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October 1st, 2013
09:52 AM ET

Study: American Jews losing their religion

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor

(CNN) - The number of nonreligious Jews is rising in the United States, with more than one in five saying they are not affiliated with any faith, according to a new survey.

While similar trends affect almost every American religion, Jewish leaders say the new survey spotlights several unique obstacles for the future of their faith.

According to the survey, conducted by Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, non-religious Jews are less likely to care deeply about Israel, donate to Jewish charities, marry Jewish spouses and join Jewish organizations.

Pew says their study sought to explore the question, "What does being Jewish in America mean today?" The answer is quite complicated.

Just 15% of American Jews say that being Jewish is mainly a religious matter, according to Pew's survey. By contrast, more than six in 10 say Jewishness is about culture, ancestry and identity.

The most essential parts of being Jewish, according to American Jews, are remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical life (69%) and working for social justice and peace (56%).

Almost as many American Jews say that having good sense of humor (42%) is as important to their Jewish identity as caring about Israel (43%).

Even among religious Jews, most say it's not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish, and less than one in three say religion is very important to their lives.

Nearly all American Jews  - religious and secular - say they are proud to be Jewish.

"The fact that many Jews tell us that religion is not particularly important to them doesn't mean that being Jewish is not important to them," said Greg Smith, director of religious surveys for the Pew Research Center.

The most essential parts of being Jewish, according to the survey, are remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical life (69%) and working for social justice and peace (56%).

Overall, the majority of Jews (78%) call themselves religious, but the survey showed much lower rates of religious affiliation among millennials, one of several trends that trouble Jewish leaders.

Nearly a third of American Jews born after 2000 answered "none" when asked about their religious affiliation, suggesting that Jewish "nones" are not only a large group, they're growing, Smith said.

The rise of Jewish "nones" tracks with wider trends in the American population, where about a third of millennials don't affiliate with organized religion.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center says its survey is the most comprehensive since the National Jewish Population Survey in 2000-2001.

Pew surveyed 3,475 Jews from across the country from February 20 to June 13, with a margin of error for the full sample of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The study declines to offer a definitive estimate of the size of the American Jewish population, a matter of heated debate in recent years.

Instead, Pew offered several tallies of American Jews, depending on different definitions of Jewish identity.

Approximately 4.2 million American adults - 1.8% of the overall population - identify as Jewish by religion. In the 1950s, the percentage of religious Jews in the United States was nearly twice as high, according to Pew.

Meanwhile, about 1.2 million adult Americans now identify as secular or cultural Jews - they were raised Jewish, had a Jewish parent and still consider themselves Jewish, even though they don't practice the religion, according to Pew.

Secular Jews are much more likely to marry outside the faith, according to Pew, a trend that has worried Jewish leaders in recent years.

Nearly 60% of American Jews who have married since 2000 have a non-Jewish spouse, according to Pew.

Intermarried Jews, like secular Jews, are much less likely to raise their children in the Jewish faith and have weaker ties to the Jewish community, says Pew's report.

But, in a silver lining for Jewish leaders, intermarriage rates have leveled off, Smith said, holding steady at 60% since the mid-1990s.

Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, said she is not surprised that the study found relatively low interest in Jewish religious beliefs.

"We are a people very much defined by what we do, rather than what we believe," she said.

But Eisner said she is concerned that millennials are less likely to donate to Jewish charities, care strongly about Israel or belong to Jewish groups.

"It's great that these non-religious Jews feel pride in being Jewish," Eisner said. "What worries me is their tenuous ties to the community."

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Judaism • Polls • Trends

soundoff (1,967 Responses)
  1. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    It's not hard to find the Jewish religion. It's around like acorns sometimes. I suspect it isn't lost at all. People just drop it when it seems ripe or when the wind blows.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  2. didi

    Calling someone a "Nonreligious Jew" is like calling someone a "Nonreligious Christian".

    October 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  3. patrick

    Good- now if the stupid lazy minded muslims will follow suit, we can maybe work on something called peace...

    October 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  4. kyzaadrao

    It's amazing what passes for "belief" in the belief blog.

