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Poll Analysis: American Jews Express Diverse Opinions on Jewish Life in the U.S.

Throughout history, Jews have faced a myriad of threats to the future of the Jewish people. In the United States, Jewish leaders continue to voice concern about the future of the Jewish population, citing a decrease in religious observance and identification with Judaism and increased intermarriage as the basis of this concern. In essence, the concern is no longer the threat of persecution from the outside, but slow disintegration from the inside. According to a new Los Angeles Times poll, a majority of American Jews share the concern of their religious leaders that the number of people who consider themselves Jewish will decline over the next couple of generations.
    However, despite this concern, survey findings suggest that there is a significant attachment to Judaism among many Jews living in the United States. Not only do American Jews believe there is a significant degree of Jewish cultural and religious life in the U.S., but most consider their "Jewishness" as at least somewhat important to their self-identity. Furthermore, 6 out of 10 married American Jews are married to other Jews and an even higher proportion of American Jews are raising their children Jewish, indicating a commitment to continuing Jewish traditions and way of life.
    While these findings suggest a continued commitment to Judaism in America, those concerned about the future of Judaism in America may point to another set of results. The Times Poll found that a plurality of American Jews today say they observe fewer Jewish traditions than they did in the past. Furthermore, a majority of unmarried American Jews would be willing to marry a non-Jew and most American Jews would not be unhappy if their child married a non-Jew as well. The poll also found that Jews who marry non-Jews are less likely to observe religious traditions and are less likely to consider Judaism important to their self-identity.
    Working together, the Los Angeles Times and Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, conducted surveys of American Jews and Israeli Jews. Eight hundred and forty-eight (848) American Jews were interviewed March 8 through April 1, 1998. The survey of Israeli Jews was conducted in Israel March 12-23 and included 1,011 Jewish respondents.

Future of the Jewish population
    According to the Los Angeles Times/ Yedioth Ahronoth poll, 55% of American Jews are concerned that the number of people who consider themselves Jewish will diminish over the next couple of generations (41% are not concerned). In fact, 28% are strongly concerned. There was little variation in the level of concern between Israeli and American Jews, demonstrating that this is an issue that resonates with the Jewish population as a whole. Fifty-six percent of Israeli Jews are concerned about a diminishing Jewish population (27% strongly) and 41% are not concerned.
    In the United States, concern increases with rising education, income level, and degree of religious observance (defined by the number of religious practices that a respondent observes, including lighting Hanukkah and Sabbath candles, attending High Holy Days, and fasting on Yom Kippur, to name a few).
    Interestingly, the group most point to as precipitating a decline in the Jewish population -- Jews married to non-Jews -- are less likely to believe the Jewish population will diminish. Fifty-eight percent of Jews married to non-Jews are not concerned about the Jewish population diminishing, while nearly half that proportion, 29%, of Jews married to other Jews feel this way. In fact, 66% of Jews married to other Jews express concern, 38% strongly. Even single Jews who would be willing to marry non-Jews express less concern than single Jews who would only marry someone Jewish or only marry someone who would raise their kids Jewish or convert. These findings suggest that Jews who are not committed to marrying fellow Jews do not perceive this attribute as detracting from their "Jewishness."

