Study: U.S. Jews drift from faith

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The rate of religious observance among American Jews has dropped precipitously over the past two decades, to the point where more than one out of every three Jews is thoroughly secularized, according to a new survey.

The 2008 American Jewish Identification Survey (AJIS), part of a broader survey of U.S. religious identification, also showed that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews - regardless of their religious practice - decreased slightly from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million to 5.4 million today.

The composition of that group also has changed dramatically since 1990, the survey showed. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults - about 1.12 million people - described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent or 1.88 million people.

The survey, released by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., was a follow-up from two earlier AJIS surveys in 1990 and 2001. The 2001 survey showed the declining religiosity among Jews that continued in the 2008 study.

“I attribute the shift to a combination of disaffection from Judaism and intermarriage,” said Barry Kosmin, who co-directed the 2008 AJIS survey. “Since 1990, half of all marrying American Jews have married non-Jews, with the result that there are two new mixed households for every homogeneous Jewish one.”

His survey of 1,000 self-identified Jews raises profound questions about the future viability of one of the world’s oldest religions. It was part of a larger American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 54,000 Americans conducted from February to November 2008.

The survey will raise alarm bells among American Jews, but it shouldn’t, said Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

“This gives our leaders the opportunity to respond to where Jewish people are,” he said. “They should resist the urge to bemoan where they are not.”

The study, he added, “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity - the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”

But Ariela Keysar, a survey co-researcher, said the findings showed a “huge” disconnect between Jews and other sectors of American society.

For example, only 6 percent of all Americans identify themselves as secular - that is, they disbelieve in God and do not follow any religion. But one-third of all Jews fit into that secular category, she said.

As a result, the number of people adhering to any sort of Judaism as a religion is actually just 3.3 million to 3.4 million, the survey found. Eighteen years ago, it was 23 percent higher, at 4.3 million.

Ms. Keysar also blamed the lack of belief on Jewish intermarriage, which has risen dramatically in recent decades. Before the 1970s, it was at 13 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) of 2000-01. The rate doubled to 28 percent by 1980 and has continued rising from there.

“These are the children of the intermarried,” she said of about 1.8 million nonobservant Jews, “who were raised with no religion and as adults see themselves as having no religion. It’s a ripple effect.”

Speaking on the phone from Jerusalem, where she and Mr. Kosmin are presenting their findings to the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies, she added, “The concept that most appeals to people is not going to synagogue or doing religious rituals, but the culture and ethnic attachments to Judaism.”

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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