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Report: Low Retention Rate For Orthodox Jews

Pew poll also shows one in five U.S. Jews self-identifies as having no religion

Batya Ungar-Sargon
October 01, 2013

Fewer than half of Jews raised in Orthodox homes have remained Orthodox, with more than 20 percent leaving the religion altogether, according to a survey released today by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.

It’s a surprising revelation. In explaining why the Reform movement still outnumbers the Orthodox, the study’s authors write that the high fertility rate among Orthodox Jews “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 Orthodox.” But this finding requires a caveat, the authors are quick to add: those who left Orthodoxy in droves came of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s have been a lot kinder to the Orthodox denomination; fully 83 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox. It seems we have an alterna-millenial group on our hands. That, or they simply haven’t yet had a chance yet to leave the fold.

Among Jews who were raised Conservative, the number who have left Jewish observance rises to 30 percent; among Jews raised Reform, 35 percent. Across the board, one in five Jews, or 22 percent, now describe themselves as having no religion. This irreverent demographic is largely millennial, 32 percent of whom describe themselves as “having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” The statistic is in line with that of Americans as a whole, 20 percent of whom describe themselves as having no religion.

The survey canvassed 3,475 Jews, including 2,786 Jews who identify religiously and 689 secular Jews, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, capturing one of the most comprehensive portraits of contemporary American Jewry available.

Among other findings, the rate of intermarriage appears to have plateaued, but at a high level—58 percent—for Jews who have gotten married in the past ten years. “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,” the survey rather charmingly muses. “Whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage.”

Nevertheless, 70 percent of Jews polled said they went to a seder this year, and more than half—53 percent—fasted on Yom Kippur. The survey affirms that Jews see Jewishness as distinct from Judaism; whatever a person’s degree of observance, being Jewish includes an array of other attributes, like “being intellectually curious,” “caring about Israel,” and “remembering the Holocaust.” Jewishness is also exceptionally sticky. It’s not surprising that 94 percent say a person is Jewish even if they work on Shabbat, 89 percent say a Jew can be strongly critical of Israel, and 68 percent say Jews don’t have to believe in God, but an astonishing 34 percent say a person is still Jewish even if they decide to believe in Jesus as the messiah.

Pew’s researchers also asked about Jewish political tendencies. “As a whole, Jews support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by more than three-to-one,” the survey reports. In keeping with recent president election results, 70 percent reported they are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 22 percent are Republicans or lean Republican. Among Jews who identify as Orthodox, those tendencies reverse, with 57 percent describing themselves as Republican or Republican-leaning, and just 36 percent as Democrats or Democratic-leaning.

Perhaps the most important discovery lies in a little detail about how Jews see themselves. The following data point reveals just how far Jews have come in the U.S., not only in terms of their own position, but in terms of their ability to think critically and compassionately about other minorities: “Jews think several other minority groups face more discrimination than they do.” More than 70 percent of respondents said gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in American society, and an equal number recognized that Muslims are also discriminated against. But fewer than half—only 43 percent—said they believe Jews face a lot of discrimination.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.