Perception of Jewish identity
    A majority of American Jews, regardless of religiosity or whether they are married to a Jew or non-Jew, consider being Jewish at least of some importance to their self-definition. Thirteen percent consider being Jewish the single most important part of their identity. Another 41% consider it important, but not the most important component (for a total of 54% calling it important). One-quarter call being Jewish at least somewhat important to their identity, for a total of 79% believing being Jewish is at least somewhat important to how they see themselves.
    This finding may be a result of the high degree of secularism in the U.S. It may also demonstrate that Jews give greater weight to their nationalism than religion. American Jews may identify first with being American and second with being Jewish. Last, while religion may be a powerful identifier for many people, being a good parent, spouse, or worker may come to mind first.
    Unsurprisingly, in the United States, Judaism is more central to the identity of highly religious or observant Jews. Furthermore, by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, respondents married to another Jew were more likely than intermarried Jews to call being Jewish important to their identity. However, intermarried Jews do not disregard the value of being Jewish. A majority of Jews married to non-Jews and Jews that would marry outside the faith also call being Jewish at least somewhat important to their identity (66% and 64% respectively). Parents who are not raising their children Jewish are significantly more likely than those who are to call being Jewish not at all important to their self-definition (36% to just 2%).
    Many Jews define their "Jewishness" in different terms -- for some it is about religion, for others is about community and culture, and yet for others it is about ethnicity. When given three options, nearly half of Jews surveyed said they define their own Jewish identity in terms of shared history or culture (48%). Another 15% define it in terms of religion and 17% said their own Jewish identity is tied to ethnicity. Less observant Jews are more likely to define their Jewish identity in terms of history and culture than more observant Jews.
    When respondents were asked if they view Jews primarily as a group defined by religion or as an ethnic or cultural group, 32% chose the former and 52% the latter. Again, the proportion who view Jews in ethnic and cultural terms is higher among less observant Jews.
    Results to both of these questions suggest that less religious and less observant Jews maintain their attachment to the Jewish community through shared history, culture, and a sense of ethnicity -- that religiosity is not needed for them to feel Jewish.

Who is Jewish
    How one defines his/her sense of Jewishness may vary, but Jewish law is very clear that only those born from a Jewish mother are truly Jewish. Yet, in America, the Reform movement accepts anyone with a Jewish mother or father as Jewish. Many Jews also believe that commitment to religious practice is just as important or more important than ethnic ties. To further explore the issue of ethnicity versus religion, the Los Angeles Times/ Yedioth Ahronoth poll asked Jews who they would be more likely to consider Jewish: someone without a Jewish mother who attends synagogue regularly (the religious practitioner) or someone with a Jewish mother who does not practice the religion (the ethnic Jew). By nearly 2 to 1, American Jews call the religious practitioner Jewish over the ethnic Jew (50% to 27%). Another 16% volunteered that they would consider both equally Jewish. Jews married to non-Jews are more likely to consider the practitioner Jewish than those married to other Jews (61% versus 44%). And by 2 to 1, single Jews who would marry a non-Jew consider the practitioner as more Jewish than the ethnic Jew. Jews who would only marry other Jews are divided in their view. These findings are additional indicators that Jews who intermarry or would do so put beliefs and practice before ethnicity when evaluating what it means to be a Jew.
    By slightly over 3 to 1, Israeli Jews choose the ethnic Jew (43%) over the religious practitioner (13%). However, another 32% of Israeli Jews find both equally Jewish. Therefore, even in Israel, a country with strict adherence to Jewish law, nearly half of Israeli Jews would consider someone without a Jewish mother as Jewish. The question of "who is a Jew" has been the center of debate recently, with the Orthodox establishment only recognizing someone as Jewish who was born to a Jewish mother (or converted by a Orthodox Rabbi). The survey results suggest that many Israeli Jews feel differently. Yet, how committed Israeli Jews would be to accepting a Jew without a Jewish mother is another question; for example, would they give them the "Right of Return"?

Living in a Jewish community
    Judaism -- however it is defined -- may be an important part of the self-identity for a majority of Jewish Americans, but a smaller proportion considers it important to live in a Jewish community. A plurality of Jewish Americans consider it of only modest importance to live in an area with a Jewish community, with 21% calling it extremely important and another 11% calling it important, for a total of 32%. An additional 28% said it is somewhat important to them to live in an area with a Jewish community. However, 19% said it is not too important and 20% said it is not important at all. Given the small size of the Jewish population in the United States overall, many Jews may not have the opportunity to live in a Jewish community and, from their own experience, may believe it is possible to develop strong religious ties and commitment despite it. In fact, the survey found that most Jewish Americans do not live in a predominately Jewish community -- just 12% say their community is mostly Jewish and another 13% say it is fairly Jewish (for a total of 25%). Another 35% call their community "pretty evenly mixed" and 40% report that they live in a non-Jewish area.

