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There’s more than one way to be Jewish, according to a new study

The first comprehensive study on American Jews in nearly a decade shows a widening split between Orthodox Jews and secular Jews. What does this mean for the future of Jewish life in America?

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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community gather around a journalist as he conducts an interview on a street corner, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

Every Passover Seder I’ve hosted — whether in West Palm Beach, Florida, or the West Bank in the Palestinian territories — has been attended exclusively by non-Jews. 

In Bethlehem, in 2014, I welcomed Palestinians, Americans and one European who were all Christian into my home. A later year, in Florida, we hosted my husband’s brother — an observant Muslim who prays five times a day.

This year, we dined with a couple of my children’s non-Jewish classmates, along with their 30-something year old mom, who is a religious “none.” Together, the four kids put on a Passover play complete with homemade costumes, props and a cardboard re-creation of the Red Sea.

As much as I’ve enjoyed my non-Jewish Jewish Passovers, I’ve always worried they meant I was doing Judaism wrong. But a new study from Pew Research Center suggests that, actually, in many ways, I’m just a typical American Jew.

Pew found that 62% of U.S. Jews “often” or “sometimes” share their Jewish culture or holidays with non-Jewish friends. That figure rises to 74% among those who say they don’t regularly attend religious services because they express their “Jewishness” in different ways.

There are other surprises in Pew’s comprehensive study, the first of its kind in nearly a decade. Overall, the report paints a picture of a people who are, by and large, less religious than other Americans but who, nonetheless, have a strong sense of identity that grows out of a religion.

While a majority of American Jews believe in God or some other higher power, only 26% believe in the God depicted in the Bible, Pew found. Sixty-four percent of Jews are not members of synagogues, and only 1 in 5 report going to religious services at least once a month — by comparison, a third of U.S. adults in general go to houses of worship once a month or more.

Pew’s report also shows that American Jews are splitting into two divergent groups: one secular and one Orthodox.

While many young Jewish Americans reflect a broader trend toward secularization — 41% of Jews between the ages of 18-29 report that they are unaffiliated — 17% of the same age group describes themselves as Orthodox. Overall, the share of Jews who identify as Orthodox is growing, the report showed.

This shift has implications for the future of American Jewish political life. Though most Jews maintain their decades-old loyalty to the Democratic Party, Orthodox Jews are more likely to be Republican.

Whether religiously active or not, American Jews have a very strong sense of identity. More than 8 in 10 Americans Jews say they feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, compared to 73% who self-identify as Jewish by religion. A full three-quarters of American Jews report that “being Jewish” is very or somewhat important to them, Pew found.

While most Orthodox Jews report feeling they have little in common with Reform and religiously unaffiliated Jews — despite the fact that members of all three groups share a number of cultural practices — the study shows there is a broad consensus within the Jewish community about what it means to be Jewish. 

Seventy-six percent of American Jews say “remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of being Jewish and 72% rank “leading an ethical and moral life” as essential, according to Pew. More than half of American Jews say that “working for justice and equality in society” and “being intellectually curious” are also central to Jewish identity.

These markers of Jewish identity aren’t “newfangled,” says Arielle Levites, a professor and director of George Washington University’s Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education. 

“There’s a long tradition of Jewish political activism and engagement in progressive social issues in the U.S.,” she says.

For over a century, according to Levites, many American Jews have said, “‘You know, religion isn’t important to me but being Jewish is important to me — and working for justice and equality in society are core expressions of being Jewish.’”  

Pew’s study also identified consensus around the issue of antisemitism, with three-quarters of survey respondents reporting that they believe that antisemitism is more prevalent in the United States now than it was five years ago. More than half say they feel less safe in the country today as Jewish person than they did in the past.