    Author seems out of touch though with what being a jew is about or how that relates to the religious part of the experience.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I should read the article.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  5. dk

    Most Christians don't go to church. Religion and the Jewish religion is bigger than be a member of a synagogue. One can pray at anytime any place and someones religion guides that individual. People have a hard time understanding the Jewish religion is a continuum not absolute.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  6. CosmicC

    An integral part of a Jewish education is the process of questioning everything. The assumption is that you will come to the "right" answer and accept religious dogma. Given logic and rational thought, it's not surprising that this approach is leading to so many recognizing that the religious side of Judaism is just myth.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  7. concerned parent

    My husband is Jewish and I am not. I have been open to the religion but have not converted. I have no other religion but believe in God. We could not get my husband's rabbi to marry us even though his family had been going to the synagogue for years and my husband went beyond bar mitzvah in his studies. The shame is my husband's family decided to leave the synagogue after the rabbi would not marry their three sons to non Jews. This is a reform synagogue. Now I have 2 sons who I would like to see Bar Mitzvahed. We can not find a synagogue that will Bar Mitzvah them because I'm not Jewish. Its very frustrating because my children identify with being Jewish but can't have the ceremony that their friends can have. I would really like them to be educated in their religion and learn Hebrew. It is a part of their ethnicity, family, and anscestry. My question is why must families that want their children to be raised Jewish be turned away because of this one rule about the mother being Jewish. My children are Jewish through his father's side. They can't deny that. This is one of the reasons that Jewish people are losing their religion. The fact is that many of our friends in mixed marriages are in the same situation.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      You should be counting your blessings they don't want any of you. You are lucky!!

      October 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      One more thing, Christmas is more fun. Why are you so selfish? You could have found a nice church and raised these kids as Christians so they do all the fun stuff.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
      • bill

        if you are jewish, why in the world would you want to be Christian? Because Christmas is more fun? I sure don't want to be a Christian, though I know many fine Christians.

        I would not bow down on my knees and look at the horrible depictions in a church for Christmas fun. In fact, it sounds horrid to me

        October 1, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
      • concerned parent

        Very funny. I like your sense of humor. We do do it all. We're one of those families that celebrate Christmas without religion because that is how I was raised. I'm very open minded. If my kids chose Christianity... so be it. But my kids prefer Judaism and the Jewish holidays. I will support them whatever choice they make. However, their choices are being taken away because I will not convert and I'm not Jewish. Sounds like a rule that needs to be changed.

        October 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
        • Sheryl

          I was able to convert at our reform synagogue. They encourage it if it is truly what you want.

          October 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
        • bill

          would your priest give your jewish children what is it, the sacraments? Give them that wafer?

          Hardly. Maybe the catholics should change their rules too.

          You want 3000 years of religion to change for your convenience. Sorry. You are comical. You probably should have considered all this before you married. You just thought the kids would go along with you and become Christians. SURPRISE

          October 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
        • Ruth

          If you have not explored Interfaithfamily.com, you may find some answers, help, and resources there.

          October 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
        • concerned parent

          Bill... I'm actually not Christian. I don't care what religion my children choose. I will support them no matter where their hearts guide them. And, its people like you that drive good, kind and spiritual people away from religion. Religion is not a convenience. And, yeah, actually my kids have a right to their heritage. Because it is who they are not matter what rule is in place.

          October 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
        • JenniferC

          We are members (though we can't afford the dues!) of a Reform temple. We had a judge marry us. Our kids are considered Jewish based on my husband's Jewishness although I am not. I am open to raising the kids Jewish although I see no reason to convert personally. Israel would not recognize my children as Jewish, but I don't really want them spending a lot of time (or any time, really) in the middle east anyhow. So that isn't an issue for me.

          October 1, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
        • concerned parent

          Here is the issue I'm trying to relate to all of you. I am not alone with this issue. Many if not most Jews are marrying outside of their religion. Continuing to turn people away will only dwindle the numbers of practicing Jews. Judaism is not my religion so I do not need to convert. I believe in living in truth and I won't lie so my kids can become educated at a synagogue. Also, even if you convert you are often not truly accepted as Jewish. We are considering looking into a tutor. However, this is an incomplete process.