Assimilate or remain distinct
    The debate over whether Jews should assimilate with others in American society or remain distinct is a powerful issue given that most Jews live in predominately non-Jewish communities where the pressure to assimilate may be quite strong. The American respondents are divided on this question, with 43% believing Jews should assimilate and 41% believing they should remain distinct. Clearly there are different ways to interpret the term "assimilation" and the chosen interpretation could color one's perspective. To one person, assimilation may mean abandoning the unique and important traditions of Judaism. To another person it may mean continuing those traditions but having diverse friends and diverse American experiences.
    Younger Jews, those under the age of 36, are more likely than older Jews to believe American Jews should remain distinct. Forty-nine percent of all Jews under 36 gave this response and 57% of those under 29 did so. Just approximately 37% of those over the age of 36 believe Jews should remain distinct. The greater preference for remaining distinct among younger Jews may reflect changing social acceptance of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups in American society. Younger Jews, who have not experienced the same degree of professional and social discrimination because they are Jewish, may believe expressing their religion and beliefs will not create the same barriers it once did.
    Orthodox and highly observant Jews are more likely to believe Jews should remain distinct. In fact, two-thirds of highly observant Jews believe Jews should remain distinct, while moderate observers are divided -- 42% choosing to assimilate and 40% choosing to be distinct -- and low observers choose to assimilate by more than 2 to 1 (57% to 25%). Orthodox and more observant Jews may believe assimilation puts the population at risk, by diminishing attachments to Judaism and increasing the probability of mixed marriages. In fact, Jews who are married to non-Jews are also more likely to believe Jews should assimilate (61%) than those who are married to other Jews (36%).

