WASHINGTON • In the most comprehensive study of American Jews in 12 years, a strong majority said being Jewish is mostly about ancestry or culture, not the religious practice of Judaism.
"A Portrait of Jewish Americans," released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, shows strong secularist trends most clearly seen in one finding: 62 percent of U.S. Jews said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry; just 15 percent said it’s about religious belief.
"Non-Jews may be stunned by it," said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the study. "Being Jewish to most Jews in America today is not a matter of religion."
In a related finding, more than one in five self-identified Jews (22 percent) told Pew researchers that they had no religion, a proportion that mirrors the roughly one in five Americans who claim no religious affiliation.
Yet in spite of their weakening adherence to Jewish observances, the report noted that "American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people."
As if to prove that point, a strong majority of Jews (69 percent) call themselves very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel – a proportion that has held fairly steady for at least a decade.
Pew’s new statistics on intermarriage, raising of children, synagogue membership and attachment to Israel are likely to come under intense scrutiny by Jews and Jewish groups who are focused on the "continuity" question.
In short, that question concerns the fear — brought into stark relief by the Holocaust — that the survival of the Jewish people is tenuous. In many Jewish eyes, continuity depends on maintaining strong defenses — against external enemies who would kill Jews and destroy Israel, but also against the internal threat of intermarriage and its tendency to diminish the number of children who are raised as Jews.
Given that history, it is perhaps not surprising that when the study’s surveyors asked what is essential to being Jewish, more respondents (73 percent) named "remembering the Holocaust" than any other answer.
"It’s a way of saying Jews must continue," said Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader in the Reform Jewish movement, the largest and most liberal of the three major streams of Judaism. "And therefore we need to build a Judaism that is strong and robust."
Saperstein quoted the theologian and Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim, who said: "The 11th commandment is ‘You shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory.’"
By contrast, just 19 percent of respondents in the survey called "observing Jewish law" an essential part of being Jewish. After "remembering the Holocaust," the second most popular response to what it means to be Jewish was leading an ethical life, the option chosen by nearly seven in 10 people.
Cooperman said the growing number of "Jews of no religion" is a major new twist in the continuity question. Two-thirds (67 percent) of "Jews of no religion" who are raising children told pollsters that they are not bringing them up as Jews in any way – not even as cultural or secular Jews.
"They’re a growing group, and the question is, will they pass along their identity?" Cooperman said.
Other findings from the report include:
• Jews continue to support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a wide margin: 70 percent said they are Democrats or lean Democratic, while 22 percent said they are Republican or lean Republican.
• More than eight in 10 Jews (82 percent) said homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 57 percent of Americans in general.
• A vast majority of Jews believe a person can still be Jewish and work on the Sabbath (94 percent), and can be strongly critical of Israel (89 percent) or not believe in God (68 percent).
• More than three in 10 Jews believe a person can believe that Jesus was the messiah — the belief that’s central to Christianity — and still be Jewish.Next Page >
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