Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler
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The Four Children

A new survey captures the changing landscape of American Judaism

Sean Cooper
April 03, 2023
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler

A new, large-scale survey has found American Jews are splitting along new lines, confirming some previously reported trends and upending others.

Sponsored by the Keren Keshet Foundation, the follow-up to the widely cited 2020 Pew Research study of American Jewry asked 1,500 U.S. Jews many of the same questions, while also throwing into the mix additional, more detailed prompts about Jewish upbringing, communal involvement, and views on politics. The results reveal a community that, as ever, is rife with contradictions and evolving ideas about what it means to be Jewish. (Keren Keshet is a supporter of Tablet Magazine.)

“The number of self-identifying Jews is up,” the survey finds, “but so many of these are barely active and only nominally committed Jews.” Though intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish spouses continues to drive down Jewish communal engagement outside the Orthodox community, the composition of Jewish households is but one of several factors diminishing the number of American Jews actively involved in communal life. The ongoing contraction of both Reform and Conservative congregations and the intensifying politicalization of formerly apolitical Jewish social organizations are sharpening the decline.

Several numbers stood out: 41% of American Jews believe religious organizations in America “do more harm than good,” and a considerable percentage of American Jews—roughly a sixth—found the cost of community engagement to be a barrier.

There were other notable findings that reflected significant preoccupations across American Jewry, regardless of age or degree of affiliation. Seventy percent of American Jews believe there is more antisemitism today than there was five years ago. And the kitchen is emerging as a sacred space, with 64% of American Jews saying they make or consume traditional Jewish recipes as a way of connecting with being Jewish.

In their orientation toward Jewish identity and established communal life, respondents appear to break down into four new descriptive categories: Active, Affiliated, Ambivalent and Alienated.

Active Jews, some 16% of the American Jewish population, are those who center Jewish communal and religious life; Affiliated Jews, constituting 34%, have strong Jewish identities even if traditional or communal practice plays a less central role in their lives; Ambivalent Jews, again 34% of the American Jewish community, straddle the line between interest and avoidance; Alienated Jews, representing 16% of respondents, are those with little Jewish connection at all.

It’s a breakdown reminiscent of one of the iconic sections of the Passover Haggadah, “The Four Sons,” which presents four archetypical children, each embodying a different way one might approach the Seder—and questions of faith more generally. Labeling ourselves (and others) is a cherished pastime, as is chafing at and resisting the reductive categories. As with the Four Sons, it’s not hard to perceive the archetypes presented in the new survey as fluid both within the categories and even in individuals. (Many Jews are, at times, both active or alienated, ambivalent as well as affiliated.)

‘The number of self-identifying Jews is up,’ the survey finds, ‘but so many of these are barely active and only nominally committed Jews.’

In many ways, the new survey results mirror Pew’s core findings. For example, in 2020, being Jewish was either very or somewhat important to 75% of Jews; in 2023, that number was roughly the same at 72%. The 2023 finding that 81% of Jews feel either some or a great deal of belonging to the Jewish people likewise follows closely to the more than 80% of Jews who told Pew they have at least a sense of belonging as well.

Indeed a central takeaway from the Keren Keshet survey is that the trends captured by Pew in 2020 have deepened, and become clearer. Respondents evince an ongoing attachment to their Jewish identity and sense of belonging, while also saying that they are increasingly disconnected from both religious and cultural institutions. Fifty-two percent of Jews were seldom if ever showing up to religious services in 2020; 56% of Jews said the same in 2023. Shabbat, too, was not a meaningful event for 61% of Jews in 2020; in 2023 that number climbed to 75%.

Some Jewish institutional leaders might attribute this ongoing decline in communal engagement to the growing number of Jews who no longer count themselves as Conservative or Reform, or any branch at all. For Orthodox Jews, however, this hasn’t been a problem. Along with an otherwise sustained and atypically high engagement in communal activities, Orthodox Jews have steadily remained 10% of the Jewish community; it was 10% of Jews who said they were Orthodox when Pew asked about denominations in 2013, 9% when they asked again in 2020, and back up to 10% in the 2023 Keshet inquiry. Other denominations could only hope for such consistency. For the 54% of Jews who belonged to the dominant branches of Reform (37%) and Conservative (17%) in 2020, that total has dropped, in less than three years, to 42%. Now, only 28% say they are Reform and 14% Conservative. That change in affiliation hasn’t led to a bump for Reconstructionist or other smaller branches, either. Instead, the 32% of those in 2020 who said they have no affiliation at all has grown today, up to 43%.