Intermarriage and raising children Jewish
    Many Jewish leaders see intermarriage as a threat to the future of Judaism in America and elsewhere. They fear that Jews in mixed marriages are more likely to drift away from the religion and fail to raise their children as Jewish. There is also uneasiness among some Jews -- in particular Orthodox and Conservative Jews -- that children born to non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers are not officially Jewish according to Jewish law. Both outcomes are perceived as stunting the growth of the Jewish population. The issue of intermarriage is given even greater weight by the current battle in Israel over the rights of Reform and Conservative rabbis to conduct marriages and conversions.
    Today, one-third of married American Jews are married to non-Jews. The survey results indicate that intermarriage is certain to continue and the proportion may rise. A high proportion of Jewish Americans who are currently single (which includes widowed, separated, and divorced Jews) do not consider religion to be a prerequisite in choosing a spouse. Fifty-seven percent of single Jewish Americans surveyed said a person's religion would make no difference to them in deciding who to marry. Another 14% would marry a non-Jew if that person would convert and/or raise their children Jewish. Just 21% of respondents would only be willing to marry someone Jewish. Furthermore, 58% of Jews said it would not matter to them if their child married a non-Jew (another 6% actually said it would make them happy). Just 33% would be unhappy if their child married a non-Jew. Adding credence to the concern of Jewish leaders, intermarried Jews are significantly less likely to raise their children Jewish.
    Despite living in a generally homogeneously Jewish country, 31% of Israeli Jews would be willing to marry a non-Jew (65% said they would not). An even higher proportion, 58%, would be willing to marry a non-Jew who converted to Judaism. (The question on intermarriage asked in Israel is different than the one asked in the United States and therefore direct comparison is not possible. See the tables at the end of this analysis for the language of each question.) Furthermore, 38% of Israeli Jews would not be unhappy if their child married a non-Jew (60% would be unhappy, 41% very unhappy). It is important to note that these positions are found almost exclusively among secular Israeli Jews. For example, just 3% of Israeli Orthodox Jews and 10% of Conservative Israeli Jews would be willing to marry a non-Jew, while 50% of secular Jews would be willing to do so.
    Willingness to marry a non-Jew and actually doing so are two different things. Most U.S. Jews are married to other Jews, with 60% of those currently married giving this response (another 6% said their spouse converted). Fifty-four percent of divorced, separated or widowed Jewish Americans saying their former spouse was Jewish and 43% of widowed, divorced, or separated Jews said their former spouse was not Jewish (2% said their spouse had converted). In addition, most Jews are raising their children as Jewish, with 70% of Jewish parents giving this response -- including 39% of those married to non-Jews.
    Despite Jewish law stating that only children born to a Jewish mother are considered Jewish, 60% of Jewish-American men (and 55% of women) said the religion of a potential spouse would not matter to them.
    Unsurprisingly, in the United States, nearly all married Orthodox Jews have a Jewish spouse and Orthodox Jews are more likely to not be willing to marry a non-Jew and to be unhappy if their child married a non-Jew. However, while 80% of married Conservative Jews have a Jewish spouse, one-third of single Conservatives said the religion of a potential spouse would not matter to them and nearly half said they would not care or would be happy if their child married a non-Jew. Fifty-three percent of single Reform Jews said the religion of a potential spouse would not matter to them, despite nearly two-thirds of married Reform Jews having a Jewish spouse. Reform Jews are also more likely to not be bothered if their child marries a non-Jew (63%). And while half of non-affiliated married Jews have a Jewish spouse, 71% of single non-affiliated Jews said the religion of a potential spouse would not matter to them and 80% of all non-affiliated Jews would not care if their child married a non-Jew. Moreover, just 35% of Conservative, 18% of Reform and 9% of non-affiliated Jews would only marry someone Jewish. Low observers of Judaism are even less likely to care about the religion of their spouse or if their child marries another Jew.
    Younger Jews are more likely to have married a non-Jew than their older counterparts. Three-fourths (77%) of married Jews 65 years of age or older have a Jewish spouse. The proportion having a Jewish spouse drops as age declines, down to 64% among married Jews between 45 and 64, and 45% for those 30-44 (the number of married 18-29 year olds and the number of single Jews over the age of 29 is too small for analysis). Younger Jews are also more likely to say it would not matter to them one way or the other if their child married a non-Jew. These results suggest that the number of mixed marriages could increase as the more liberal views of the young are translated into action.
    The survey results also suggest that Jews in mixed marriages are less observant and less attached to Judaism -- although it is impossible to tell if these traits developed after the marriage or came before it. American Jews who are married to non-Jews are less likely to consider being Jewish important to their identity, less likely to believe it is important to live in a Jewish community, less likely to have Jewish friends and more likely to believe Jews should assimilate. They are also less likely to practice a number of religious traditions (such as attending High Holy Day services, lighting Hanukkah candles and attending a Passover seder), to contribute to Israel or belong to a temple. Intermarried Jews are also less likely to have received Jewish education or to have been bar/bat mitzvahed. These latter findings suggests the possibility that Jews who are not given Jewish education in childhood or who rejected it are more likely to marry non-Jews.
    Despite having a reduced attachment to Judaism, intermarried Jews are just as likely to have experienced anti-Semitism and to see it as a problem.

Anti-Semitism
    Many Jews continue to face anti-Semitism, with 44% saying they have been a victim of anti-Semitism or discrimination. Fifty-five percent have never been the victim of anti-Semitism or discrimination.
    Reform and non-affiliated Jews are slightly more likely to have faced anti-Semitism (52% and 50% respectively) than Orthodox or Conservative Jews (42%). Reform and non-affiliated Jews may be at greater risk for anti-Semitism because they are more likely to live in non-Jewish communities. More educated Jews and Jews over the age of 29 are also more likely to have been the victim of anti-Semitism. More educated Jews may run into anti-Semitism as they try to achieve promotions and reach executive ranks in industries without a strong Jewish presence. Laws designed to protect ethnic and religious minorities and increased social acceptance may have protected younger Jews from the same degree of anti-Semitism those even slightly older than them have experienced.
    Although the majority of American Jews have not experienced anti-Semitism, 7 out of 10 Jews believe it is a problem in the United States. Nineteen percent believe anti-Semitism is a very serious problem and another 52% call it somewhat serious, for a total of 71%. Twenty-three percent believe it is not much of a problem and only 4% said it is not a problem at all.
    One indicator of discrimination in society is the ability for minority groups of any kind to obtain leadership or influential positions in society -- whether in a corporation or in government. Demonstrating the concern about anti-Semitism, 40% of Jews disagree that virtually all positions of influence in the United States are open to Jews. While 56% agree with this statement, just 29% strongly agree. Younger Jews, who are less likely to have experienced anti-Semitism, are also more likely to believe that virtually all positions of influence in the U.S. are open to Jews. Seventy-one percent of 18-29 year olds agree with this statement compared with about half of Jews of other age groups.
    Most American Jews also do not believe anti-Semitism will diminish anytime soon. Half of respondents believe the problem will remain at the same level over the next several years (53%) and another 23% think it will actually increase. Just 15% believe anti-Semitism will decline.

