May 11, 2021

Jewish Americans in 2020

2. Jewish identity and belief

Religion is not central to the lives of most U.S. Jews. Even Jews by religion are much less likely than Christian adults to consider religion to be very important in their lives (28% vs. 57%). And among Jews as a whole, far more report that they find meaning in spending time with their families or friends, engaging with arts and literature, being outdoors, and pursuing their education or careers than find meaning in their religious faith. Twice as many Jewish Americans say they derive a great deal of meaning and fulfillment from spending time with pets as say the same about their religion.

And yet, even for many Jews who are not particularly religious, Jewish identity matters: Fully three-quarters of Jewish Americans say that “being Jewish” is either very important (42%) or somewhat important (34%) to them.

U.S. Jews do not have a single, uniform answer to what being Jewish means. When asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry, culture or some combination of those things, Jews respond in a wide variety of ways, with just one-in-ten saying it is only a matter of religion.

Many American Jews prioritize cultural components of Judaism over religious ones. Most Jewish adults say that remembering the Holocaust, leading a moral and ethical life, working for justice and equality in society, and being intellectually curious are “essential” to what it means to them to be Jewish. Far fewer say that observing Jewish law is an essential part of their Jewish identity. Indeed, more consider “having a good sense of humor” to be essential to being Jewish than consider following halakha (traditional Jewish law) essential (34% vs. 15%).

Orthodox Jews are a striking exception to many of these overall findings. They are among the most highly religious groups in U.S. society – along with White evangelicals and Black Protestants – in terms of the share who say religion is very important in their lives. A plurality of Orthodox Jews say that being Jewish is mainly about religion alone (40%), and they are the only subgroup in the survey who overwhelmingly feel that observing halakha is essential to their Jewishness (83%). Fully three-quarters of the Orthodox say they find a great deal of meaning and fulfillment in their religion, exceeded only by the share who feel that way about spending time with their families (86%). And 93% of Orthodox Jews say they believe in God as described in the Bible, compared with a quarter of Jews overall.

Identification with branches of American Judaism

37% of U.S. Jews identify as ReformMore than half of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform (37%) or Conservative (17%) movements, while about one-in-ten (9%) identify with Orthodox Judaism. One-third of Jews (32%) do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination, and 4% identify with smaller branches – such as Reconstructionist or Humanist Judaism – or say they are connected with multiple streams of U.S. Judaism. Among Jews by religion, branch affiliation generally mirrors the broader pattern among Jews overall. Most Jews by religion identify with either Reform (44%) or Conservative (23%) Judaism, and fewer say they do not belong to a particular denomination (15%). Most Jews of no religion, on the other hand, do not identify with any institutional branch or stream of Judaism (79%), while the remainder largely describe themselves as Reform Jews (17%).

Among Jews who are not synagogue members, 36% identify as Reform It is often assumed that for U.S. Jews, branch affiliation goes hand in hand with synagogue membership – e.g., they belong to a Conservative synagogue, and so they identify as Conservative, or they belong to a Reform temple, and so they identify as Reform. But this is not always the case, because the percentage of Jewish adults who identify with some branch of U.S. Judaism (67%) is considerably higher than the percentage who are synagogue members or have someone in their household who is a synagogue member (35%).

Among Jews who are neither synagogue members themselves nor live in a household where anyone else belongs to a synagogue, 47% do not identify with any institutional branch or stream of Judaism. But roughly half identify as Reform (36%), Conservative (11%), Orthodox (1%) or another Jewish denomination (4%), even though they indicate that, at present, they have no formal connection to a synagogue. This pattern is similar when looking only at respondents who are themselves not members of a synagogue, regardless of the status of others in their household. There could be multiple reasons for this, including Jewish denominational attachments retained since childhood, participation in Chabad or other synagogues that do not have a formal membership structure, and financial barriers to synagogue membership, among other possibilities. (The survey asked separate questions about branch affiliation, synagogue membership and synagogue attendance, without probing the exact connections; it did not ask people who identify as Reform Jews, for example, whether the synagogue they attend, or belong to, is a Reform synagogue.)

Younger Jews more likely than older Jews to be Orthodox or have no branch affiliationJewish adults ages 18 to 29 are particularly likely to identify as Orthodox (17%), compared with those who are 30 and older, of whom 7% are Orthodox. The youngest Jewish adults also are more inclined than their elders to have no branch affiliation (41%), while smaller shares are Reform (29%) or Conservative (8%).

At the other end of the age spectrum, 44% of Jews ages 65 and older identify with the Reform movement, and a quarter say they are Conservative.

Jews less inclined than U.S. adults as a whole to consider religion very important

One-in-five Jews say religion is very important to themNearly half of U.S. Jews say religion is either “very” (21%) or “somewhat” (26%) important in their lives, while 53% say religion is “not too” or “not at all” important to them personally.