So can we say, then, that the disengagement within the American Jewish community is simply the byproduct of living in a secularized nation where, according to a recent American Enterprise Institute (AEI) survey, one in every four Americans has no religious affiliation? The time between the 2020 Pew survey and the Keren Keshet survey was also the period of COVID-19, and it stands to reason that years of lockdowns and masking would have profound effects on our houses of worship. As that same AEI survey found, of the 25% of respondents that had never attended a religious service before the pandemic, that number grew to 33% afterward. The decline was most significant for Americans 30 and younger, which tracks with a previous AEI poll that found four out of every 10 young adults between 18 and 29 have never attended a religious service.

In his 2000 bestseller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam noted the decline across most every civic group, with attendance at Elks lodges and Rotary clubs, for example, having by then dropped by 57% compared to 25 years earlier. The number of those showing up to the same clubs would only continue to decline in the two decades after the book’s publication; Freemasons saw a 76% drop in membership between 2000 and 2016, and the Elks Club, which boasts no fewer than six U.S. presidents as alumni, has witnessed a similar drop, with the 1.6 million members of 1980 cut almost in half by 2012.

Indeed, American Jewish institutional leaders often describe the decline in membership and attendance as merely the latest chapter in a decadeslong American problem. In 2000, the median congregation membership was 137; that number fell by more than half over the next two decades, to 65 in 2020.

But just because American Jews are less likely to attend services or belong to congregations doesn’t mean they’re not searching for religious or spiritual meaning—or that they are uninterested in finding a Jewish community unlike the ones on offer. While only 21% of the Keshet responders have attended synagogue in the past three months, 46% have prayed to God. Fifty-five percent of respondents feel very or moderately spiritual, and 62% of American Jews are at least somewhat religious. The gap signals not a lack of religiosity but rather a lack of interest and engagement in existing Jewish institutions. According to this latest survey’s results, a large percentage of American Jews are searching for spiritual and religious meaning, but cannot seem to find compelling or effective addresses for these sentiments.

By choice or circumstance, Americans are spending much more time alone. Between 2014 and 2019, the amount of time Americans spent with friends dropped by a stunning 37%. Some of that alone time is no doubt attributed to more time spent online. In 2014, the year when time spent with friends really began to drop in earnest, more than half of American consumers had smartphones. By 2019, smartphones had penetrated 71% of the American market. Notably, even if you expand the circle of friends to colleagues and neighbors, Americans who once spent 15 hours every week with this larger cohort in 2012 only gave 12 hours a week to the same group in 2019, and 10 hours weekly in 2021. Regardless of class, race, or ethnicity, Americans didn’t use those extra hours to spend time with their kids or significant others; they simply spent more time alone.

Outside of the internet, the only social entities that appear to be drawing in large numbers of new members—or users, as we might call them—are social clubs offering luxurious amenities to affluent clientele. The selective Soho house, which tends to reject applicants from the world of finance and banking while charging creative types between $2,100 and $3,200 a year for access, grew their membership by 44% between 2021 and 2022. Coworking spaces that boast similarly social-centric offerings in premium urban neighborhoods have witnessed comparable growth in recent years, the pandemic notwithstanding. In 2022, some 1.1 million Americans were working in 6,200 cowork spaces nationwide—a 55% increase to the number of spaces from five years prior.

What’s perhaps most interesting—or worrisome—for Jewish organizations is that communal engagement continues to contract despite herculean efforts by well-funded organizations to reverse the trend. Since its launch in 1999, for example, Birthright Israel has sent more than 800,000 young Jews to Israel, a cohort that accounts for 20% of all American Jews between the ages of 25 and 34. And while 85% of those Birthright participants report being more likely to be somewhat or even very attached to Israel, 46% of all Jews today told Keshet they’re either not too attached to Israel or not attached at all.

Pessimism about the future of Jewish engagement, to say nothing of basic civic participation or the cultivation of friends off the internet, would seem well-earned given all of this. And the implications are no less dire. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed on his jaunt through 1830s America, democratic citizens are independent and weak by themselves, and can “achieve almost nothing …. if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.” Perhaps this is why, despite their own ambivalence about religion and communal life, some 65% of American Jews report wanting their children and grandchildren to be engaged with Judaism.

It’s possible that the problem for Jewish communal institutions is not a lack of interest, but rather that peoples’ problems are larger than the frames being applied to them. When 63% of American Jews say they feel America is on the wrong track, it suggests that the challenges they are having with their civic and religious affiliations go hand in hand with a growing sense of instability in American life and society.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.