Perception of Jewish life in the United States
    Regardless of marital status, level of religious observance or any other variable, the vast majority of American Jews believe there is a significant degree of Jewish cultural and religious life in the United States. Fifty-seven percent strongly agree with this statement and another 31% somewhat agree, for a total of 88%. Just nine percent disagree. Even Israeli Jews agree that there is a significant degree of Jewish cultural and religious life in the U.S., with 70% giving this response and just 17% disagreeing. Nearly 3 out 4 Israeli Jews have a close friend or relative living in the United States, which may stand behind their belief that there is a strong Jewish community in the America.

Religious observances, temple membership, contributions to Israel
    To assess the degree of religious life in the United States, the poll asked American Jews if they practice a number of religious traditions. The tables at the end of this analysis demonstrate the proportion of American Jews that practice each tradition tested. Overall, the results indicate that approximately half of American Jews attend temple on a fairly regular basis (defined as several times a year or more), attend High Holy Days, and fast on Yom Kippur. Six out of 10 American Jews usually or always attend a Passover Seder or light Hanukkah candles. A small group of American Jews, approximately one-third, attend Sabbath services at least sometimes, and only about one-quarter always or usually light Sabbath candles. Just one-fifth of American Jews keep kosher in their home.
    Younger American Jews (age 18 to 29), married Jews, and more educated Jews are generally more likely to observe Jewish traditions. Unsurprisingly, more religious Jews, including the Orthodox and Conservative, are more likely to observe traditions than Reform or non-affiliated Jews.
    A plurality of American Jews also report that they observe fewer traditions today than they did in the past, with 40% giving this response. Forty-one percent of Reform Jews gave this response and 37% of Conservative Jews also said they observe fewer traditions. Unsurprisingly, high observers are more likely to say they observe more traditions than they did in the past (36%), while moderate observers and low observers are more likely to say they practice fewer traditions (44% and 52% respectively).
    Unlike American Jews, Israeli Jews do not report a big drop in religious observance. More than half (59%) of Israeli Jews said there has been no change in their religious observance. Twenty-two percent said they observe more traditions and 16% said their observance has declined.
    Not only do Jewish Americans report a drop in religious observance, nearly one-quarter (23%) said they once belonged to a temple or synagogue but are no longer a member. As a result, 56% of Jewish Americans surveyed said they currently do not belong to a temple or synagogue and 44% are members. Temple membership is higher among married Jews, parents, more affluent and more educated Jews (cost may be a factor for less affluent Jews) and more observant Jews.
    Despite a declining level of religious involvement, nearly half of American Jews have made a financial contribution to Israel, to an Israeli institution, or to any pro-Israel cause in the last year. Forty-three percent report making such a contribution and 55% have not. The number of Jews giving money to Israeli causes remains virtually unchanged from a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 1988. Therefore, despite changing levels of observance of Judaism, Jews maintain their financial commitment to Israel. The high proportion donating money to Israeli causes is not surprising given that 86% of respondents believe what happens in Israel is important to them -- with 44% considering it very important.
    Most likely a result of having more disposable income, older Jews are more likely to have made a contribution than younger Jews. Twenty-six percent of 18 to 29 year olds have made a contribution, compared with 35% of 30-44 year olds, 45% of 45-64 year olds, and 60% of those 65 years of age or older. More affluent, more educated, married, and more observant Jews are also more likely to have made a contribution to Israel. In fact, 3 out of 4 highly observant Jews have given money to Israel.