Jews by religion are far more likely than Jews of no religion to say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives (61% vs. 8%). And Orthodox Jews are especially likely to say that religion is important: Nearly nine-in-ten (86%) say religion is very important to them, compared with a third of Conservative Jews (33%) and 14% of Reform Jews who consider religion very important in their lives.

Religion is more important to Jewish women, on average, than to Jewish men. Jewish adults ages 30 and older are more likely than those under 30 to say religion is at least somewhat important to them (49% vs. 39%). And two-thirds of married Jews who have a Jewish spouse say religion is very (35%) or somewhat (31%) important to them, while far fewer intermarried Jews say this (8% very important, 20% somewhat important).

Jews who did not obtain college degrees are more inclined to say that religion is very important in their lives. For example, about a third of U.S. Jews whose formal education stopped with high school (32%) say religion is very important, compared with 13% of those with bachelor’s degrees and 15% of those with postgraduate degrees.

Compared either with U.S. Christians or with the adult public overall, U.S. Jews are far less likely to say that religion is important in their lives. However, Orthodox Jews rank among the most religiously devout subgroups in the country by this measure; 86% say religion is very important in their lives, as do 78% of Black Protestants and 76% of White evangelical Protestants, two of the most highly religious Christian subgroups. Meanwhile, Jews of no religion are even more likely than religiously unaffiliated Americans to say religion is “not too” important or “not at all” important to them (91% vs. 82%).

Most Jews say being Jewish is at least somewhat important to themThe fact that many Jews say religion is relatively unimportant in their lives does not necessarily mean their Jewish identity is not meaningful to them. In fact, three-quarters of U.S. Jews say that “being Jewish” is either very important (42%) or somewhat important (34%) in their lives, while only 23% say it is not too or not at all important to them.

Jews by religion are far more likely than Jews of no religion to say that being Jewish is very important to them (55% vs. 7%); 55% of Jews of no religion say being Jewish is of little importance to them.

Nearly all Orthodox Jews in the survey (95%) describe being Jewish as very important in their lives. A majority of Conservative Jews also say being Jewish is very important (69%). Fewer Reform Jews (40%) and Jews of no denomination (17%) say the same.

Married Jews are more likely than those who are not married to say that being Jewish is central to their lives (48% vs. 33%). Being Jewish tends to be particularly important for Jews who have a Jewish spouse (64% say it is very important).

To U.S. Jews, being Jewish is not just about religion

There is no one way that American Jews think about being Jewish, as the survey makes clear. When asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry or culture, some Jewish respondents pick each of those things, and many choose some combination of them. In fact, among the most common answers – expressed by about one-in-five U.S. Jews (19%) – is that being Jewish is about religion, ancestry and culture.

Similar shares say being Jewish is mainly a matter of just culture (22%) or just ancestry (21%). About half as many (11%) say being Jewish is mainly about religion alone. The remainder give other responses, such as that being Jewish is about both ancestry and culture (10%).

All told, about half mention ancestry among their responses (52%). A similar share point to culture either alone or in combination with other answers (55%). But fewer mention religion (36%), suggesting that most U.S. Jews do not see being Jewish as primarily about religion.

Even among Jews by religion, just 44% mention religion as a primary facet of Jewish identity, although Orthodox Jews stand out in this regard: 40% say being Jewish is about only religion, and an additional three-in-ten Orthodox adults say it is about some combination of religion, ancestry, and culture, or all three of these.

The vast majority of Jews of no religion say that for them, being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry (41%), culture (25%) or both (15%).

U.S. Jews more likely to say being Jewish is about culture or ancestry than about religion; to many, Jewish identity is about more than one thing

Most Jews say remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical and moral life are essential to being JewishThe survey asked Jews whether each of 10 attributes and activities is essential, important but not essential, or not important to what being Jewish means to them. The answers show that to U.S. Jews, being Jewish is about many things. Fully three-quarters (76%) say remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them, and nearly as many (72%) say leading an ethical and moral life is essential. Majorities of U.S. Jews say working for justice and equality in society (59%) and being intellectually curious (56%) are essential to being Jewish.

Half of U.S. Jews say continuing family traditions is an essential part of their Jewish identity (51%), and 45% say caring about Israel is essential. One-third or fewer mention having a sense of humor (34%), being part of a Jewish community (33%), eating traditional Jewish foods (20%) or observing Jewish law (15%) as essential aspects of their Jewish identity.

The survey also asked respondents to describe in their own words anything else that is essential to what being Jewish means to them; see topline for results.

