the annual AIPAC policy conference. A sizable minority of married American-Jewish olim and a plurality of young single adult olim come from Conservative Jewish households. Many Conservative rabbis with adult offspring have at least one son or daughter who has moved permanently to Israel. I am proud to be among them.
Often these pro-Israel attitudes can be traced to Conservative Judaism’s youth programming, such as Solomon Schechter day schools. Nativ, the movement’s gap-year Masa Israel Journey program, reports that 96 percent of its alumni get involved in Israel-centered and Jewish organizational life on campus, with 77 percent in leadership positions; 16 percent make aliyah.
Nearly 100 percent of the alumni of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah system have been to Israel, 85 percent more than once. Almost all feel attached to Israel, 75 percent have close friends or immediate family living in Israel, 5 percent live in Israel now, and 29 percent have lived in Israel for three months or more. Each Ramah camp hosts a delegation of Jewish Agency shlichim, cultural emissaries. Ramah partners with the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah organization in programs in six metropolitan areas and on 15 campuses. (Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog, is on the roster of former Ramahniks.)
Conservative congregations represent the largest component within the State of Israel Bonds national synagogue campaign. Philanthropic involvement by Conservative Jews is pivotal to the UJA campaigns of Jewish federations across the United States, and their contributions are essential to such organizations as Jewish National Fund and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Family foundations established by Conservative Jews often designate funds for Israel-based projects, and the movement produces a plurality of professionals who steer institutional life on behalf of the Jewish community and Israel.
In sum, the data presented in the Pew 2020 survey assessing core Jews reaffirms that the major religious streams — Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox — remain essential guarantors of American Jewry’s strong support of Israel. It is encouraging to hear that the Bennett/Lapid coalition, President Herzog, and Minister of diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai will focus attention on the Israel-diaspora relationship. American Jewry’s religious movements await an enhanced partnership with Israel’s new leadership.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell this year; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.