          October 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • ME II

      All Jewish religious movements agree that a person may be a Jew either by birth or through conversion. According to halakha, a Jew by birth must be born to a Jewish mother
      (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_is_Jewish, not to imply that wiki is a primary source)

      October 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • bill

      My cousin married a non-Jewish woman. All 3 kids had bar mitzvahs. You could convert. There are ways to do this. You seem unwilling to do them, I don't think you are telling us everything

      Would a catholic priest marry a jewish couple in a church? Hardly

      October 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
      • RC

        Pay attention! She has no desire to convert.

        October 2, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • Ruth

      Are you in the NY area? There are temples that welcome interfaith families.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Non-religious Jew

      Judaism is a Matriarchal religion. The demand that the woman be Jewish is because you always KNOW who the mother is; as opposed to the father. Sounds silly I know, but unfortunately that is the law. If you are REALLY wanting your sons raised as Jews you will have to convert officially.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        No where is this more evident than in trying to identify the desert dweller know as jesus' father. If it wasn't Joseph, who was banging Mary?

        October 2, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  8. rdg18

    Paul said this almost 2000yrs ago.
    2 Thessalonians 2:
    1: Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
    2: That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.
    3: Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

    October 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • sam stone

      wow, another "end times" prophesy.....

      how original

      October 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      more bronze age regurgitation

      October 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  9. dk

    I hate when there are labels put on an entire population when there sample is less than a 1% of the entire population. This article has not validity whatsoever.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Jiminy Christmas

      Didn't you read the article? The survey was OF that 1%, not the entire population. So it is valid.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
      • dk

        A baseless not factual statement.

        October 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
        • doobzz

          Someone failed Statistics 101.

          October 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      Do you even know what a statistical sample is? Geese.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  10. Terry

    ... but not, apparently, their days off.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  11. Apple Bush

    All the Jews I know (if I know they are Jewish) are VERY casual about their religion, whether they practice it or not. I never see them get bent out of shape over any of it.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Franky

      Nice to know more Jewish broads are giving it up.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  12. givemeglenn

    I considered becoming a Rabbi, so I visited the training facility in Cincinnati for a "tour" before I formally committed as this would be my life-long calling (I have many ancestors who were Rabbis). While there, I discovered things that I, personally, felt were't "Rabbinical" in nature, such as student Rabbis smoking pot and "hooking up". Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a prude, but for me, I always held Rabbis to a higher standard and this was a huge "disappointment".

    In reality, there are two components of Judaism; Ethnical and Ethical. These Rabbis were only interested in the Ethnical component (reading Hebrew/scriptures, holidays, etc), but totally missed what I considered the main part of Judaism – the Ethical component.

    After the visit, I chose not to become a Rabbi, but instead, went to Law School, thinking I could make a difference because of my ethics. Little did I know that this was probably the worst profession I could have chosen because legal ethics really is an oxy moron in my opinion. There is no "fairness" or just doing the right thing; everything is a war because everyone has an ego. After a while, I finally found my calling and became a Mediator, acting as a neutral between opposing sides in their disputes, and it turned out I was better than most as my settlement rate was much higher than the national average.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • counselor39@hotmail.com

      I'm not sure I agree with you, that being a Mediator is all that ethical. Mediators, just like anyone else, must do their job well – and that job is to SETTLE cases. If you value a case at, say 100k, but can get the parties to settle for, say 10k, even knowing the injured person deserves more, YOU will advocate that she take the 10k and go home feeling like you've done your job. You will also favor defendants because they are more likely represented by insurance companies from whom you will see return customers. Finally, you charge every bit as much as lawyers do.
      MOST lawyers I know are ethical – that does not mean "moral". You BOTH do your jobs within the parameters OF your job. Get off your "ethical" soap box.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
      • ME II

        Well said.

        October 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  13. Whaddayaa

    Jesus was a nice jewish boy that got his own gig up and running, that the politicians used to control the masses. The jews were left in the dust but still knew how to survive and run a business. Very smart people soon realize that religion is only useful if they can find a way to make it worth their while. Any religion.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  14. Thereareerrors

    with many survey's; even those of freakanomics. None of this means anything.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  15. Robert

    So there are Jews in this country just like the rest of us, no kidding?

