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June 24, 2021

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Survey of U.S. Jews reveals worries, divisions

Worries of rise in anti-Semitism found to be widespread

4 Photos
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk past shipping containers in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in March.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk past shipping containers in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in March. (Wong Maye-E/Assocoiated Press) Photo Gallery

A comprehensive new survey of Jewish Americans finds them increasingly worried about anti-Semitism, proud of their cultural heritage and sharply divided about the importance of religious observance in their lives.

The survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, estimated the total Jewish population in the country at 7.5 million — about 2.3 percent of the national population.

The survey of 4,178 Jewish Americans was conducted between November 2019 and June 2020 — long before the current escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the findings reflected skepticism among U.S. Jews regarding that conflict — only one-third said the Israeli government was sincere in seeking peace; just 12 percent said Palestinian leaders were sincere in that regard.

Compared with Americans overall, Jewish Americans, on average, are older, have higher levels of education and income and are more geographically concentrated in the Northeast, according to Pew.

Yet even as the Jewish population is thriving in many ways, concerns about anti-Semitism rose amid the deadly attacks in 2018 and 2019 on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif.; and a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J.

Three-quarters of Jewish Americans say there is more anti-Semitism in the U.S. than five years ago, and 53 percent say they feel less safe. Jews who wear distinctive religious attire such as head coverings are particularly likely to feel less safe.

The impact of such worries on people’s behavior seems limited: Pew reported that the vast majority of American Jews — including those who feel less safe — say concern about anti-Semitism hasn’t deterred them from participating in Jewish observances and events.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said American Jews believe they are being singled out for attacks and vitriol, yet also see anti-Semitism as part of a broader national problem of bigotry and intolerance.

“We have to get a lid on the tolerance of intolerance in the United States,” he told The AP. “Hatred and bigotry existed before five or six years ago, but in recent years it has become OK to do it in a very public, unrestrained way.”

According to Pew’s criteria, Jews are notably less religious than American adults as a whole. For example, 21 percent said religion is very important in their lives, compared with 41 percent of U.S. adults overall. A majority of U.S. adults say they believe in God “as described in the Bible,” compared with 26 percent of Jews. And 12 percent of Jewish Americans say they attend religious services weekly, versus 27 percent of the general public.

Orthodox Jews stand apart in this regard. They are among the most religious groups in U.S. society in terms of the share — 86 percent — who say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 78 percent of Black Protestants and 76 percent of white evangelicals.

According to Pew, 9 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as Orthodox. Far more belong to the two long-dominant branches of American Judaism: 37 percent identify as Reform and 17 percent as Conservative. More than one in four don’t identify with any particular branch yet consider themselves to be Jewish ethnically, culturally or by family background.

Interfaith marriage is commonplace: 42 percent of married Jewish adults said they had a non-Jewish spouse, according to Pew.

Jacobs said he wants Reform congregations to embrace this phenomenon rather than view it as a sign of demise.

“Intermarriage can expand who’s part of the Jewish community,” he said.

Pew found evidence that the U.S. Jewish population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Overall, 92 percent of Jewish adults identify as non-Hispanic white, and 8 percent identify with all other categories combined. But among Jews ages 18 to 29, that figure rises to 15 percent.

Pew’s survey suggests other generational changes are unfolding. For example, among Jews ages 18 to 29, 17 percent self-identify as Orthodox, compared with just 3 percent of those 65 and older. And among Jewish adults under 30, 37 percent identify with either Reform or Conservative Judaism, compared with about 70 percent of those 65 and older.

Politically, U.S. Jews on the whole tend to support the Democratic Party. In the survey, which was conducted months before the 2020 election, 71 percent said they were Democrats or leaned Democratic.

But Orthodox Jews have moved in the opposite direction: 75 percent of them said they were Republicans or leaned Republican, compared with 57 percent in 2013. And 86 percent of them rated Donald Trump’s handling of policy toward Israel as “excellent” or “good,” while a majority of all U.S. Jews described it as “only fair” or “poor.”

While there are signs of political polarization among U.S. Jews, the survey also found areas of consensus. For instance, more than 80 percent say they feel at least some sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and three-quarters say “being Jewish” is very or somewhat important to them.

Pew asked respondents which of various causes and activities are “essential,” “important but not essential” or “not important” to what being Jewish means to them. More than 70 percent said remembering the Holocaust and leading a moral and ethical life are essential, and 59 percent cited working for social justice.

Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., said he hopes Jewish Americans can maintain solidarity even as their ranks diversify and many forego religious observance.

“It is our imperative to find ways to be nimble and compelling enough for the Jews to want to invest their time and resources in the broader community,” he said. “So the struggle for me is not the identity, but the practice of Jewish life and how we hold a community together when others are trying to tear us apart.”