Nine of these items (along with the final, open-ended question) were included in the 2013 survey, while the item about continuing family traditions is new. In terms of relative importance, respondents ranked the items similarly in each of the two surveys. For instance, remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical and moral life, and working for justice and equality were the top three responses in both 2013 and 2020.21

While Jews by religion are more likely than Jews of no religion to consider each of the 10 attributes or activities in the 2020 survey essential to being Jewish, both groups generally rank the items in a similar order. Majorities of both Jews by religion and Jews of no religion cite remembering the Holocaust as essential, and both groups rank observing Jewish law and eating traditional foods toward the bottom of the list.

Despite these similarities, there are large gaps between the two groups on a few aspects of Jewish identity. For example, Jews by religion are far more likely than Jews of no religion to say that continuing family traditions is essential to what it means to them to be Jewish (61% vs. 24%). And Jews by religion are nearly twice as likely as Jews of no religion to say that caring about Israel is essential (52% vs. 27%).

Those with a Jewish spouse differ significantly from those without one on the importance of continuing family traditions. Among Jews with a Jewish spouse, seven-in-ten say continuing family traditions is essential to what it means to them to be Jewish, while far fewer Jews married to spouses who are not Jewish (37%) say the same.

Older Jews are more likely than younger generations to see certain things as essential to being Jewish. Compared with Jewish adults under the age of 30, larger shares of those 65 and older rank remembering the Holocaust, caring about Israel, being intellectually curious and having a good sense of humor as essential parts of their Jewish identity. However, younger Jews more likely than the eldest cohort to say that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish (19% vs. 12%).

What’s essential to being Jewish also tends to vary according to the respondent’s branch or stream of Judaism. Orthodox Jews are more likely than the non-Orthodox to say that following Jewish law and being part of a Jewish community are essential to what it means to them to be Jewish. Non-Orthodox Jews are more likely than the Orthodox to say that remembering the Holocaust, being intellectually curious and having a good sense of humor are essential.

Most Orthodox Jews say following Jewish law is essential to being Jewish

Three-quarters of Jews believe in higher power of some kind, but just one-quarter believe in God as described in the Bible

Overwhelming majority of Orthodox believe in God of the Bible; most Conservative and Reform do notThree-quarters of U.S. Jews say they believe in God or some spiritual force in the universe, including 26% who say they believe in “God as described in the Bible” and about twice as many (50%) who believe in some other spiritual force. Belief in God is much more widespread among Jews by religion than among Jews of no religion. But even among Jews by religion, 14% say they do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force. Meanwhile, 44% of Jews of no religion say they do not believe in any higher power.

Nine-in-ten Orthodox Jews (93%) say they believe in the God of the Bible, compared with 37% of Conservative Jews, 18% of Reform Jews and 12% of Jews with no denomination.

U.S. Christians are far more likely than U.S. Jews to say they believe in God as described in the Bible, and far less likely to say they believe in some other higher power – or no higher power at all.

American Jews derive a great deal of meaning from spending time with family and friends

The survey also included a set of questions asking respondents to rate how much meaning and fulfillment they draw from each of seven possible sources: spending time with family; spending time with friends; their religious faith; being outdoors and experiencing nature; spending time with pets or animals; their job, career or education; and arts and literature, such as music, painting and reading.

Three-quarters of U.S. Jews say they derive a great deal of meaning from spending time with their family (74%), and six-in-ten find a great deal of fulfillment in spending time with friends (61%). Arts and literature (55%), spending time outdoors (51%), spending time with pets (43%) and jobs (38%) also are common sources of meaning and fulfillment. Among Jews, religious faith is by far the least common source of meaning of all the options presented by the survey; just one-in-five U.S. Jews say they get a great deal of meaning and fulfillment from their religion.

Jews by religion are somewhat more likely than Jews of no religion to say they draw a great deal of meaning from their families and from their faith, although even among Jews by religion, only a quarter say their religious faith carries a great deal of meaning.

There are also differences in where Jews find meaning based on their denominational affiliation. Nearly nine-in-ten Orthodox Jews say they find spending time with family very meaningful (86%), compared with three-quarters of Conservative and Reform Jews. And three-quarters of the Orthodox find a great deal of meaning in their religious faith, versus 32% of Conservative and just 13% of Reform Jews. Conversely, non-Orthodox Jews are far more likely than the Orthodox to find meaning in arts and literature as well as pets or animals.

Jewish Americans are less likely than U.S. adults as a whole to find a great deal of meaning in their religious faith (20% vs. 40%).

One-in-five U.S. Jews say their religious faith is highly meaningful, fulfilling

 

  1. Due to differences in how the surveys were conducted, the exact percentages of Jews who cite several of these items as essential to their Jewish identity are not directly comparable to the 2013 survey. See Appendix B for details.