    October 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  16. BigSir

    If the Jews give up their allegiance to Israel, that might be something.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • counselor39@hotmail.com

      ...and, maybe you can get some brains, or lose some bigotry – now THAT would be something....

      October 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  17. Kenman

    This has been apparent for a long time now! They have just become more American liberals and are about as unreligious as typical American liberals!

    October 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • sodom-ized

      what about us conservatives.. Many of us have dumped religion,, unfortunately we now have to deal with the conservative religious right that continues to destroys our party.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • tony

      Good News is good news, no matter how little.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  18. Lawrence of Arabia

    Jews are losing their religion for the same reason that Christians lose theirs... It was predicted as a precurser to the End of Days...
    2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 – Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first....

    October 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • sodom-ized

      you mean people are actually evolving.. Your post is past silly,, it's childish.

      Then again, you wouldn't have posted it if you were not brainwashed with fear.

      BTW,, society is far more caring than it ever has been in history. Looks like 'good' and religion don't go hand in hand.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • sam stone

      Oooh, the end of days

      Luckily,that has not been predicted before.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        Unfortunately, judgment caught the people of Noah's day by suprise too, even though they were earned for over 100 years of coming judgment.

        Jesus warns us that every tragedy on earth is meant to be a plead for repentance, for no one knows the day nor the hour that death will come. Luke 13

        October 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
        • Lucifer's Evil Twin

          People who think that Noah, his ark and the world-wide flood are real ... are acknowledging that they are uneducated buffoons, that have freely relinquished any right to be taken seriously...

          October 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
        • sam stone

          Wow. Repentence. Someone sure bought into the "sin" schtick hook, line and sinker

          October 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Live4Him

      Sad, but right on target

      October 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • sodom-ized

        sorry the fears they caused you,, blocks reasoning.

        October 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Jones

      Spot on observation!

      October 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • I wonder

      It seems as if you are fighting against this "apostasy". It seems as if you are trying to thwart "God's" "will" and "plan".

      October 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • BigSir

      Same thing happens if you break a chain letter; the threat is meant to force you to keep it going.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • ME II

      "Jews are losing their religion for the same reason that Christians lose theirs... It was predicted as a precurser to the End of Days..."

      If the reason is a prophecy, then it is not a prophecy.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
      • I wonder

        Fulfillment of "prophecy" can get pretty darn tricky.

        Take Peter's fulfillment of Jesus's alleged prediction that Peter would deny Jesus thrice.

        This puts Peter in a real pickle:
        - Wouldn't a person with an ounce of brains say, "Oops" after the first denial?... and surely after the second oops, tape his mouth shut or go hide somewhere?
        - Ah, but if he didn't do this triple denial, Jesus would have been wrong! What to do. What to do!

        Of course, we would have never heard about any wrong predictions...

        October 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      You know the old "the end of days is near" chant is starting to get old. One of many reasons that people are losing their religion is that when you tell them that something is near for a thousand years they stop buying it.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • JenniferC

      How can you be sure that the way you are interpreting that Bible verse is correct? I mean, it is like reading tea leaves, isn't it?

      October 1, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  19. Tim

    This fact would suggest that those of Jewish ancestry in America are more intelligent and more rational than the US average. All the more power to them! I wish the rest of America were more like American Jews.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I would not say that we are more intelligent, but I'll accept the rational part (exept when it comes to a belief in the supernatural). That is due to a focus on education. While that does come from religious studies, it also comes from Christian persecution. For hundreds of years Jews were barred from property ownership and from many trades. What was left to them were such things as law, banking and accounting, which required more education than was typical. A strong secular education is a Jewish tradition that has led to economic success despite additional obstacles.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  20. DefyTheGods

    American Jews losing their religion? Great news! That's progress!

    October 1, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Live4Him

      More possible converts to your religion?

      October 1, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Jew Dunno Whatcha Talkin Bout

      I'm sad for you.

      October 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Anon

      Ah "progress"...it means so much to so many that can never agree on anything.

      NO evidence that a society devoid of religion is "better" than one without.
      If you want to look at social evolution, if an atheist/non-religious society/culture serves man better than a religious one...why hasn't there ever been a totally non-religious society/culture that has lasted more than a century?

      October 1, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
      • CosmicC

        Maybe because religious societies killed them.

        October 1, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.