Jewish Identity in the USA – the Pew Research Survey results

October 4, 2013

The Jewish social scientist in me is thrilled about the release of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which was released on 1 October 2013.

The report confirms many things that we already knew – or thought we knew – but also gives an-depth additional information in areas that we may have expected but had no idea.

Some examples:

Yes, Jews are “among the most liberal, Democratic groups” in the US, with 70% either Democrat-identified or leaning, compared to 49% of Americans in total.   The survey results are thus consistent with exit polls that show that 69% of Jews voted for Barack Obama at the last (2012) election.  (Hey, count me as one of those.)  If you are Jewish but don’t claim any religious identity, the figure goes up to 78%.  Of American religious groups, only African-American Protestants vote Democratic in greater numbers:  85%. A massive 80% of Jews with post-graduate degrees identify themselves as Democrats.  But yet, there is also a strong correlation between Jewish religiosity and conservative political views.  In other words, the most of a religious Jew you are, the most likely you are to vote Republican:  while 77% of Reform Jews vote Democratic, this drops to 64% of Conservative Jews and then to 36% of Orthodox Jews (see p. 97).  We knew all of this before, but the confirmation is important.

All of this brings to mind the old saying I recall that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans” – first coined by the late author Milton Himmelfarb (1918-2006), which you can find reprinted in his book Jews and Gentiles, and is repeated in his New York Times obituary, dated January 15, 2006.

Other notes:

Intermarriage:  Iintermarriage rates have risen over the last five decades.  Among Jews who have married since 2000, almost 60% have a non-Jewish spouse. Among those who got married in the 1980s, about 40% have a non-Jewish spouse. Among Jews who got married before 1970, just 17% have a non-Jewish spouse.  However, the growth rate of intermarriage seems to have slowly substantially – see graphic – with no apparent change since 2000, and little change since 1995.  They conclude as follows:

It is not clear whether being intermarried tends to make U.S. Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make U.S. Jews more inclined to intermarry, or some of both. Whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage. In some ways, the association seems to be circular or reinforcing, especially when child rearing is added into the picture.”

Denominational identification:  Reform Judaism is the largest identified group of Jews – with 35%.  The percentages of Conservative Jews are much smaller than I had thought.  Although Orthodox Jews make up only 10% of American Jews, they caution that Orthodox Jews:

Are much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population. This suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow. In the past, high fertility in the U.S. Orthodox community has been at least partially offset by a low retention rate: Roughly half of the survey respondents who were raised as Orthodox Jews say they are no longer O Orthodox. But the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining.

They also discuss “switching of denominations”, something I have not thought that much about, and observe the phenomenon that in general when Jews switch denominational identification, it tends to be to the less religious or less-traditional one:

Approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Much less switching is reported in the opposite direction. For example, just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.

The former Soviet Union: Another interesting fact about the demographics of the American Jewish population – the large numbers from the former Soviet Union:  “Jews from the former Soviet Union and their offspring account for roughly one-tenth of the U.S. Jewish population; 5% … were born in the former Soviet Union, and an additional 6% … were born in the U.S.”  I am not certain what this actually means, as the impact clearly is not what it has been in Israel, but it is a demographic change that needs noting.

Education:  Jews are twice as likely than other Americans to have a college degree (58% versus 29%) and almost three times as likely to have a post-graduate degree (28% versus 10%).

Discrimination:  Although Jews overwhelmingly believe that other groups face more discrimination than they do, I was surprised by the relatively large number who say that Jews face this issue: 43%, with 15% saying “that in the past year they personally have been called offensive names or snubbed in a social setting because they are Jewish”.

Numbers:  total number of Jews in the USA, both adults and children – 6.7 to 7.0 million, more than I expected.

This massive report (all 212 pages) is available for free download now at (approximately 2.6mg).