Growing up Jewish, Marilyn McLaughlin loved lighting the braided candle and singing to mark the end of Shabbat. She relished studying the Talmud and weighing its ethical questions.
But sitting in synagogue left her cold. “I was stuffed with religion,” McLaughlin said. “But I had no deep connection to it.”
A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that more than a fifth of Jewish Americans say they have no religion. Yet like McLaughlin, they still identify themselves as Jewish.
Scholars say that the Jewish people have long seen themselves as more than a religious faith, also defining themselves as Jewish through culture or ancestry. Only 15% see being Jewish as “mainly a matter of religion,” the new survey of nearly 3,500 Jewish Americans shows. Less than a third of Jews — even religious Jews — think someone can’t be Jewish without believing in God.
As more Americans of all faiths turn away from religion, Jewish secularism seems to be booming too. Pew found that the share of “Jews of no religion” appears to have surged, compared to a somewhat different survey a dozen years earlier. Younger Jews are much more likely to shrug off religion than their elders.
The findings, which echo earlier research, are bound to fuel fears about the future of Judaism: Such Jews feel less connected to the Jewish community and rarely belong to Jewish organizations, Pew found. Among parents and guardians, two out of three “Jews of no religion” are not raising their children Jewish in any way.
Yet at the same time, retention rates seem to be improving among Orthodox Jews, who have much bigger families than other Jewish Americans. Researchers say that the result could be a growing share of Jews who are not religious at all, alongside a growing share who are strictly religious.
The pull away from religion could challenge Jewish institutions to better serve nonreligious Jews. “If they’re not being wooed, secular Jews may walk away,” said Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. “And what you’ll have left is the Orthodox.”
Some groups are, indeed, attracting nonreligious Jews like McLaughlin. As is true for a growing share of American Jews, McLaughlin married someone who wasn’t Jewish. She agonized over how to raise their twin daughters. How could she make sure they knew about their Jewish identity, she wondered, without forcing religion on them?
It was at Sholem — a culturally Jewish community in Los Angeles — that McLaughlin finally felt at ease. Its Sunday School teaches children about Jewishness as a culture with its own history and rituals. Children learn about the first chapter of Genesis, for instance, as a creation story that helped ancient people make sense of their universe. Adults discuss topics such as Yiddish film and how to raise secular children in a religious world.
McLaughlin was also relieved that Sholem welcomed intermarried couples, who are especially common among nonreligious Jews, Pew found. Another mother, Mila Marvizon, came to Sholem after a Reform rabbi refused to perform a naming ceremony for the baby she was raising with her Zen Buddhist husband.
“He said, ‘Do you know what the chances are of you having Jewish grandchildren?’ ” Marvizon recalled. She told him, “With rabbis like you, it’s about zero.”
Fifty-eight percent of Jews who married since the turn of the millennium have married someone who wasn’t Jewish, Pew found. The numbers are even higher at Adat Chaverim, a secular, humanistic Jewish community in Los Angeles where three out of four families are “intercultural,” cantor Jonathan Friedmann said. He believes the congregation connects Jewish Angelenos who might otherwise be alienated by religious dogma or exclusion.
By doing so, “we like to think that we’re sort of saving Judaism, in some ways,” Friedmann said.
Others are skeptical that Jewish identity can endure over generations without a religious anchor.
“It’s not good for the survival of the community,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. Secular Jewish movements “have all kind of struggled and ultimately withered and died.”
Though synagogue alternatives such as Sholem and Adat Chaverim exist, they have yet to become common among Jewish parents who aren’t religious: Only 13% said they sent their children to any kind of Jewish educational or youth program, compared to 59% of religious Jews, the survey found. Ariela Keysar, an associate professor at Trinity College who has studied religious identity, said Jewish literature, theater, comedy and other cultural activities could be another way to engage secular Jews.
“The Jewish community is not disappearing. It is changing,” Keysar said. “The challenge is to adjust and accommodate.”
McLaughlin used to lament that her children wouldn’t have the same Jewish identity that she had. It was another Sholem board member, she said, who told her what she would grow to accept: “Your children will be a different kind of Jewish than you are.”