Religious education
    While religious observance by American Jews has declined, more women today are bat mitzvahed than they were in the past. Sixty-eight percent of men said they had been bar mitzvahed, the religious ceremony that takes place at age thirteen and marks a young man's or woman's entrance into adulthood. Older men are more likely to have been bar mitzvahed, with 80% of those 65 years of age or older having been bar mitzvahed, compared to 69% of those between 45 and 64, and 59% of men 30 to 44. There is a slight increase in the proportion of men under 29 having been bar mitzvahed (66%). Among women there is a dramatic increase in the proportion having bat mitzvahed as age decreases. Overall, just 19% of women report having been bat mitzvahed. Yet 56% of 18-29 year old women have been bat mitzvahed, compared to 21% of those between 30 and 44, 14% of those between 45 and 64 and 7% of those over 65 years of age. As women gained more opportunities in the United States through the women's rights movement, Jewish women may have sought out greater opportunities within their faith as well.
    Jewish men are also more likely than women to have received Jewish education. Just 19% of men said they had not received a Jewish education, compared with 36% of women (28% for the sample as a whole). This difference may result from more men having been bar mitzvahed than women. In fact, men were more likely to say they attended Hebrew school (47% to 32%) and received Jewish education through bar mitzvah classes (45% to 15%).
    Most Jews, regardless of religious affiliation, said they received some sort of Jewish education, including Hebrew school, Sunday school or Yeshiva. Just 29% of non-affiliated Jews said they received no education and 20% of Reform and 9% of Conservative gave this response. Low observers are significantly more likely to have not received a Jewish education, with 48% of this group giving this response, compared to 19% of moderate and 9% of high observers. This suggests that the foundation set as a child may carry over into practices as an adult.

Religious affiliation and belief in God
    The survey found that 9% of Jews nationwide consider themselves Orthodox or Hasidic, 23% are Conservative, 29% are Reform, and 17% describe themselves as "just Jewish" (non-affiliated). Another 16% who qualified for the survey by having at least one Jewish parent, having been raised Jewish, or currently practicing the religion, do not consider themselves Jewish. Five percent said they are atheists.
    While the proportion is low for both groups, 18 to 29 year old Jews and Jews over 65 years of age are nearly equally likely to call themselves Orthodox (16% and 13%) and more likely to do so than 30-44 year olds (5%) and 45-64 year olds (7%). Many have talked about a resurgence of Orthodoxy in the Jewish community and this result -- although not statistically significant -- suggests that some younger Jews may be taking a second look at Orthodoxy. Women, more educated Jews and more affluent Jews are more likely to consider themselves Reform. Many women may choose the more liberal Reform movement because it does not impose restrictions on the role women can play in religious observances.
    The survey also found that Jews are less likely to believe in God than Americans as a whole (regardless of religion). Forty-one percent of the Jews surveyed said they believe in the existence of God without doubt. A 1995 nationwide study of all Americans regardless of religion conducted by the National Opinion Research Center found that 65% of all Americans believe in God without doubt -- 24 points higher than among Jews today. Furthermore, 14% of Jews in the current study believe in God, but with some doubts, six percent said they sometimes believe and 18% believe in a higher power of some kind. Twelve percent said they do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out and seven percent said they do not believe in a God. Nationwide, just 3% of Americans said they did not believe in a God and 4% were doubtful.
    Israeli Jews are more likely to believe in God than American Jews, with 59% saying they know God exists and have no doubts. Many Israeli Jews chose to immigrate to Israel because of their belief that Israel is the homeland for Jews. With this belief may come a greater acceptance of religion, and therefore a greater belief in the existence of God. However, Israeli Jews are slightly more likely than American Jews to be atheist, with 12% saying they do not believe in God. Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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